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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sinclair, James (1809–1881)

by Jean Gittins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

James Sinclair (1809-1881), landscape gardener, was born at Altyre, Forres, Morayshire, Scotland, on the estate of Sir William Gordon Gordon-Cumming (1787-1854), son of Lewis Sinclair, head steward, and his wife Elizabeth, née Hardy. Because of his drawing talent he was sent to London for training in painting and landscape gardening. He worked in Kew Gardens under T. A. Knight (1759-1838).

Sinclair's originality in design and his skill in delineating exotic plants became known through his illustrations for Knight's journal articles. In 1838 Prince Mikhail Semenovich Vorontsov of Russia invited him to plan his estate at Sebastopol in the Crimea. The quality of his work so impressed Tsar Nicholas I that he borrowed him to assist in laying out the Imperial Gardens at St Petersburg. He was honoured with the Imperial Order of St Anne, and arrangements were made for him to be granted access to all royal gardens in Europe. At 37, at Sebastopol, Sinclair married Mary Ann Cooper, governess to Prince Vorontsov's children, and they lived in a house in the palace grounds where their first child was born. At the outbreak of the Crimean war in 1853 they returned to England.

A conflict of loyalties between friendship and country soon influenced Sinclair to leave his native land and in 1854 he arrived in Melbourne with his wife and child. He began business as a seedsman and in June 1855 published the first number of The Gardener's Magazine and Journal of Rural Economy, a monthly that ran for twelve issues and sold for 1s. He had come at an opportune time: the Melbourne City Council was debating the disposition of Fitz Roy Square. Originally intended for land development, the scheme had been impeded by the swamps and bluestone quarries which were being used as rubbish tips. In 1856 a decision was reached to turn the sixty-four acres (26 ha) into gardens. A sum of £1000 was voted for the project at the February council meeting and Sinclair became the planner next year. The square was renamed Fitz Roy Gardens in August 1862.

The City Council intended a spread of formal lawns and flower beds but Sinclair remained firm in his concept of trees and shaded walks. With the co-operation of C. Hodgkinson he had the swamps drained and diverted to form a natural winding channel running through clumps of native tree-ferns with weeping willows planted on its banks. The replacement of many of the ferns with palm-trees later destroyed the woodland character of this area. In 1859 Sinclair planted the first twelve-year-old elms, which flourished side by side with avenues of poplars and plane trees, interspersed with massed shrubs and grassy lawns sloping towards the railway yards of Jolimont. His work contributed much to the development of Melbourne as a garden city.

Sinclair also wrote poetry. The Australian Sacred Lyre was published in Melbourne in 1857, while his Original Australian Proverbs and True Love Songs appeared in 1859. Sinclair died of apoplexy on 29 April 1881, aged 72, and was buried in Kew cemetery. He was survived by two daughters and a son of his first marriage and by his second wife Ellen, née Roberts, whom he had married in 1860 and who had helped him to complete his drawings when rheumatism crippled his hands. A memorial tablet is set into a pathway near the house on the eastern edge of the gardens, in which he had lived from about 1872 and where he died.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Knight, ‘James Sinclair — Maker of Fitzroy Gardens’, and E. E. Pescott, ‘The pioneers of horticulture in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 18 (1940)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Feb 1856
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 July 1968.

Citation details

Jean Gittins, 'Sinclair, James (1809–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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