Page 1: Biography
Carpenter, builder, station manager, harbourmaster
This biography, written by Morag Lawrence and Peter Lawrence, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
John Sinclair, the eldest son of Mary Ann Henderson and her husband, John Sinclair, a carpenter, was born in Olrig, Caithness, Scotland, on 18 September 1843. He was educated at Olrig parish school. Nothing else is known of his early life. On 13 October 1863 he arrived at Lyttelton, New Zealand, on the Lancashire Witch, bearing a testimonial from his parish minister.
Sinclair found employment in Christchurch as a carpenter, working on the main staircase of the Canterbury Provincial Council chambers, and on the toll bridge at Saltwater Creek. His work was noticed by William Gerard, manager of William Robinson's Cheviot Hills run in North Canterbury, who offered him a job as a carpenter. Sinclair started work at Cheviot Hills on 13 November 1865, after travelling by coach on the West Coast route. His baggage and tool box were carried to Gore Bay aboard the Gazelle.
Sinclair's diversity of skills was to prove a valuable asset. He built cottages and other buildings on Cheviot Hills and its outstations. He designed a single gate to replace the double gate, which in windy weather hampered the bullock wagons used to cart pit-sawn timber from the north side of the Waiau River to various job sites. This gate was the first of many; a metal plate nailed to it records the date and his name. Sinclair also designed the bell tower used to summon the men to work at 7 a.m.; the bell is now in Cheviot's Knox church.
Sinclair proved skilful as a draughtsman, making plans and models for William Robinson. One of his buildings, Eliza Robinson's house at Gore Bay, is still in existence. His versatility extended to surveying, making his own tools and taking charge of the run's medical chest: many employees were grateful for his skill in setting broken limbs and extracting teeth. And it was his considerable knowledge of Gore Bay that led to his major involvement in the construction of the slipway at Port Robinson. Previously, whaleboats manned by Maori and (it is said) Kanaka had ferried goods from ship to land.
Sinclair married Margaret Jane Rose at Christchurch on 25 January 1870; she had travelled alone from Scotland for the marriage. A whaleboat brought her ashore at Gore Bay. The couple were welcomed by William Robinson and allotted rooms in the Mansion House. They were to have a daughter, Margaret Marion (Gretta), and two sons, John and Robert. When the government took over Cheviot Hills in 1893 the Sinclair family moved from their cob cottage to a house built for them at the port by the Marine Department.
Sinclair eventually took charge of the shipping service at Port Robinson, and from 1894 to 1907 served as harbourmaster. He also assumed supervisory status and functions at Cheviot Hills, as agent for the law firm Bell, Gully and partners.
Sinclair was stockily built, auburn-haired, genial in disposition, and was generally known as 'Honest John'. A valued member of his community, he served on the Port Robinson school committee and was associated with the Presbyterian church. John and Margaret Sinclair retired to Christchurch in 1907, when John was presented with an illuminated address by the Cheviot County Council. He became a communicant member of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, and was also a member of the New Zealand Scottish Society. He died at Christchurch on 18 July 1925; Margaret Sinclair died, also at Christchurch, on 25 September 1928.