This is an article that I wrote for the Esperance Tide, our lovely little local publication. One of my favourite local history stories!
From humble beginnings as a shepherd for the Dempsters, Laurie Sinclair’s discovery of gold lead to the establishment of Norseman. Through hard work, scandal, adventure, and changes in fortune, the Sinclairs were an important part of Esperance’s early history, and their legacy in our town still lives on.
Laurence Sinclair was born in 1854 in the Shetland Isles of Scotland, the oldest son of Thomas and Mary Sinclair. In 1863, the family migrated to Australia, arriving in Fremantle in December. They had five children by this stage and another two who were born in Australia, although their daughter who was born in Fremantle did not survive infancy. In 1864, Thomas Sinclair started working as a prison warder at Freemantle jail. In 1867, Thomas died, leaving Mary to care for her six remaining children.
In 1874, Laurence Sinclair, known as Laurie, started working for the Dempster family as a shepherd, on their property called Buckland, located just outside of Northam. While working for the Dempsters, Laurie travelled several times between Buckland and the Dempsters newly established Esperance property. In Esperance, Laurie met his future wife, Julia Playle. Julia had been sent to Esperance after an illicit affair left her pregnant with William Dempster’s child. Her daughter, Selina Playle, was born in 1877. Little is known about Julia’s background. She was a servant girl in the Dempsters’ Northam homestead and was obviously not considered to be ‘respectable’ enough for William Dempster, who married Maude Sweeting in 1878. In the same year, Julia and Selina were sent to Esperance, to live with William’s brother Andrew and his family. Julia felt let down by William, who was supposed to provide for her and went to a magistrate, who advised her to take up proceedings against him. At the Esperance settlement, Julia met Laurie Sinclair. The two were married in 1879, and Laurie took Selina as his own child.
Julia Sinclair Laurie, Julia, and the baby Selina left Esperance and headed to South Australia, where Laurie worked as a farm labourer. Julia had five more children, Jessie, Laurence, Earnest, Julia, and Bertie, who died as an infant. In 1889, the family left South Australia, and travelled back to Esperance, travelling by boat to Albany, then overland to Esperance. Laurie went back to working for the Dempsters, and Julia had three more children, Mary, Cecilia, and Leslie. When Laurie was not working for the Dempsters, he found work sinking dams. In the meantime, Laurie’s brother James had also come to Esperance, working for the Post and Telegraph Department. James had started working as a messenger boy for the department in Guildford when he was 13 years old, and he was transferred to Bremer Bay, and then to Esperance Bay in 1878. Eventually, James was made the Telegraph Station Master in Esperance.
James Sinclair, Postmaster (Seated on the right)
In 1894, Laurie was carting goods to Coolgardie, where the gold rush was just beginning. On his return, he went to find his brother George, who was prospecting in the Dundas area. During the night, Laurie tethered his horse, who was called ‘Hardy Norseman’. In the morning, he discovered that the horse had pawed at the ground, unearthing a piece of gold-bearing quartz. There are several variations of this story which have been told over the years, but the end result was that Laurie, together with his brother George, and their friend Jack Alsopp, found a rich seam of gold in the area. They registered a claim and began mining the gold. When the town of Norseman was established in 1895 for the miners who gathered there, it was named after Sinclair’s horse. The Sinclairs were proud of their Shetland heritage and considered themselves to be of Viking or Norse ancestry, hence the horse’s name. Laurie had some of the first gold from the claim made into a broach for his wife, which is now on display in the Kalgoorlie Boulder museum.
Laurie Sinclair and his horse Norseman
Laurie and his partners George and Jack sold their claim in 1895 for six thousand pounds, plus shares in the company that bought it. Laurie then began speculating on building houses in Esperance, expecting the town to boom when the railway to the goldfields in Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie went through. When the railway – and the boom – failed to eventuate, Laurie fell on hard times and had to sell the house that he had built. His daughter Cecilia also stated, ‘…after the gold finds, Mr Sinclair, a very good-hearted man, found many new-found friends, and finance from the gold find was soon depleted.’ Laurie went back to working for the Dempsters. He was known as an excellent stockman.
In 1923, Laurie’s son Laurence Jr. was riding a horse at the Esperance Race Track when the horse tried to jump the rails and fell on him. Laurence Jr. was 39 years old. Although his mother Julia nursed him for 9 days, Laurence Jr. died from his injuries. Laurie was devastated by his son’s death, and five weeks later, he also died. While his sadness at the loss of his son may have contributed to his death, Laurie also had cancer, which was ultimately the cause of death. His wife Julia continued to live in Esperance and became a well respected and well-loved member of the community, who was known as Esperance’s first midwife. She died in 1939 and was buried next to Laurie in the Esperance Cemetery. Laurie and Julia’s descendants still live in Esperance to this day, and in the 1990s, the suburb ‘Sinclair’ was named after the family.