Friday, 4 February 2011

The Ulster Covenant and the Ulster-Scots (3)

Thomas Sinclair (1838-1914) - the Ulster-Scot who penned the Ulster Covenant

Thomas Sinclair was born at Hopefield House in north Belfast on 23 September 1838 and he was the second son of Thomas Sinclair senior and Sarah Archer.  The family had come from Scotland to Ulster and the earliest known member of the family in Ulster was William Sinclair of Dundrod.

Thomas was educated at Royal Belfast Academical Institution and then entered Queen's College, Belfast.  He had a glittering academic career but instead of continuing in the world of academia he entered the family business, which had been founded by his father and uncle, J & T Sinclair, who were provender merchants in Tomb Street.  On the death of his father in 1867 he became head of the firm and he held that position until his own death in 1914.

Thomas Sinclair was the man who introduced golf from Scotland into Ulster in 1881 and he was really the founder of the Royal Belfast Golf Club but he is remembered more for his contribution to Ulster Presbyterianism and to Ulster Unionism.

Thomas Sinclair was the leading layman in the Presbyterian Church and he was thoroughly evangelical and evangelistic.  The family contributed much of the cost of Duncairn Presbyterian Church and Sinclair Seamen's Presbyterian Church was a memorial to his uncle John Sinclair.  Thomas was also a strong supporter of  foreign missions and home missions, especially the Belfast Town Mission and he became president of the Town Mission, later the City Mission, in 1893.

In politics he was one of the leaders of Ulster Liberalism and a founder of the Ulster Reform Club in Belfast.  However like most Liberals he was a committed unionist and when the Liberals divided over Home Rule he became the first president of the Ulster Liberal Unionist Association.

He was chairman of the committee which organised the Presbyterian Anti-Home Rule Convention on 1 February 1912.  The opening declaration of the Convention recognised the Scottish ancestry of Ulster Presbyterianism and stated: 'Our Scottish forefathers, in their struggles for religious freedom and civil right, cast their burden on the Lord Omnipotent, who gave them signal victory. Facing as we do now, dangers similar to theirs, we shall follow in their footsteps and emulate their faith. In the profound belief that God reigns, we commit our cause in all confidence to Him.' 

The Ulster-Scots looked back to the struggles of their Scottish forefathers for inspiration and they saw an imperishable Ulster-Scottish bond as being at the heart of the matter.

Thomas Sinclair spoke in the Assembly Hall in the afternoon.  He said that they had met that day face to face with a crisis in the history of the church and country not exceeded in its gravity by any that had preceded it, since their forefathers of Scottish Presbyterian blood were planted in Ulster three centuries ago.  Sinclair referred back to the 1641 rebellion when 'it seemed as if the Ulster Scots would be overwhelmed or driven out.  In their extremity they cried to their motherland for help and help quickly came.  Collections for their benefit were taken in the Scottish churches.  Supplies of food were sent over and several Scottish regiments despatched to Ireland and the Scottish colony was saved.'

Later that year, in May, he presented the case against Home Rule to Scottish Presbyterians in the Synod Hall in Edinburgh.

Thomas Sinclair was a prolific writer on behalf of the Unionist cause and a particularly fine example of his work was an essay entitled The Position of Ulster. This appeared in a volume of essays with the title Against Home Rule - The Case for the Union, which was published in 1912. In it Sinclair said: 'The Ulster Scot is not in Ireland today upon the conditions of an ordinary immigrant. His forefathers were 'planted' in Ulster in the troublous times of the seventeenth century. ... Large numbers of settlers were brought over to Ulster, many of them English, but the majority Scotch.' 

In due course Thomas Sinclair was the man who penned the Ulster Covenant and at the first pre-covenant rally in Enniskillen he explained the document he had drafted.  By this time Sinclair was an elderly man but he attended the eve of covenant rally in the Ulster Hall and the following day he signed the Covenant he had penned.

Sinclair died at his home, Hopefield House, on 14 February 1914, as the crisis of the Third Home Rule Bill reached a crescendo.  The funeral was on the following Tuesday and men from the four Belfast battalions of the Ulster Volunteer Force accompanied the coffin as it made its way along the Antrim Road, and headed towards the City Cemetery.  A memorial window was unveiled in Church House, the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church, on 8 June 1915 and the Sinclair Memorial Hall at Duncairn Presbyterian Church was opened on 10 September 1915.


  1. Hallo Nelson, would it be possible to use this piece about Thomas Sinclair (or some parts of it) at I would of course credit you.

    Many thanks, Peter Sinclair

  2. Certainly, please free to use any or all of it. I have a particular interest in Thomas Sinclair, especially as he was a North Belfast man, and the Liberal Unionist tradition. I must take a look at your website.

  3. Many thanks for that. You'll see at the web page above that I have the beginnings of a family tree, drawn from another sad person like me. In due course I'll add more detail, but the principal focus of the site is my own family from Newry, the Roslin Sinclairs, and their Norman antecedents.

  4. I've amended the web page, but maybe you also have information about his family? I only have what I've recorded so far. And I have been looking for a photo of the Sinclair Seamen's Church without much luck so far - unlike the photograph of Holyhill House at Take a listen to The Moorlough Shore if you have a moment... Sinead O'Connor sings it well.

  5. You should be able to get a photograph of Sinclair Seamen's Presbyterian Church off the internet.
    I do have information about his immediate family and his wider family. There was a daughter who was an author and in Sinclair Seamen's there is a memorial to two young men who were relatives and who died in America.
    I will be away for a few days but will post again on the Sinclairs and you can copy it.

  6. Hallo again Nelson, just thought you may be interested to know that I was working in cultural regeneration in London up until a few years ago. See


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