Scottish Philanthropy Snippet – Catherine Sinclair

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Catherine Sinclair (1800-1864)

Background: Catherine Sinclair, Scottish novelist and writer, was born in Edinburgh on 17th April 1800. She was the fourth daughter and sixth of thirteen children of Rt Hon Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, Bart., a politician, agriculturalist and financier, and Hon. Diana Macdonald, only daughter of Alexander, First Lord Macdonald.

Image: Catherine Sinclair Monument

After acting as her father’s secretary from 1814 till his death in 1835, Catherine started to pursue a writing career. Her first novels, Modern Accomplishments (1836) and its sequel Modern Society (1837), ‘exposed with much felicity of satire the mistakes and absurdities of modern female education in the higher circles’ and ‘depicted what modern society is among the higher ranks, what their habits of thought, and what their style of conversation’ respectively (The Standard, 11th August 1864). These books were followed by around 35 other works, including a series of travel books as well as one of the most popular Papal Aggression or ‘No Popery’ novels, Beatrice.

Catherine became best known for her children’s books, particularly Holiday House: A Series of Tales. Published in 1839, Holiday House established itself as a nursery favourite for the next century. It was also a landmark in children’s literature in that it was one of the first books to depict children’s behaviour in a non-stylised, realistic, way.

Catherine died on the 6th of August 1864 at the home of her brother Achdeacon John Sinclair in Kensington, London, and was buried at St John’s Episcopal Church on Princess Street in Edinburgh.

Philanthropy: As the Morning Post stated in its obituary for Catherine, Catherine was ‘an ever-active philanthropist’. Her contributions to Edinburgh included the building of a mission station and school at Leith, founding the Ulbster corps (a volunteer company of young men in Leith), funding seats and benches on major Edinburgh thoroughfares, as well as setting up shelters for cab-men.

Image: Remains of the Sinclair Drinking Fountain

Her most prominent gift was the provision of Edinburgh’s first drinking fountain. This was erected at the west end of Princess Street in 1859 and gained huge popularity. Inscribed with the words ‘Water is not for man alone’, the fountain offered drinking facilities for people and dogs, as well as for the horses pulling the Edinburgh trams. Early attempts by the Edinburgh City Corporation to remove the fountain structure in 1874, its actual removal in 1932 to make way for traffic, and the subsequent handling, storage and disrepair of the fountain’s pieces were causes for longstanding controversy. A remaining part of the drinking fountain was reused in 1983 as part of a walkway in Leith.

Catherine’s greatest achievements was probably in pioneering cooking depots for Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns. The first, the Ulbster Cooking Deport at 6 Queensferry Street, was so popular that Catherine established a second depot at 33 George IV Bridge. The latter served upwards of 1,200 people at dinner every day; at the time of Catherine’s death, it had served over 91,000 people.

Lessons for philanthropy: Catherine’s case illustrates the fickle nature of philanthropic memory. While the Morning Post’s obituary pointed out that ‘when the mere authoress is forgotten, the true women and the sensible philanthropist will be long remembered in Catherine Sinclair’, her fame as a novelist and philanthropist slowly waned throughout the 20th century. Although ‘a kind of miniature Scott Monument’ to Catherine Sinclair was erected by public subscription shortly after her death, and can still be found on North Charlotte Street in Edinburgh, it is doubtful how many people in Edinburgh would now know the name of Catherine Sinclair as either novelist or philanthropist.



Ceraldi, G. (2003), “Popish Legends and Bible Truths”: English Protestant Identity in Catherine Sinclair’s “Beatrice”, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 359- 372

Gazetteer for Scotland, Catherine Sinclair

The Dundee Courier & Argus (Dundee, Scotland), MISS CATHERINE SINCLAIR. Wednesday, August 10, 1864

The Morning Post (London, England), THE LATE CATHERINE SINCLAIR. Wednesday, August 10, 1864; pg. 5

The Standard (London, England), CATHERINE SINCLAIR. Thursday, August 11, 1864; pg. 2


Catherine Sinclair Monument,_North_Charlotte_Street_Edinburgh.jpg

Drinking Fountain

Drinking Fountain – current

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