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Sinclaire, Frederick

by Peter Simpson


Frederick Sinclaire was born in Papakura Valley near Auckland on 10 July 1881, the son of Irish parents Mary Carson and her husband, John Sinclaire, a farmer. The Sinclaires were poor, but at 11, Frederick, a pupil at Newton East School, won the Rawlings Scholarship, which gave him free tuition at Auckland College and Grammar School from 1893 to 1898. Among his teachers was James Hight, later rector of Canterbury College. After winning a university Junior Scholarship Sinclaire attended Auckland University College from 1899 to 1903, graduating MA with first-class honours in Latin and French.

He was converted to Unitarianism by William Jellie, Auckland's first Unitarian minister, having been attracted by the 'freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, freedom of speech, freedom of worship' advocated by Unitarians. With Jellie's help he was granted a scholarship and travelling expenses by the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and by Manchester College, Oxford, where he enrolled in 1904.

At the college Sinclaire studied to become a Unitarian minister, but also developed a wide variety of interests. Bernard Shaw was his intellectual hero. He excelled in languages, literature, and comparative religion, winning a theological scholarship open to nonconformist students throughout England. However, after graduating with first-class honours, he abandoned further study to go to Australia as minister of the Eastern Hill Unitarian Church, Melbourne. In Sydney on 1 October 1907, en route to Melbourne, he secretly married Esther Lewis, a New Zealander of Jewish background. The marriage was opposed by Esther's father on religious grounds.

Sinclaire threw himself vigorously into Melbourne's intellectual life. He joined the Melbourne Fabian Society and the Victorian Socialist Party and engaged in public controversies, becoming well known as a public speaker and as a writer for radical publications, including the Socialist, which he edited from 1911 to 1913. His outspokenness brought him conflict with church conservatives, but also a growing following in radical circles. He resigned his ministry in 1911 and helped to establish the Free Religious Fellowship, a non-doctrinal group that mixed religion with social, political and cultural interests. From 1914 to 1922 he edited Fellowship, the organisation's journal, contributing a regular column as well as numerous articles and reviews. He was a founding member of the Melbourne Literary Club in 1916 and of the Y Club in 1918, and met with prominent literary nationalists, including Vance and Nettie Palmer, Bernard O'Dowd, Furnley Maurice and Louis Esson. He helped Esson to set up the Pioneer Players, a short-lived attempt at a national theatre. Sinclaire attacked the provincialism of his adopted country, insisting repeatedly that 'Australia will never achieve anything, in politics, in literature, in art, in philosophy, so long as she regards herself as a sort of outlandish suburb of England or Europe.'

During the First World War he was a prominent opponent of conscription, his uncompromising pacifism alienating many former supporters. In 1920 he published Annotations, a compendium of comments on a range of religious, social and literary topics. He became something of a latter-day Jeremiah in the 1920s, denouncing the modern world and in particular the wage system as the evil core of capitalism. Nevertheless, he opposed dogmatic Marxists, and was influenced by the social credit theories of Major C. H. Douglas. The Free Religious Fellowship dwindled in numbers and influence during the decade and Sinclaire left Melbourne in 1929 for a lectureship at the University of Western Australia and the directorship of adult education in Perth. In 1932, after 25 years in Australia, he returned to New Zealand as professor of English at Canterbury College, largely through the support of James Hight, now rector.

In Christchurch, though unpopular with some because of his radical views and pugnacious manner, Sinclaire inspired talented and idealistic students such as Denis Glover and Ian Milner, both of whom wrote of him in their memoirs. Glover said: 'He was, in spite of his violent prejudices, in spite of certain doctrinaire views…a very live, a very real, a very passionate man.' Milner remembered him as 'a genuine lover of good literature who knew how to pass on his love and understanding, a caustic opponent of cant and social privilege'. The Sinclaires often invited colleagues and senior students to their home for play readings, musical evenings and parties. From the early 1930s Sinclaire was a regular communicant of the Anglican church.

In 1933 he was joined in the English department by H. Winston Rhodes, one of his keenest Melbourne followers, and later his biographer. Rhodes and Sinclaire became involved with Kennaway Henderson in setting up Tomorrow (1934–40), an independent radical journal. For two years Sinclaire contributed a regular quasi-editorial column entitled 'Notes by the Way', stating in his first column, 'We inhabit a land of dreadful silence. New Zealand is the country in which no one says anything, in which no one is expected to say anything…We appeal to [our readers] to help us in breaking the uncanny and ill-boding silence'. However, calling himself 'the reactionary member of our group', Sinclaire increasingly lost sympathy with Tomorrow's leftist fundamentalism and in 1936 stopped writing his column. He turned to J. H. E. Schroder's literary page in the Press as the main outlet for his well-written and somewhat old-fashioned essays, most of which had literary topics and reflected his Edwardian preferences. The Caxton Press published two collections, Lend me your ears (1942, twice reprinted), and A time to laugh and other essays (1951).

Sinclaire's physical and mental health declined seriously in the 1940s, and in his last years he became a sad shadow of his former vital self. He retired in 1948 and died in Christchurch on 6 December 1954, survived by his wife. They had no children.

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Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Peter Simpson. 'Sinclaire, Frederick', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)