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Frederick Sinclaire (1881–1954)

by D. R. Walker

This article was published:

Frederick Sinclaire (1881-1954), Unitarian minister, socialist, critic and professor, was born on 10 July 1881 at Papakura Valley, near Auckland, New Zealand, eighth and youngest child of John Sinclaire, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Carson, both Irish born. He was educated at East Newton primary school where he won a scholarship to Auckland Grammar School, followed in 1898 by a scholarship to Auckland University College (B.A., N.Z., 1902; M.A., 1903), where he gained several prizes. Influenced by Rev. William Jellie, he enrolled in 1904 at Manchester College, Oxford, where he studied for the Unitarian ministry. Four years later he graduated with first-class honours. He crowned his Oxford years by winning the Dr Williams theological scholarship, open to all nonconformist students for the ministry throughout England. Already a well-known university extension lecturer, Sinclaire was a forthright socialist with wide-ranging intellectual interests. However, he found the English intolerant and in 1907 accepted an appointment at the Eastern Hill Unitarian Church, Melbourne. On 1 October 1907 he married, in Sydney, Esther Lewis of Cambridge, New Zealand, against the wishes of her father, a strict Jew.

In Melbourne, Sinclaire startled some of his congregation by challenging Tom Mann to a debate on socialism. He became the first minister of religion to join the Victorian Socialist Party and he contributed to its journal, the Socialist. His reputation as a Shavian spread and his unorthodox sermons attracted a sprinkling of left-wing intellectuals including Bernard O'Dowd, Frank Wilmot, Nettie Higgins and Louis Esson. Sinclaire became secretary of the newly formed Fabian Society in 1908 and a member of the Social Science Club. His socialism was an embarrassment to members of his already factionalized congregation and, dissatisfied with his ministry, he resigned early in 1911. However, his pugnacious encounters with some of the grand names of Victorian Protestantism, including Revs. J. L. Rentoul, W. H. Fitchett and W. H. Judkins, were long remembered by his admirers.

Sinclaire became co-editor of the Socialist with Marie Pitt in March 1911, an honorary position he occupied for two years. In November 1911 his supporters, including Gerald Byrne, (Sir) Frederic Eggleston and Maurice Blackburn, offered him a modest £2 a week to stay in Melbourne as minister of the Free Religious Fellowship. The first issue of the monthly Fellowship appeared in ominous circumstances in August 1914, but it lasted under Sinclaire's editorship until 1922. He was a passionate anti-conscriptionist and Fellowship was often censored. Late in the war he was fined for making statements prejudicial to recruitment. Sinclaire shared Nettie and Vance Palmer's hope that the anti-conscription vote would prove to be the first in a series of radical nationalist victories over the old Imperial order. He was enthusiastic about the Irish literary revival and Irish affairs were a common topic in Fellowship.

In 1917 he became principal and tutor in English at the newly formed Victorian Labor College. 'Of medium height, sandy-haired and freckled, mild in manner and softly spoken', he was an outstanding scholar with a wide knowledge of English and other literatures, and familiarity with eight or nine languages. His conversation and writing sparkled with his mordant wit and apt quotations. His foundation membership of the Melbourne Literary Club was one sign of his profound engagement with literature. Music and drama also fascinated him and he supported Esson's Pioneer Players. Yet he was never one to follow the party line and had his reservations about literary nationalism.

Sinclaire was profoundly alienated by the post-war world. He was dismayed by the resurgence of Imperial patriotism and quite unsympathetic to the Marxist strain of post-war socialism. He lectured part-time in English for the University of Melbourne, but failed to gain a lectureship. In the mid-1920s the dwindling Free Religious Fellowship converted itself into a club. In 1929 Sinclaire was appointed, with Professor Walter Murdoch's support, to a lecturing and adult education position at the University of Western Australia. He took the chair of English at Canterbury University College, New Zealand, in January 1932 and remained there until retirement in 1946. In his later life he became more conservative and subject to bouts of depression. For his last twenty years he was a regular communicant of the Anglican Church. He died at Christchurch on 6 December 1954, survived by his wife and childless.

Sinclaire was a formidable exponent of an essentially Edwardian literary socialism which he combined with a modernist theology, a powerful combination for Melbourne's young, post-Christian intellectuals. A prolific essayist, he published only three short collections: Annotations (1920), Lend Me Your Ears—Essays (1942) and A Time to Laugh and Other Essays (1951).

Select Bibliography

  • D. R. Walker, Dream and Disillusion (Canb, 1976)
  • H. W. Rhodes, Frederick Sinclaire (Christchurch, NZ, 1984)
  • Fellowship, 1914-22
  • Comment (New Zealand), no 1, Oct 1977
  • Socialist (Melbourne), 1911-13
  • Sinclaire papers (privately held)
  • Palmer papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. R. Walker, 'Sinclaire, Frederick (1881–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 July, 1881
Papakura Valley, New Zealand


6 December, 1954 (aged 73)
Christchurch, New Zealand

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.