Thomas Sinclair, ‘forgotten’ titan of unionism, honoured in Belfast

The blue plaque was unveiled at Sinclair Seamen's Presbyterian Church in Belfast
The blue plaque was unveiled at Sinclair Seamen's Presbyterian Church in Belfast

The life of a “forgotten” colossus who penned the wording of the Ulster Covenant was revisited on Tuesday, almost 102 years to the day after he was buried.

Thomas Sinclair was a pillar of unionist and Presbyterian thinking during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and both a book and a plaque dedicated to him were unveiled in his home city of Belfast.

First Minister Arlene Foster, centre, at yesterday's plaque unveiling event at Sinclair Seaman's Presbyterian Church in Belfast with descendants of Thomas Sinclair: Jane Charley Argles, Elizabeth Charley, David Kingan and Catherine Charley

First Minister Arlene Foster, centre, at yesterday's plaque unveiling event at Sinclair Seaman's Presbyterian Church in Belfast with descendants of Thomas Sinclair: Jane Charley Argles, Elizabeth Charley, David Kingan and Catherine Charley

A businessman, in the later years of his life Mr Sinclair advocated powerfully against Home Rule for Ireland, and died shortly before the outbreak of the Great War.

The plaque is the 197th unveiled by the Ulster History Circle across the nine counties of Ulster, and was funded by the Ulster-Scots Agency.

It was placed at Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church – a church which had been built by his uncle, and where he was honorary treasurer and often worshipped (along with the Duncairn congregation in north Belfast).

A short biography of him, written by Dr Gordon Lucy of the Ulster-Scots Community Network and issued to coincide with the plaque unveiling, said that despite his accomplishments “he remains a largely forgotten figure in modern Ulster”.

Sinclair Seamen's Presbyterian Church in Belfast was built by Thomas Sinclair's uncle

Sinclair Seamen's Presbyterian Church in Belfast was built by Thomas Sinclair's uncle

He was born on September 23, 1838, to a strongly Presbyterian family which had funded a number of church projects around the city.

He had been educated at RBAI and then at Queen’s College (which went on to become Queen’s University Belfast), where he earned a degree in mathematics.

At the age of 28 he was elected and ordained an elder in the Duncairn congregation in north Belfast; and a year later he was appointed its clerk of Kirk Session, before entering the family business – J. & T. Sinclair, Provision Merchants and Pork Curers.

The family business had been located in Toome Street, where the giant postal depot now stands, just a short distance from Sinclair Seamen’s church.

He later rose to become the company’s head.

Dr Lucy noted that he was heavily influenced by Queen’s teacher James McCosh, who had in turn been influenced by Scottish churchman Thomas Chalmers, who believed the church’s energies should be focused on the poor, and that it – not the government – should take the lead in caring for them.

He added that Mr Sinclair was a supporter of the Liberal Party of the day, and that he “believed fervently in the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, in land reform and in non-denominational education”.

However, he disagreed with Liberal leader William Gladstone’s espousal of Home Rule for Ireland.

He also aired his views in the church’s general assembly, and Dr Lucy says he “supported, and sometimes led, the Assembly in its opposition to Home Rule”.

He was quoted by Dr Lucy as saying: ‘We shall show the world that come what may Ulster will never consent to yield up her citizenship, or be expelled from the imperial parliament to be degraded to a junior partnership in a subordinate colony.”

Dr Lucy said: “The Ulster Unionist Convention, held on the eve of the General Election of 1892, was Sinclair’s idea.

“It was to be a united and convincing demonstration against Home Rule. Sinclair translated the idea into a practical proposition, organised it and made one of the best speeches.

“He was proud of his, and explained the policy of passive resistance with which unionists intended to confront Gladstone’s prospective second Home Rule Bill should it become law.

“Sinclair appreciated that rioting mobs did not command sympathy and would only alienate support on the mainland.

“A peaceful, orderly and disciplined community stoically confronting prospective tyranny presented an image better calculated to win friends and admiration.”

It says that in 1912 “Sinclair was to compose the wording of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, drawing inspiration from the Scottish Covenants of the seventeenth century”.

He was described as “the first president of the Liberal Unionist Association, the architect of the Ulster Unionist and Irish Presbyterian anti-Home Rule Conventions, and a member of the standing committee of the Ulster Unionist Council”.

Although he had a strong interest in politics he was never a city councillor, and declined the chance to become MP for North Antrim (although he was a Privy Councillor).

In addition to all this, Dr Lucy credits him with being “responsible for introducing golf to this part of the world”, after seeing it played in Scotland.

He died on February 14, 1914, and was buried in Belfast three days later.

The book ‘Thomas Sinclair, Ulster’s Most Prominent Citizen’ is published in partnership with the Ulster Historical Foundation.

Copies can be obtained free from the Ulster-Scots Agency by emailing cholmes@ulsterscotsagency.org.uk or calling (028) 90 231113.