James Sinclair


Fiery, ambitious Scotsman was ‘King of the Beaver’

Born in Caithness, in the north of Scotland,1 James Sinclair was described as a clear-headed, strong-minded Scotsman, who, by his dominating personality and magnificent energy, became known as the King of the Beaver.2 Early local historian, Lindsay Buick also commented that he influenced the early settlement to a marked degree, but “whether for weal or woe will perhaps be the subject of divided opinion”.3


James Sinclair, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives, 0001

The Sinclairs (James, wife Christina and their firstborn) arrived in Wellington on the Agra on 3 March 1852. They brought goods from Manchester to sell and it has been suggested they had £5000 capital to invest- an enormous sum for that time. While they sailed into Nelson, it was clear that the Wairau and Awatere were developing steadily and Sinclair saw that a key priority was the safe storage of goods waiting to be exported or imported through the Wairau River mouth.4

Sinclair Mrs. NZETC

Mrs James Sinclair. NZETC.

Soon after arriving in Nelson, Sinclair sought permission to build an accommodation house, with stores for wool and dairy produce, on the south bank of the Wairau River mouth.5 The Sinclairs were strong Presbyterians who couldn’t abide the debauchery of the frontier river mouth settlement.6 The wild and drunken habits of the patrons of McDonald’s grog shop horrified Mrs Sinclair and, before the year was out, they had moved up the Ōpaoa/Opawa River. Apart from James Wynen’s raupo shed on the south bank of the Ōpaoa River, there were no other signs of the future township of Blenheim at the confluence of the Ōpaoa and Omaka Rivers.5


James Wynen, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

Sinclair set up business as a merchant and soon became a land agent. The land where Blenheim now stands was owned by Messrs Alfred Fell and Henry Seymour of Nelson and from 1857, Sinclair was entrusted with the sale of the town sections which were selling for £10 per quarter acre.7

Sinclair wharves

The wharves and Fells Store, Blenheim, 1872 paddle steamer Lyttelton and schooner Falcon at berths. Lockup Creek bridge right hand side. Marlborough Museum & Archives.

In September 1854, when the settlers requested a custom house at Blenheim, Sinclair was willing to become the collector of fees, but Edward Stafford, the superintendent of the Nelson Province, favoured Port Waitohi (Picton) as port of entry for the province. He also described Sinclair as a recent settler who was committed to so many business interests that he would likely have conflicts of interest in this role.8

Sinclair's land holdings eventually included a wharf, wharf shed, stock yards, his own house, a hotel, the first courthouse and police station, Marlborough Provincial Council Office and a hall for hire. These were all, unsurprisingly, along Sinclair Street.9

Sinclair was one of the movers and shakers involved in the separation of Marlborough from Nelson and also having Blenheim made the capital of the province.1 A member of the Marlborough Provincial Council from 1860 until the abolition of the provinces in 1876, his obituary said ‘prospering greatly he put himself in the forefront of every movement to send the district ahead.” It further eulogised: “Many a one he has helped, never a one did he knowingly do an ill turn too.”10

James and Christina Sinclair, who was also from the north of Scotland11, were known for their generosity. “Whatever differences may have arisen to the wisdom of Mr Sinclair’s political views and actions, none will withhold from him and his amiable wife the virtue of unbounded hospitality during the early stages of the early settlement.”3


Dr. S.L. Muller, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

A search of the Paper’s Past website shows that Sinclair could be opinionated, difficult- and litigious.  In 1873, he was plaintiff in a case for unpaid rent and money owing on a chair to a total of just over £2. Sinclair spoke for two hours and the judge, Stephen Muller said that the way he had given evidence must have been painful to his own defence counsel and that he was sorry that such a paltry case had been brought to court.12

A most telling case was in 1870, when Henry Dodson, who was mayor at the time laid a complaint against Sinclair for publicly using offensive and insulting expressions calculated to breach the peace. Dodson told the court that he had to call Sinclair to order in a Council meeting. Later Sinclair returned to the room “in a violent temper” and fairly hissing through his teeth, said that “he knew who I (Dodson) was and that I had to slink away from Ballarat for murderous proceedings.” Sinclair’s defence was that Dodson had called him a blackguard. Sinclair was bailed to the sum of £25 to keep the peace, and in particular to Dodson, for 12 months.13


Blenheim 1870. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives. 19950150191

While he took no part in politics after 1876, Sinclair displayed a keen interest in Blenheim’s municipal affairs and the Presbyterian Church, which his obituary said ‘owed its existence in Blenheim to his open-handed liberality’.10

A few years before his death in 1892, Sinclair wrote to the Marlborough Express to put the record straight. The newspaper had reported that when laying the foundation stone of a new Presbyterian church, the Rev Robb, said the land (section 452) the church would be built on had been gifted by Alexander McLachlan and Archibald McCallum. Sinclair wrote that the Rev Robb had been misinformed: “Now the truth is that Mr A. McLachlan did not gift as much ground as the point of Mr Robb’s walking cane would cover.” He went on to say that he had assigned the land to the Church in 1869 and that the land for the new building and existing ‘ald church and school’ had all been gifted by him.14

Christina Sinclair died on the 23rd of December 1895, aged sixty-eight, and James died on the 9th of August 1897, aged seventy-nine. They were survived by four sons and one daughter.1


Edited September 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts]. Marlborough Provincial District - The Marlborough Land District (published 1906) pp. 369-70.
  2. McIntosh, A. D. (ed) (1977). Marlborough: a provincial history. Christchurch, N.Z. : Capper Press, p 157
  3. Buick, T.L. (1900). Old Marlborough or the story of a province. Christchurch, N.Z.: Capper Press, p 347.    
  4. Holdaway, B. (2016). The Wairau and its forgotten capital. Blenheim, N.Z.: Barry Holdaway  66-67
  5. McIntosh, p. 158
  6. Holdaway p. 67
  7. Buick p 348
  8. Holdaway p 91-92
  9. Astute founder of Beaver Town (2014, December 30) Marlborough Express on Stuff:
  10. In Memoriam (1847, August 18) Evening Post
  11. Scottish link to Blenheim street names (2015, January 7) Marlborough Express on Stuff:
  12. Resident Magistrate's Court (1873, March 26) Marlborough Express, p. 3
  13. A mayor versus and M.P.C and Borough Councillor (1870, June 28) Marlborough Express, p.3
  14. Laying Church foundation stone - a correction (1892, February 29) Marlborough Express, p.3

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Further sources - James Sinclair



  • Inward letters - Surnames, Sin – Sma James Sinclair, Blenheim & Wellington, 1875 & undated (2 letters & enclosure)Ref: MS-Papers-0032-0576 [held by Alexander Turnbull Library]


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