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Matakana Mystery Man: James Sinclair’s (incomplete) story

Until earlier this year, I didn’t know the name of one of my great grandfathers (my father’s mother’s father).  The more I have investigated him, the more I have become intrigued about his life and why he came to New Zealand.  I have been surprised by some of the details I’ve learned of his life and family background.

James Sinclair seems to have been an accepted part of some circles, and made positive contributions to the community in which he lived.  Nevertheless, there seems to have been a rift between him and my grandmother as well as with other members of his family.  He was possibly a “Remittance Man”, sent regular remittance cheques by his family on the condition that he leave England and never return.  However, so far, I have not found any evidence of criminal activities, moral failures or socially unacceptable practices.

Newcastle Upon Tyne: 1860-1891

Little is known about him amongst living members of my extended family.  James’ daughter (my grandmother) seemed to have said very little about her parents, other than that her birth name was Marion Margaret Sinclair, that she was from a fairly well-off family in Newcastle Upon Tyne in England, and that she had been brought up by relatives in a household with servants.  I have recently discovered that she was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1883.  Her parents (according to Marion’s marriage certificate) were James Sinclair and Fanny Jane Brignal.

Victorian Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1880s: The Guardian, 29 March 2012

Victorian Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1880s: The Guardian, 29 March 2012

I have also learned that James Sinclair was born in 1860 or 1861 in Newcastle Upon Tyne: father John Sinclair (successful Tobacco Manufacturer) and mother Margaret Wrightson.  He was the oldest child of a large family.  At the 1881 UK Census, James was living in his father, John Sinclair’s household at 26 Beverley Terrace, along with several of his siblings.  At the same time Fanny Jane’s parents, were living at 51 Beverley Terrace, Cullercoats, Tynemouth. On his 1882 marriage certificate, James’ occupation is given as “Tobacco Manufacturer”, his age as 22 years, and the residences for both James and Fanny is “Beverley Terrace”.

In June 1882 James married Fanny Jane Brignal at the Primitive Methodist Chapel in North Shields, Tynemouth.  This church was possibly connected with Fanny Jane’s father, as it stressed the Teetotal lifestyle, and was associated with the working classes. The rest of the Sinclairs seem to have been more connected to Presbyterian Churches, while Marion Margaret was married in an Anglican church.

The Primitive Methodist association suggests that James’ in-laws may not have been acceptable to the Sinclairs on the grounds of religion and/or politics. Fanny Jane’s father (William Anthony Brignal) was a campaigner for Temperance and railway working men’s causes, which were linked to the Liberal Party.

Fanny Jane and James seem to have been a happy and devoted couple, appearing at social occasions in the Tyneside area as mentioned in newspapers of the 1880s.  They had four children: Marion (the oldest), William John, Stephen (possibly also referred to as James or Stewart?*), and Fanny.  Their mother Fanny Jane died on the same day that her daughter Fanny was born: 20 December 1888.  When she died Fanny Jane was just about 25, and James would have been about 28 years old. This could possibly have been a sad turning point in James’ life.

Sandhill, Newcastle Upon Tyne, c. 1880s: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums Photostream (flickr)

Sandhill, Newcastle Upon Tyne, c. 1880s: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums Photostream (flickr)

So far I have not found James in the (5 April) 1891 UK Census, while Edward and James’ 2 year old daughter were living at John Sinclair’s house at 3 Hawthorn Terrace, Westgate, Newcastle Upon Tyne.  James’ 3 other children seem to have been boarding in Hudleston Street, Cullercoats with Mr and Mrs Ralph/Relph. This was in the same area as John Sinclair’s Beverley Terrace house. The younger son is named as “Stewart”, while in John Sinclair’s Will he is named “Stephen”.

Beverley Terrace is a coastal street with houses that look out on the North Sea.

The mystery years: 1889 – 1900s

However, James Sinclair (aged 31 years) does appear on a passenger list for the ship La Gascogne that arrived in New York on 1 June 1891.

There is a slight possibility it could have been my great grandfather’s cousin, also called James Sinclair (born 1858/9), who was the son of another successful Tobacco Manufacturer, Robert Sinclair. However on La Gascogne’s passsenger list, immediately under James Sinclair, is  S.E. Sinclair, 17 years old. Both he and James are listed as “Tobacconists”.  This must surely be James’s youngest sibling, Stephen Edward Sinclair (born 1874).

La Gascogne passenger list: arrival New York 1 June 1891. From the Ancestry Library: James & Edward #50 & 51

La Gascogne passenger list: arrival New York 1 June 1891. From the Ancestry Library: James & Edward #50 & 51

About 15 years later James was living with his brother Edward, and Edward’s wife Jessie, at a boarding house in Matakana, north of Auckland in New Zealand.

The curious thing about this passenger record is that the departure port for La Gasgogne was Le Havre, the port nearest Paris in France.  Was James therefore living in the south of England, or France, or elsewhere in Europe earlier in 1891?  Or were James and Edward trying to sneak out of England relatively unnoticed?  Only one other passenger is listed as being English. The rest are Americans or Europeans: mainly Swiss, German and French.

In 1893 James and Edward’s father John Sinclair drew up his Will, giving them both an “annuity” (annual allowance) to be paid quarterly for the rest of their lives.  The second oldest son John was given most responsibilities for the tobacco business, with his brother Robert in support, and to be overseen by the nominated trustees.  This is curious because James, as eldest son, would have normally been the first in line to inherit John’s business.  John Sinclair died in 1895, and the Will was officially probated in 1896.

NZ: Matakana, Auckland. 1900s – 1927

Edward arrived in Auckland in 1894 (‘Obituary’, Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette, 28 June 1911, p.4), he married Jessie Campbell of Matakana in 1897, and they were both resident in Matakana by about 1903. In his Obituary Edward is identified as the son of a cigar manufacturer and merchant in Newcastle on Tyne, and in the notice for his marriage he is identified as the son of the “late John Sinclair” of Newcastle on Tyne (NZ Herald 9 Dec, 1897).

AT THE HEADQUARTERS OF NAVIGATION: THE S.S. KOTITI LYING AT MATAKANA WHARF, ON THE MATAKANA RIVER, AUCKLAND. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19091223-3-2 [Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 23 DECEMBER 1909 p003 ]

Matakana Wharf, 1909.

At the Headquarters of Navigation: The S.S. Kotiti Lying at Matakana Wharf, on the Matakana River, Auckland.

–  Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries,                            AWNS-19091223-3-2 [Auckland Weekly News Supplement, 23 December 1909 p. 3 ]

According to his death certificate, James took up permanent residence in New Zealand in 1900. It is most likely my great grandfather who is listed as “James Sinclair: Gentleman” in the Matakana electoral role of 1905-6.

Both James and Edward (probably known as Jim and Ted) seem to have both made a positive contribution to life in their community, with Edward taking a particularly strong role.   They lived at the “Tyneholme” Boarding House at Matakana, possibly owned and managed by Edward’s wife Jessie. James had roles on various committees: the Matakana Cricket Club, Library Committee, president of the Rodney Cricket Assoc., auditor for the Matakana show. He probably also helped Jessie and/or Edward out working in the Matakana Post Office.

The Matakana 28082013

The Matakana Boarding House where Jessie, Edward and James lived is now a pub, 28 Aug 2013

James and Edward seem to have been strongly involved in the local social life, as well as singing and playing the piano.  James’ daughter Marion, who continued to live in Paparoa (not so far from Matakana these days, though a bit of a trek in the early 20th century), was a music teacher there. So it’s curious that there seems to have been little or no contact between them. James does seem to have been at the centre of a couple of community disputes that spilled over into the letters sections of the local newspaper.

Jame’s second child, William John also immgrated to New Zealand.   There is a report in The Observer (15 June 1912, p.8) of the marriage of W.J. Sinclair of Gisborne to Mildred Cruickshank in 1911, identifying W.J. as the son of James Sinclair of Matakana, formely of Newcastle On Tyne.

Edward seemed to be developing a promising career via various activities, including being the secretary of the Matakana Dairy Board.

Matakana Butter Factory 1902

Group of directos and officials of the Matakana butter factory 1902

 Image from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19021218-12-1. [Auckland Weekly News 18 December 1902]

Sadly Edward died of pneumonia in 1911 at the age of 37 years.  His wife Jessie and brother James continued living at “Tyneholme” in Matakana for a few years.  Newspapers reported on their role as witnesses in a burglary trial, the accused having stayed at Jessie’s Boarding House immediately after the burglary.  (For instance NZ Herald, 23 November 1912, p.5). Eventually Jessie and her 4 daughters moved away to Auckland’s North Shore.

The notice in the NZ Herald (18 October, 1927, p.1) of James Sinclair’s death in Auckland on 17 October 1927,  identifies James as being “formerly of Matakana” and the eldest son of John Sinclair of Newcastle on Tyne. His death certificate puts his age as 67 years.  Prior to his death at Auckland Hospital, he had been living in the Knox Home, Tamaki West, a charity home for poor people suffering from incurable diseases”. He had been suffering from “senility” in the last year of his life, and “senile gangrene” for the final 2 months, but eventually died of “cardiac failure”.

James’s New Zealand grandchildren and great grandchildren have subsequently led successful lives.

It remains a mystery as to how, having been born and raised in Newcastle Upon Tyne, the eldest son of a successful and well-heeled Tobacco Manufacturer ended up dying, seemingly alone and destitute, in New Zealand.  James was buried at Purewa Cemetery in Meadowbank, Auckland, in an unmarked grave.

James Sinclair's unmarked grave, Purewa Cemetery, Photo, 2013

James Sinclair’s unmarked grave, Purewa Cemetery, Photo, 2013

* Edit 24.10.2014: I have since learned that James Sinclair’s younger son was called James George Sinclair, and was known as “Steenie”.

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Filed under biography, history, james sinclair, jessie (campbell) sinclair, john sinclair, marion margaret sinclair, matakana, newcastle upon tyne, stephen edward sinclair, william john sinclair