Story: Sinclair, Elizabeth

Page 1 - Biography

Sinclair, Elizabeth

1800–1892

Homemaker, farmer, plantation owner

This biography was written by Rosemary Novitz and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Elizabeth McHutchison, usually known as Eliza, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, probably on 26 April 1800. She is said to have been the daughter of Jean Robertson and her husband, the merchant James McHutchison. The family name was sometimes spelt McHutcheson. Eliza grew up in one of the city's most prosperous households and on 13 January 1824 married Francis Sinclair, a ship's captain, at the Gorbals, in Glasgow.

The Sinclairs arrived at Port Nicholson (Wellington), New Zealand, on 27 December 1840 on the Blenheim with Eliza's brother John McHutchison, and their six children, George, Jane, Helen, James, Francis and Anne. After exploring the west coast of the North Island as far as Wanganui, they decided to exchange the land order they had purchased in Scotland for land in the South Island. In April 1843 they arrived at Pigeon Bay on their schooner, the Richmond, with the Scotsman Ebenezer Hay and his family. At that time there were about 50 Maori of the Ngai Tuahuriri hapu of Ngai Tahu living on the eastern side of Pigeon Bay. The Sinclairs established the farm Craigforth in a cove on the western side of the bay.

In 1846 Eliza Sinclair's husband and her eldest son, George, set off for Wellington on the schooner Jessie Millar, which they had built at the bay. The ship, loaded with produce and with all the family's savings on board, was wrecked somewhere along the coast. There were no survivors.

For Eliza Sinclair this was both a personal and a financial disaster. She leased Craigforth and went to live in Wellington, where she managed to negotiate the transfer to the Sinclair family of 370 acres of land at Pigeon Bay adjacent to the 157 acres which they had purchased from the Nanto-Bordelaise company in 1845. In 1849, after some months in Akaroa, she returned with her family to the farm, which flourished under her management.

Craigforth was largely self-sufficient. There were no servants and the Sinclairs made their own shoes and clothes. The Sinclair girls 'could manage a boat as well as their brothers, they were fearless riders…crack shots, and capable workers, so that the hardships and roughing of those early years were not too much for their buoyant spirits.'

Eliza Sinclair's wooden farmhouse, situated against a background of bush-clad hills, provided hospitality to many travellers. J. W. Stack described his arrival at her home in 1859, dirty and travel-stained, to be greeted by 'the quaintest little lady I had ever seen. She was dressed in pale blue, with a little shawl over her shoulders, and a white starched sun bonnet on her head, beneath which her kindly grey eyes shone out a warm welcome.'

One of the captains of the whaling ships that regularly visited Pigeon Bay, Thomas Gay, married Jane Sinclair in 1848 and they built a house at the bay. Helen Sinclair married Charles Barrington Robinson, the former magistrate at Akaroa and the owner of extensive land holdings in Canterbury who, it was rumoured, beat and kicked her. One night she arrived on foot at Pigeon Bay from Akaroa carrying her son, Aubrey. After a long conversation with her daughter Eliza Sinclair declared to the rest of the family that Helen and Aubrey would remain at Craigforth.

In 1863 the Sinclairs decided to sell the Pigeon Bay farm and settle in Canada. Some accounts attribute this decision solely to Eliza, but others suggest that it was Helen and her younger brother, Francis, who wished to leave Pigeon Bay. However, it was Eliza who sold the farm to the George Holmes family, and supervised the refitting of the 300 ton barque Bessie which Captain Thomas Gay had acquired on her behalf.

They sailed for Canada via Tahiti. Vancouver Island was beautiful but heavily wooded, and they were daunted by the work required to clear the land. California was considered as an alternative place to settle, but they were persuaded to try Hawaii. They travelled to Honolulu via Los Angeles, arriving there in September 1863.

King Kamehameha IV of Hawaii sold Niihau Island to Eliza for US$10,000. Later she purchased land at Makaweli and Hanapepe, on the island of Kauai, and cultivated sugar cane. In the early 1870s she built a new home in Makaweli, where she is said to have died on 16 October 1892.