May Sinclair’s Unknown Family

By Rosalind Delmar

In recent months I have been researching the life of the Ulster novelist F.E. (Effie) Crichton (1877- 1918), whose maiden name was Sinclair. I was intrigued when a fellow researcher commented that May Sinclair, whose work I admire, came from a very similar shipping family in Liverpool.1 ‘Effie’ was born in Belfast and died in the Wirral, Cheshire, just across the river Mersey from Liverpool. Knowing that May Sinclair was born in the same area, I wondered whether this could just be a coincidence or was there more to it than that – was there a family connection?

Effie was the daughter of Thomas Sinclair (1838-1914), businessman, provision merchant and Unionist politician. Her mother was Mary Duffin, Thomas’s first wife, who died when Effie was two, after the birth of their son Tom, Effie’s brother. Like many of the Sinclairs Effie left no papers behind her, just some anecdotes and her published works.2 My research starting point was a recent collection of articles about Effie’s father, Thomas Sinclair, Ulster’s Most Prominent Citizen.3 This volume contains several Sinclair family trees: by putting these into relation with the family tree provided by Suzanne Raitt in her biography of May,4 and with some additional on-line research, it could be seen that Effie and May were indeed connected – they were second cousins through their grandfathers, the brothers William and Thomas Sinclair of Belfast.

As one of the absences in existing biographies of May is her father’s background I decided to look at the various links connecting Effie’s father and May’s. I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Robert Keith, an American descendant of the Belfast Sinclairs who is writing a history of the family. He has been extremely generous in sharing the results of his researches with me. This article could not have been written in this form without his help.

Writing in A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (1915) May Sinclair remembers that:

. . . one of my brothers was a Captain in the Gunners, that another of them fought as a volunteer in the first Boer War; that my uncle, Captain Hind, of the Bengal Fusiliers, fought in the Mutiny and in the Crimean War, and his son at Chitral, and that I have one nephew in Kitchener’s Army and one in the West Lancashire Hussars; and that three generations of solid sugar-planters and ship-owners cannot separate me from my forefathers, who seem to have been fighting all the time.5

The purpose of the reminiscence is to explain her submissiveness to military authority once she has arrived in war torn Belgium and to bolster her confidence that she belonged there as she approached the battlefield. Whilst she can bring members of her mother’s family, the Hinds, to mind as soldiers, there is no evidence that her Sinclair forebears were fighting men or sugar-planters, for that matter. However, her father, William Sinclair, was among the third generation of Sinclairs who were ship-owners. Knowing more about them provides a fascinating supplement to the work of her most influential biographers, Theophilus Boll and Suzanne Raitt.6 Sinclair’s biographers worked within the limits imposed by their subject, who disliked biography and spent time before her death sifting through papers. Suzanne Raitt describes how ‘remarkably reserved’ Sinclair was ‘about every aspect of her early years except for her intellectual experiences . . . [she] was also very careful about the records she left behind her . . . The personal papers that were found in her house after her death had clearly been meticulously sorted . . . she left no diary and the oldest surviving letter to her dates from 1893’, when she was 30.7 Few papers survived from her father or her mother, and there are no direct references to her grandparents. Boll was the pioneer biographer, and gathered together these selected papers and the memories of May’s nurse-companion,8 whilst Raitt followed his example, depending on his research and adding in collections of letters from other archives. The advantage of being able to put her parents’ respective family networks into the frame is that it allows a different optic, a sideways look at May and her story. They provide a setting and a context for her more ‘autobiographical’ works and the dramas they narrate, most notably Mary Olivier. They allow us to wonder, too, whether the story Boll and Raitt have told was the one intended by May, and if so, what it tells us about her.

Both biographers start with the statement that May’s father, William, was the son of a Liverpool merchant whilst her mother, Amelia, was daughter of an Irish merchant. Neither of these assertions are strictly accurate. I will begin, here, with the family history of William Sinclair and follow with that of Amelia.9

There are many Sinclair families and more than one in the North of Ireland. The extended Sinclair family to which both William (May’s grandfather) and Thomas (Effie’s grandfather) belonged traced their more recent origins to a Presbyterian Scots farming family in the parish of Killead, Co. Antrim. The farm was relatively large and successful and it was the practice of the family to encourage their older sons to leave home, learn a trade and try to make their fortune, since only one son would inherit. This was common practice among Presbyterian families and amongst the merchant Sinclairs a variation of this practice continued – sons were encouraged to train in the family firm to find out if they had an aptitude for the business, and if so given a job. If not they took up various other professions.

The first successful merchant in the family was William Sinclair Sr (1758-1842), who went to Baltimore as a teenager and stayed for over 20 years, mainly working as a merchant ships master and privateer between Baltimore and the West Indies. He returned home around 1800 with accumulated experience and a substantial fortune which he invested in Belfast.  In 1802 he married Elizabeth Montgomery, who also came from Killead and whose brother had married William’s sister. Marriages like these, binding families together, were typical of the merchants of Ulster. They created a formidable and supportive ‘cousinage’, combining kinship and business ties. Three years later he took out a lease on Brookvale, a detached house in its own grounds to the North West of the city, in an area then called Cliftonville, where his children and grandchildren were born. In 1822 he co-founded the shipping company Sinclair and Boyd, probably for the benefit of his son William, who subsequently joined the firm and ran it. The firm traded with the West Indies, building their own ships in Belfast for the purpose.  He was a major donor to various Belfast institutions including the new Belfast Academical Institute (BAI), founded in 1810, where William and his other two sons, John and Thomas, were educated. Other funds went to support the Presbyterian Church at Dundrod founded by his brother James amongst others, and to support charities which provided relief for the poor and unemployed.10

William had three sons: William Jr (1804-41), John (1808-1856) and Thomas (1810-1867). With William at Sinclair and Boyd, John, in 1825, left school and founded a small provisions business, where he was later joined by Thomas. They jointly established a new partnership, J&T Sinclair, in 1834, which over time came to specialise in processing and exporting pork, ham and bacon. All three were to have granddaughters who were published authors: May (1863-1946), William’s granddaughter, the most famous, wrote books of fiction, poetry and philosophy; Lilian Stevenson (1870-1960), John’s granddaughter, was a translator, biographer and peace campaigner, and Thomas’s granddaughter Effie (1877-1918) wrote novels for children and for adults.[A]


Figure A. Sinclair family tree
[A] Schematic family tree.
William Sr. sold his share in Sinclair and Boyd before he died and probably made his financial dispositions then. His wife had pre-deceased him in 1834 as had his son William in 1841. Having bought the Sinclair share, Robert Boyd named one of his sons William Sinclair Boyd, and Sinclair and Boyd survived and prospered, eventually becoming the Belfast agent of Lloyds of London and lasting well into the 20th century as experts in shipping insurance.11


William Jr’s widow Mary (nee Gibson – her father was a Belfast haberdasher and her brother married Thomas Sinclair’s sister) was left with four children, one of whom was William (1828-1881), May Sinclair’s father. He was 13 when his father died and the only son to survive childhood. The likelihood is that he, like other Sinclair sons, was educated at the BAI and was then trained up in a shipping firm, either Sinclair and Boyd or J & T Sinclair. His mother was 35 when she was widowed and lived for a further forty years, dying in 1887 aged 81. Mary and her daughters were well provided for but William was his father’s main heir.

The success of their business meant that John and Thomas Sinclair had moved out of Brookvale. After they married (in 1835) they bought separate properties not far from the family home – John bought a house called The Grove and Thomas and his family lived at the newly built Hopefield House. The Sinclairs had strong links to radical and liberal Belfast non-conformist families: they sent their sons to the same school and intermarried.  They actively supported Presbyterianism. As J&T Sinclair prospered Thomas made significant financial contributions to the foundation in 1861 of a new Presbyterian church at Duncairn, close to where they lived; this is now the Duncairn Arts and Culture Centre. After John died in 1856 Thomas and John’s widow contributed to a fund to open another Presbyterian Church in his memory, this time near Belfast docks – the remarkable Sinclair Seamen’s Church, which still stands and functions as a church. When later the family expanded in the United States they gave strong support to Presbyterianism there.12

Amelia’s parents, the Hinds, on the other hand, were recent arrivals from England, moving to Belfast from Liverpool some time after 1815. John was a textile engineer, one of several who moved to Belfast with expertise in textile factory organisation and machine tool manufacture and were looking to capitalise on this expertise.13 In Belfast he entered into partnership with the Presbyterian merchant Thomas Mulholland (who is thought to have been born in Killead, the same parish as the Sinclairs). Mulholland and Hind were central to the modernisation of the linen industry in Belfast. There were many Hind children, mostly born in Manchester and Liverpool, but Amelia and her younger brother Charles were born in Belfast and both married Sinclair children – William and his sister Sarah. Amelia’s sister, Elizabeth, married Edward Higgin in 1848, an East Indies trader living in Liverpool, with whom William later went into partnership.14

The Sinclairs and the Hinds were neighbours in Cliftonville. The Hinds lived at The Lodge, a property just south of Brookvale.[B] As well as proximity they had other things in common: they sent their sons to the BAI to be educated and shared a commitment to female education. But they differed in religious allegiance. The Sinclairs were Presbyterians, attending Rosemary St Church and giving financial support to the Belfast Academical Institution (and after it, Queens College Belfast) not just because they believed that for Belfast to be a successful commercial centre it needed an educated civic leadership, but also because within it young men could gain a qualification to be Presbyterian ministers without having to make the journey to Scotland. The Hinds were Church of Ireland and as such their sons were eligible to attend Trinity College Dublin (which Presbyterians were not). It was at TCD that Charles Hind trained to become a member of the Anglican clergy, following the example of his oldest brother William Marsden Hind.14 (A later John Hind of Belfast also attended TCD and became Anglican Bishop in Fukien, China).

Figure B. Map showing Brookvale and The Lodge Belfast
[B] Map of Brookvale and the Lodge, which also shows Duncairn. Courtesy of Robert Keith.

When William and Amelia were married in 1850 it was not at the Presbyterian Rosemary St Chapel (as were the other Sinclairs) but at St Anne’s, the parish church of Belfast. Charles Hind was then a curate in Rotherhithe, London and was present at the wedding. Charles and Sarah Sinclair married a year later, also at St Anne’s, and it was their son who conducted Amelia’s funeral service in 1901, so they must have remained in contact. Both William and Amelia declared themselves members of the Church of Ireland at their wedding. William’s Presbyterian uncle John Sinclair played his part in the marriage as William’s witness.

It seems likely, then, that William and Amelia first knew each other as neighbours and seems unlikely that he needed to marry her for her money, a theory which was floated by Theophilus Boll.16 Whilst Amelia had ‘expectations’, William had already come into his inheritance. It also seems likely that William had established his shipping firm before the marriage and that this is why he was living in Liverpool. Amelia’s background as a member of a committed Anglican family which numbered clergymen amongst its members brings into focus the many clergymen and their wives who figure in May’s novels.

The years after the wedding saw important changes within both families. The 1851 census shows the newly-weds in Lower Bebington living next door to a James Hinde, coal agent, perhaps Amelia’s uncle, and his family. William describes himself on the return as ‘a ship owner and general merchant’ and he and Amelia have two servants. William’s uncle John Sinclair is staying with them — he may well have been helping William establish his shipping firm. In 1854 Amelia’s father, John died, leaving an inheritance which was divided between all his children. The business was taken over by Amelia’s brothers, James and John. As their prosperity increased May’s parents moved to a new middle class suburb, Rock Ferry, where their children were born. May was the last to be born, in 1863, and the only daughter to survive. In 1862 William’s mother, Mary, sold Brookvale and moved to Rathgar, then a new middle-class suburb of Dublin, with her daughter Lizzie; her other daughter, Minnie (Mary), was already living in Dublin, having married Samuel Dobbin, music teacher and Vicar Choral of both Dublin Cathedrals – Christchurch and St Patrick’s. At this point all that branch of the Sinclair family was dispersed from Belfast, with William and Sarah in England, and Mary, Minnie and Lizzie in Dublin. Mary and her daughter Lizzie stayed in Rathgar and only returned to Belfast to be buried in the Sinclair family grave at Clifton St.  Whilst we know from her letters to Katharine Tynan Hinkson that May Sinclair did go to Ireland to ‘see relatives’ and seemed well acquainted with Ireland, we don’t know who it was she visited or where.17

The 1850s and early 60s were years of increasing prosperity for all the Sinclair families, but in 1856 John Sinclair died, leaving his widow, Eliza (one of the Pirrie shipping family), with five sons and four daughters; the oldest son, William Pirrie Sinclair, was just 19. Thomas Sinclair Sr took over the running of the joint company whilst training up the younger men. Thomas Jr (b 1838), after academic success at the BAI followed by Queens College, took charge of looking for business opportunities abroad. Together with John’s eldest surviving son William Pirrie he helped establish a Liverpool office for the firm and in 1862 was sent to New York to explore business opportunities in the US, where eventually a plant was set up at Cedar Rapids, Iowa. More brothers followed to Liverpool, New York and Cedar Rapids as the businesses expanded.  But in 1866 storm clouds gathered which threatened the interests of them all and helped create the family crisis which was to haunt May’s life and writing throughout her life.

The first to be hit was J&T Sinclair. Disaster struck in April 1866 when a fire destroyed the Sinclair packing factory in Tomb St Belfast. Although their insurance covered this loss, they were not able to fulfil their orders, and their ships lay idle. A month later a much wider crisis – the financial crisis known as ‘Black Friday’ – was created by the failure of Overend Gurney, ‘the banker’s bank’, which had over-extended itself by making loans without an accurate analysis of risk.  The crisis swept away many businesses which they had insured and brought others to the brink of bankruptcy.

In a company report of 1869 Thomas McElderry Sinclair, John Sinclair’s second son, summarised the situation thus:

Previous to 1866 our house in Belfast . . . was the largest provision house in Ireland, and indeed in the world . . . [and] they were the largest ship owners in Ireland, but the destruction of the Belfast plant by fire .. . . was followed by the panic, with its famous ‘Black Friday’. Their ships decreased in value so much that they would not sell for half their ordinary price, owing partly to the opening of the Suez Canal, and . . . several firms with which we did a very large business failed and we lost a lot of money through them, and thus it was a whole fortune was swept away in a few months.18

The crisis left them with many debts and made it difficult to obtain credit. What Thomas M. Sinclair says about its effects on the J&T Sinclair shipping business must have applied equally if not more so to William’s firm, which may have been one of the connected shipping firms he mentions as failing due to the crisis. In the event, J&T Sinclair were able to come to an arrangement with their bank; the condition was ‘that we – that is the five young members of the firm – would promise each to undertake a proportion of the debt and pay it off by degrees’.19 Clearly they were in no position to help William with financial support.

J&T Sinclair were eventually able to rescue their enterprise by reorganising the company so that the Liverpool and American concerns became responsible for their own debts, and by a strategic merger (which also included a marriage) with Kingan’s, another Belfast meat packing company, which had established a plant in Indianapolis. However, the crisis had taken a personal toll in the unexpected death of Thomas Sinclair Sr. The failure of William Sinclair’s business, on the other hand, was a catastrophe. Her ‘family had lost everything!’ May recalled.20 They could no longer afford their fine new home, and their reduced family income and circumstances brought with it, according to May’s fictionalised accounts, her father’s increasing dependence on alcohol. With that came an extreme bitterness which poisoned marital relationships and blighted the whole family’s future. The crisis had a similarly catastrophic effect on a related family business, that of Eliza Pirrie Sinclair’s nephew, William Morrison Pirrie, who at 46 was much the same age as William. He, too, had his own shipping firm in Liverpool, and in fact died in 1867 of liver problems, but suicide was suspected.  It is no exaggeration to describe this as a traumatic time for the whole extended family.

Of particular significance here for May’s autobiographical novels is the story of Thomas Sinclair Sr. A respected citizen (he was Chairman of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners), Thomas was under so much pressure as a result of first the losses from the fire (it was he who negotiated the insurance claim) and then the impact of the financial crisis, that he developed various neurotic symptoms. During the winter of 1866/67 ‘a religious gloom of extraordinary character began to settle down upon him and he was also oppressed with the most horrible idea that he was outside the pale of mercy’. His friends thought that he would be less anxious in London, so he travelled there with his wife to stay with his brother-in-law Samuel Gibson in Gordon Square.

Whilst there, he become obsessed with the idea that he was in a prison and that Gibson was his jailor and that he must escape and get back to Belfast. ‘Mr Gibson, continually seeing the state he was in, scarcely every[sic] left him; and, finding himself in this house with the eyes of Mr Gibson upon him, he laboured under the delusion that he was watched; that he was kept by persons in a state of conspiracy; that he was immured as in a prison’.

Samuel and Thomas’s wife did their best to dissuade him, but one day he disappeared inside the house; they found the door of his top-floor bedroom locked, and when it was broken into discovered the room empty, the window open and Thomas lying in the yard below.21

If you know Thomas’s story it is difficult not to be reminded of it when you read about ‘Uncle Victor’ in Mary Olivier.

Mamma might believe what Aunt Lavvy told her, that he had only gone to look out of the window and had turned giddy. Aunt Lavvy might believe that he didn’t know what he was doing.

But you knew.

He had been afraid. Afraid. He wouldn’t go up to the top-landing after they took Aunt Charlotte away; because he was afraid.

Then, at last, after all those years, he had gone up. When he knew that he was caught in the net and couldn’t get out. He had found that they had moved the linen cupboard from the window back into the night nursery. He had shut himself up. And the great bare high window was there. And the low sill. And the steep bare wall, dropping to the lane below.22

The newspaper report also contains a hint of the death of Mr Baxter in Arnold Waterlow :

they said that his business had been going wrong, and he had lost his money, and it had preyed on his mind. And so, one evening, he had gone up to his bedroom and killed himself . . . behind the brown curtains he had cut his throat.23

It was reported in the Northern Whig that at this time Mrs Sinclair kept Thomas’s razors locked in a drawer to which she kept the key in case he caused himself any harm.

Thomas Sinclair’s story was relatively widely known because after his death, when his executors claimed his life insurance, Scottish Widows refused to pay out on the grounds that he had committed suicide, rendering the policy null and void. The executors took them to court; the proceedings were held before a jury in Belfast in March 1868 and fully reported in the Northern Whig. Even more pertinent to May Sinclair’s family, Samuel Gibson was William’s uncle – his mother’s brother – and one of the jurors was Amelia’s brother James Hind, so they were connected to the drama. The jury found for the executors. Although May Sinclair was only four at the time, it was a family story which must have been retold and discussed over the years, symptomatic as it was of the trauma of the collapse of the family livelihood and the emotions it released.

I have gone into all this in such great detail in the first instance to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the family cultures which nurtured her – to demonstrate the richness and complexity of the family relationships within which May Sinclair lived and matured. It then becomes possible to think about how all these histories lived on within her life and themes. The loss of the shipping firm and the emotional and financial damage which ensued is of outstanding importance. The financial damage was bad enough to be shaming but not catastrophic. The family moved from the upper middle class to the ordinary middle class. The 1871 census finds them in South Park Villas, Ilford, living in reduced circumstances, but not in poverty, in a household which includes May, her brothers William and Reginald, then aged 13 and 10, two servants and three Hind nieces of Amelia’s, Anna and Amelia aged 15 and 13, both described as ‘scholars’ born in Ireland, and Josephine aged 8, born in Brentwood, one year older than May, who was then 7.  It may be that Amelia had set up a small private school as many ‘distressed gentlewomen’ did at the time – she was an educated woman, who apparently had herself attended Cheltenham Ladies College.24 Their neighbours have professional and clerical jobs – there’s an accountant, a solicitor, a Bank of England clerk, and a bank manager. And this remains their situation: the 1881 Census return, from which May is absent, presumably at Cheltenham Ladies College, shows Amelia and William together in Fairford, Gloucestershire, with their son Reginald and two servants – a cook and a housemaid – again, not living in poverty. It isn’t clear where the money came from for Cheltenham College. In both census returns William describes himself as a ‘retired East India merchant’.  It’s the emotional damage that counts. In her novels we find the loss of confidence in the parents’ capacity to keep her safe from harm, chronic uncertainty about what the future might bring, fears about inherited weaknesses like alcohol addiction, a heightened awareness of masculine weakness, and the harrowing effects of early separation.

It is significant that this failure is located in her father’s family. There is a different family drama lived out by the Hinds a few years later when Amelia’s sister Frances’s children make and win a legal challenge of the settlement arrived at after John Hind’s death.25 As a result, in 1881, that company had to be liquidated in order to pay them compensation. This must have had an impact on Amelia and her family, coming as it did close to William’s death, but apart from a scattering of names of those involved – like Stables in The Divine Fire – this scenario and experience was not transmuted into fiction. May seems to have stayed close to members of the Hind/ Higgin families, appointing her cousin William Sinclair Higgin (b 1856), son of Amelia’s sister Rachel and her husband Thomas Higgin, who married in Belfast in 1853, to be an executor of her will.26

The puzzle of her father’s failure – his attraction on the one hand to the risky business of shipping counterbalanced with his inability to recover when his venture failed, can be discerned behind the figure of John Conway in The Romantic for example. Conway is pulled towards the risk of death at the Belgian front, but, suffused with terror, blindly runs away at the approach of danger, deserting those who rely on him. Indeed, Conway’s lethal attraction to the battlefield is overtly compared to drink; a broad brush psychological explanation given for this is that he is ‘an out and out degenerate’ with something crucial missing.

Amongst her early novels in particular – The Tysons and The Divine Fire are examples – plot dynamics are provided by snobbery and gossip concerning not just behaviour like public drunkenness, but also differences of social background and the inferiority of ‘trade’. Once the reader knows how deeply implicated her own family were in trade, with one grandfather a linen manufacturer, the other carrying goods from Belfast to various ports of call, there’s an extra irony involved. However, in the passage cited earlier from A Journal of Impressions of Belgium this reality is hidden behind talk of ‘fighting men’, ‘ship builders’ and ‘sugar planters’. There’s only one reference which might allude to the surviving Sinclair businesses in the satirical and belittling ‘Return of the Prodigal’ with its protagonist ‘Stephen K. Lepper, Pork-Packing Prince, from Chicago, U. S. A’.  Lepper is a recovering alcoholic who, aware that he has ruined the lives of his mother and sisters in his decline, travels homeward in the hope of repairing the damage. But the ‘prince’ cannot find redemption and reconciliation despite the millions accumulated during his success: he remains an outcast to the end, a ‘leper’, unforgiven.

From a biographical point of view, it’s possible to see how family culture and tradition absorbs May and her siblings in its pattern: her brother William’s apprenticeship is followed by a place in a provision merchant’s company in Hull, where he keeps a yacht by the sea and marries the boss’s daughter – all this is in keeping with Sinclair practice. Other brothers enter the army, like the Hinds. Even May’s writing falls within the pattern: she is one of several within the wider family network. Lilian Stevenson (who, with her sister Ethel, also went to Cheltenham Ladies College – she thought Thomas Sinclair paid for them to go) and Effie Sinclair Crichton have already been mentioned. Amongst Effie’s Duffin cousins, Ruth, Celia, Helen and Emma Duffin, all published poetry, stories or memoirs.27 They, too, all went to Cheltenham Ladies College. And on May’s mother’s side there was her cousin Gertrude Hind (1877-1951), the ‘folk poetess’, as Louis McNeice dubbed her, of Donegal.28 This is to take nothing away from May’s unique talent, but it points up the limited public space there was for middle class women, who might be educated but were ‘trained for nothing’ in Ruth Duffin’s memorable phrase.29 Writing and translating were skills which they could deploy to earn some money.

There is no evidence that May was aware of her Sinclair cousins, but there is evidence that they knew of her. After spending a weekend with her cousin, Effie, Ruth Duffin noted in her diary for May 7 1907:

Effie and I went to tea with some people called the Booths . . . Mrs McCrum, the authoress … was there . . . She asked me if I were May Sinclair who writes novels. I hastily disclaimed.30

A family tree compiled in the 1920s for Effie’s step-mother includes May within it.[C]

C -- Sinclair Family Tree 1920s
[C] Family tree produced for the Belfast Sinclairs. Courtesy of Robert Keith.
The question remains of what Suzanne Raitt called May Sinclair’s ‘remarkable’ reticence on matters other than her intellectual life. How is her silence to be explained? There are different ways of looking at this, all with some validity. One factor to be taken into account is the general reluctance of the Sinclairs to leave personal documents behind them. One of the great difficulties in writing about any Sinclair is the absence of a substantial archive of family papers in the public domain. An even greater silence shrouds Effie Crichton, who died early and whose novels appealed to a smaller audience, focussed as they were on the conflicts of country life in Antrim and Down. This compares with the abundance of material left by the Duffin family and available in the Northern Irish Public Records Office; Ruth Duffin’s diaries are a major source for research on Effie Sinclair.


The exception to the Sinclair general rule is Lilian Stevenson. When she was nearing ninety she dictated her own memoir, Memories of a Long Life, which remains unpublished. Her memoir provides a very different childhood and family experience to that which May Sinclair depicts. She celebrates the ‘broad-minded loving atmosphere’ of her home in Rathgar where her father was the first minister of the Presbyterian Church, Christchurch, and her mother was active in the parish.  Her accounts of family holidays spent in her grandmother’s home in Belfast, or with American cousins demonstrate how close the conjoined families of John and Thomas were. Within the pacifist movement she was committed to the aim of creating an internationalist Christian network dedicated to peace and social reform and non-sectarianism was her watchword.  As part of her work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, of which she was a founder, she translated memoirs and letters of former friends and colleagues.31 Two of her chosen subjects were Catholics, one, Richard Wayr, a young Austrian who tried to avoid becoming a combatant by volunteering as a member of the Red Cross, but was eventually forced to fight on the Russian Front, where he was killed. She writes of him that he loved his homeland and was ready to die ‘not for Nazi theories, which he hated, but, as so many as our own boys have done, simply as his duty’.32 The other was the Catholic priest Max Josef Metzger, founder of the Catholic World Peace Movement and a campaigner for social justice. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 for crimes including ‘befriending Jews’ he was beheaded in Brandenburg Prison in 1944. It is worth noting that in her commitment to life-histories she is following the example of her mother Elizabeth, John Sinclair’s daughter, who after the unexpected death of her husband, William Fleming Stevenson, took on the task of completing his literary contracts, including writing his memoir and editing his letters.33

Another consideration is that May’s silence may be the silence of the traumatised – those who are trapped in a psychic scenario it is impossible to escape and almost impossible to talk about. What is needed is another means of communication able to facilitate emergence from the trap. The languages which enable this for May are firstly the symbolic language of fiction, with its reiterations, variations and repetitions, followed later by psychoanalytic ideas. She recalls her family’s past and shares it with her readers in the context of wartime Belgium, where she went with other members of the medico-psychological clinic. This turned out to be a stressful interlude of fears, jealousies and personal conflicts in which she found herself sidelined in ‘ignominious’ and ‘sickening’ public shame.34 It may be that the ‘shame of Ecloo’ was sufficiently traumatic to trigger the scenes and feelings of the earlier family trauma, allowing them to be worked through in a different way. Mary Olivier, Arnold Waterlow and Harriet Frean deploy an inner voice new to her work. It speaks the emotional dramas of infancy which form the groundwork of their life histories.

In a letter to her French translator a propos Mary Olivier, May Sinclair writes that ‘all the description of the inner life is as accurate as I can make it’.35 This is a significant warning against taking the events too literally. In the autobiographical novel as a genre various strategies of distancing are deployed – names are changed, events rearranged, a cluster of incidents can be separated out and strands of feeling which are tangled can be distinguished and attached elsewhere. Indeed the fictionalisation itself is a distancing technique. No one can doubt the emotional veracity of Mary Olivier, but her heroine should not be confused with May Sinclair.

And yet this confusion can indeed be the outcome of the edited version of her family life which she left behind. Its most potent effect is to make a heroic figure of the author. She emerges as an outstanding autodidact able to teach herself Latin, Greek and German and give herself a grounding in philosophy and literature. All this in the face of obstructive and selfish parents, a ‘cold, narrow, bitter’ tyrant of a mother and a dissolute father.36 It’s a testament to obstinacy, endurance and commitment and bears witness to her intelligence and determination to put her own self-development and self-fulfilment first. She is not the only woman to have published such a story: Vera Brittain (like Lilian Stevenson a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation) also comes to mind. She studied virtually on her own to acquire the intellectual equipment necessary for Oxford Entrance. It isn’t every woman’s story – it’s not Lilian Stevenson’s story, for example.  It emphasises May Sinclair’s history as a self-making in the manner of a Miriam Henderson and Stephen Dedalus – the portrait of the artist as a determined and imaginative young woman.



Author Bio: Rosalind Delmar recently retired from her work as a psychodynamic counsellor and therapist. She has a long-standing interest in autobiography, whether fictionalised or not, having translated Una Donna by Sibilla Aleramo from Italian (Virago 1980, University of California Press 1983) and written various articles and reviews, most recently that of Sheila Fitzpatrick A Spy in the Archive, History Workshop Journal August 2016.

Published 10 July 2018



1 Richard Holmes, who is writing a biographical study of Effie and her wider family network. I would also like to thank Michele Barrett and Cecily Nowell-Smith for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.

2 Her fictions for adults are The Precepts of Andy Saul (London: McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, 1908), The Soundless Tide (London: Edward Arnold, 1911), Tinker’s Hollow (London: Edward Arnold, 1912) , and The Blind Side of the Heart (Dublin: Maunsell, 1915)

3 Graham Greenlee, Gordon Lucy, William Roulston, Ulster Historical Foundation 2016

4 May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

5 May Sinclair, A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (London: Hutchinson, 1915) pp. 27-28

6 Raitt op cit. Theophilus Boll, Miss May Sinclair, Novelist (Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1973)

7 Raitt op cit pp5-6

8 Boll: May Sinclair papers, Kislak Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania

9 A third biographer, Hrisey Zegger writes that May Sinclair came from a ‘well-to-do Scottish family’: Hrisey D Zegger, May Sinclair (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976).

10 Much of this information comes from Greenlee et al op cit. Supplementary details were provided by Robert Keith.


12 See Greenlee et al. op cit. pp. 66-69

13 See Andy Bielenberg Ireland and the Industrial Revolution (London: Routledge 2009), p. 24.

14 In 1855 the Liverpool directory lists both William Sinclair & Co and Sinclair, Higgin & Co at 30, Tower Bldgs West. Interestingly, Edward Higgin’s sister, Lily, was a published author: see…/anglo-spanish-edwardians-an-occasional-series.

15 For WM Hind see

16 Boll op cit p. 244

17 See Boll op cit p. 41. Phillippa Martindale has very kindly sent me a list of various letters to Katherine Tynan Hinkson, from which it is clear that she felt well acquainted with Ireland, one of which reads in part ‘I love the bits of description, it all brings back to me the Ireland of the North, wh. you say is not Ireland at all. Yr. peasants too are wonderfully true’. Postmarked 13 March 1904.

18 Greenlee et al op.cit.p. 13

19 Greenlee et al op.cit p. 13

20 Quoted in Raitt op.cit. p. 21

21 See report in The Northern Whig, 10 March 1868. The quotations in the preceding paragraphs are taken from the trial report.

22 Mary Olivier: A Life, p. 328

23 Arnold Waterlow: A Life (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1924), p. 77

24 Raitt op.cit. p. 24. However, there’s a problem with this statement, as Cheltenham didn’t open its doors until 1853, and Amelia married in 1850.

25 See The Rise of the Linen Merchants in the Eighteenth Century (1941) by HC Lawlor

26 Her father, William, had appointed another Higgin, Edward, and Amelia’s brother James Hind of Lismara to be the executor of his will. The wills form part of the May Sinclair papers held at the Kislak Centre, University of Pennsylvania. I’m grateful to Michele Barrett for obtaining copies for me.

27 Helen Duffin, Over Here, (London: Methuen 1912); Ruth & Celia Duffin, The Secret Hill, (London: Maunsel 1913); Ruth & Celia Duffin, Escape, (London: Dent 1929); Ruth Duffin The Fairy Cup, (London: Brown & Nolan 1958); Trevor Parkhill: The First World War Diaries of Emma Duffin, 2014; A Nurse in the Belfast Blitz: The diary of Emma Duffin 1939-42, 2016 Northern Ireland War Memorial.

28 She published under the name ‘Elizabeth Shane’ and shared houses with McNeice’s aunt in County Down and Bath. Her work is being re-evaluated as part of the movement to regender Irish Literary history. See Gerardine Meaney: ‘Engendering the Postmodern Canon? The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volumes IV & V: Women’s Writing and Traditions’ in Patricia Boyle Haberstroh and Christine St. Peter (eds.). Opening the Field: Irish Women, Texts and Contexts, (Cork: Cork University Press 2007). Gertrude Hind’s surname is frequently misspelt as Hine.

29 Quoted in Gillian McClelland and Diana Hadden, PioneeringWomen: Riddel Hall and Queens University Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation, 2005. Ruth Duffin was the first warden of Riddel Hall, founded in 1913 to accommodate women students at Queens University, Belfast.

30 Diary of Ruth Duffin 1907’, in Papers of the Duffin family, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, D2109/17/10. I would like to thank Richard Holmes for drawing my attention to this entry.

31 The memoirs are: Richard Mayr, Adventurer for God 1947 Lutterworth Press; Max Josef Metzger, Priest and Martyr 1887-1944, 1952 London SPCK 1952; Mathilde Wrede, Friend of Prisoners 1925 Allen and Unwin; other works include A Child’s Bookshelf 1918 SCM; Amor Vincit Omnia 1914 SCM; Towards a Christian International: The Story of the IFR 1941.

32 Op cit p.147

33 Life and Letters of William Fleming Stevenson by His Wife 1890 Thomas Nelson & Son.

34 JI p147

35 Boll op cit p 244

36 Letter to Katherine Hinkson, 14 April, 1912, quoted in Raitt, p. 19