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The Naming of Sutherland Shire


As Vice President of the Clan Sutherland Society of Australia, I have a great interest in both Forby Sutherland and also Sutherland Shire.  I have been investigating how the latter came to be named.


Sutherland or Southerland?


“The association of the death of a humble sailor named Forby Sutherland, and the name of the old Parish of Southerland, makes a sentimental appeal; but there is no historical basis or authority for the perpetuation of this myth”.   


So wrote Marjorie Hutton Neve in a book about Sutherland Shire, NSW.1  She observed that the parish was named Southerland in the NSW Government Gazette Number 168, dated 27 May, 1835, based on her assumption that Sir Thomas Mitchell wished to refer to “the land to the south”.  Mitchell’s own map does not support this conten­tion.  In fact, the parish name was changed in the very next gazette, number 169, also dated 27 May, to the Parish of Sutherland.  


Prior to the establishment of the NSW parliament in 1856, all laws and major public policies in the colony of NSW were created by governor’s edicts, which were published in the Government Gazette.  This practice continued after the parliament was created, with the governor giving royal assent to laws passed by parliament.  At that time a key role of the governor was to manage land grants and land titles.  This necessitated the land being mapped, and names being given to various areas so that trading in land and land titles could be established and managed.  The broad approach was to proclaim all the settled area at that time the County of Cumberland, and to divide it up into 13 Hundreds, then into parishes broadly based on landmarks and existing land holdings.  Mapping and naming the areas and locations fell to the responsibility of Sir Thomas Mitchell, the NSW Surveyor-General, who drew maps of the areas to be proclaimed.  The Surveyor-General provided the maps, the names and verbal descriptions of the relevant areas to the governor’s office along with the official proclamation wording.  Once signed by the Governor, Major-General Sir Richard Bourke, the words were then transcribed into a proclamation and type-set for publication in the Government Gazette and, where relevant and news­worthy, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.


In Gazette 168 the relevant words proclaiming the Parish of Southerland were
And we do hereby further will and ordain, that the said four distinct and separate Parishes into which the said Hundred of Woronora is hereby divided shall be, and the same are hereby declared to be respectively named as follows, that is to say, the Parish of Southerland, the Parish of Watta-molla, the Parish of Bulgo, and the Parish of Heath-cote.


In Gazette 169, published the very same day, the relevant words proclaiming the Parish of Suther­land were changed to
And we do hereby further will and ordain, that the said four distinct and separate Parishes into which the said Hundred of WORONORA is hereby divided shall be, and the same are hereby declared to be respectively named as follows, that is to say, the Parish of Sutherland, the Parish of Watta-molla, the Parish of Bulgo, and the Parish of Heath-cote


It must be said that there were quite a few other changes in the wording of the proclamation in Gazette 169, so the spelling of Sutherland wasn’t the only text altered.  It seems to me that someone made a mistake, as it was unusual to publish two sequential Government Gazettes on the same day.


Mitchell drew the maps that went with these proclamations.  His original hand-drawn and personally signed map showing the Parish of Sutherland is currently held in the State Library of NSW in Sydney.  


What would motivate the Surveyor-General to require a change from Southerland to Sutherland if the prevailing view was that the parish name meant “the lands to the south”?  Surely the Surveyor-General or the Governor had something else in mind; perhaps Forby Sutherland!  One possible explanation for Hutton Neve’s contention is that she confused the parish of Sutherland with another nearby area proclaimed at the same time: the Hundred of Southend, which contains the parishes of Southend, Eckersly, and Wedderburn.


Hutton Neve, a Sutherland Historical Society historian, made several other surprising omissions from her “authentic” 1970 historical analysis of Sutherland Shire.  First, she neglected to mention that Captain James Cook had named Forby Sutherland’s burial place Sutherland Point on his map of Botany Bay.  Perhaps as a distractor, and to strengthen her point, Hutton Neve did not reproduce Cook’s map of Botany Bay, but rather a much less accurate map drawn by Lieutenant William Bradley, a member of Captain Arthur Philip’s First Fleet company, which does not include the name Sutherland Point.  She also overlooked the fact that Sutherland Point was used as a navigation mark by early explorers including Captains Arthur Phillip, John Hunter, and George Bass (with surgeon Matthew Flinders). 


The Forby Sutherland naming theory


It seems highly likely that the name Sutherland was given to the shire because of a vast holding of 12,000 acres of land owned by Thomas Holt, which he named Sutherland Estate.  Key to this thesis is why Holt used Sutherland’s name at all.  Certainly Sutherland Parish had been proclaimed in 1835, well before he acquired his holdings, and it covered much of the area that would become his estate. 


Another Sutherland Historical Society historian, John Walker, wrote that Sutherland town and Shire assuredly derived their names from the humble seaman Forby Sutherland.2  In support of his claims, Walker noted that Captain Cook named Point Sutherland to commemorate Forby’s death and burial, and accordingly marked it on the first chart of Botany Bay.  Walker also observed that Captain Arthur Phillip used Point Sutherland as one of his landmarks in 1788, and Captain John Hunter used Point Sutherland as a fixed point when surveying Botany Bay in 1789. 


Bruce Watt, another Sutherland Historical Society historian, observed that Thomas Holt, an ardent admirer of James Cook and his exploits, and a fellow Yorkshireman, was undoubtedly well versed in the legend of Forby Sutherland.3  The mansion Holt built as his manorial castle rejoiced in the title “Sutherland House”, and Holt regarded the whole of his land as his Sutherland Estate, both because it was situated in the Parish of Sutherland and because his estate contained Forby’s grave.  Holt was very much aware of the area’s historical significance.  He erected a monument to Cook at Kurnell in 1870,4 and changed the name of his estate from the South Botany Estate to the Holt-Sutherland Estate.  As further proof, an article published in a Sydney periodical, the Colonial Monthly, in November 1869 referred to the fact that Holt had recently bought a large tract of land “including in its area the grave” of Forby Sutherland. 


As part of her PhD thesis in 1998, Maryanne Larkin, a senior librarian with the Mitchell Library, wrote Sutherland Shire: a History to 1939.5  In this detailed and comprehensive historical review, Larkin makes reference to Robert Cooper Walker’s Sutherland Estate report dated 14 April 1868.6  Robert Walker was Thomas Holt’s attorney, and managed Holt’s affairs while the latter was overseas from 1866 to 1868.  Robert Walker’s report is important because it provides evidence that links the name Sutherland Shire and Sutherland Township to Forby Sutherland.


As Larkin reveals, Robert Walker stated clearly that Sutherland estate is named after Forby Sutherland.  In January 1868 Robert Walker wrote
When the holes were sunk for the posts of this yard some years back, part of the skull of a man was found; it is therefore supposed to be the burying place of Sutherland, one of Captain Cook’s men who died soon after he arrive here, and after whom the estate is name.


Dr Larkin went on to conclude that there seems to be no firm basis for Marjorie Hutton Neve’s claim that the parish name was intended to be spelt Southerland.  As earlier stated, this spelling was published in the New South Wales Government Gazette number 168 in 1835, and was quickly corrected to Sutherland in the next issue.  Suther­land was also the spelling on Sir Thomas Mitchell’s published map of the County of Cumberland.  In the NSW State Library copy, the sheet map showing Sutherland is inscribed and signed by Mitchell: “Sur Gen’s Office, Sydney March 27th 1835, TL Mitchell”.


In fact, with comprehensive access to the Mitchell Library’s records of the Holt-Sutherland Estate Company, Dr Larkin makes it clear that in 1881, Thomas Holt subdivided and offered parcels of land for lease in what is now Sutherland CBD.  She cites company correspondence and other documents, including a map, which provide clear evidence that company directors instructed their surveyors to call the new subdivision “Sutherland”.  The position designated by the company directors for the Township of Sutherland was a vacant site where the Illawarra road crossed the proposed Illawarra railway line.  The name “Sutherland Township” was used to advertise land sales by the company in February 1882.  Further, five years later, the Intercolonial Investments, Land and Building Company also called the subdivision “Sutherland Township”. 


Bruce Watt points out that Holt believed that the skull was from the grave of Forby Sutherland, and instructed his men to replace the soil and to fence in the area.  In that year Holt invited Henry Kendall, an Australian poet, to visit him at Kurnell, after which Kendall wrote poems to the memory of both James Cook and Forby Sutherland.7


The John Sutherland naming theory


Nevertheless, Watt also presents an alternative thesis for the naming of Sutherland Shire.  He writes that the Minister for Works in the NSW Parliament for periods between 1868 and 1889 was the Hon. John Sutherland.  The MP had agitated strongly for the extension of the rail line to the Illa­warra for many years, and was mainly responsible for estimating and obtaining government approval for the extension.  Watt asserts that Thomas Holt wanted the line to cross the Georges River from Rocky Point to Taren Point, and then proceed through his estate.  The stumbling block was the high price that the Holt-Sutherland Estate set for the right-of-way.  Eventually an alternative route was established, crossing the Georges River at Como.  The land around the site of Sutherland village and station was one of the few parts of the Parish of Sutherland that Holt did not own.  Watt asserts that the station was named Sutherland, very likely due to the efforts of The Hon John Sutherland in securing the railway, and the township adopted the name of the station.  No evidence was identified to support this contention.  


When the first Shire Council was established in 1906 at Sutherland, it became known as the Sutherland Shire Council.  So, despite the emotive Forby Sutherland connection, the Parish of Sutherland, and the Holt-Sutherland Estate, Watt suggests that a politician was the more likely reason for the naming of the Sutherland Shire.


Dr Larkin sheds new light on this proposition.  She notes that the Intercolonial Company develop­ed the packet of freehold land surrounding Suther­land station.  The Intercolonial Company was formed on 1885 by politician Samuel Gray, who bought up the land after he became aware of the proposed route of the Illawarra railway line.  Larkin states that the Intercolonial Company has been wrongly credited with founding the township of Sutherland, since the Holt-Sutherland company had already subdivided and named the township and had held successful land sales in 1882. 




It seems very clear on these facts that there is a very real possibility that Sutherland Shire was indeed named after Forby Sutherland.  Hutton Neve’s unequivocal 1970 claim would seem, at least, to be questionable.  It certainly sits in contrast with Larkin’s historical evidence.  One possibility is that the Parish and Township of Sutherland were named after Forby, while the Shire took its name from the man who brought the railway to the Shire. 


Duncan Sutherland



1.Hutton Neve, Marjorie.  Bygone Days of Suther­land Shire.  Shire Pictorial Publications.  1970. 

2.Walker, John Thomas.  Sutherland Shire 1770-1970.  Cronulla Rotary Club.  1970. 

3.Watt, Bruce.  The Shire: a Journey through Time.  Sutherland Shire Historical Society.  2014. 

4.See Cook’s Log, page 26, vol. 30, no. 4 (2007). 

5.Larkin, Maryanne.  Sutherland Shire: a History to 1939.  Sutherland History Press.  1998. 

6.Walker, Robert Cooper.  Sutherland Estate Report.  14 April, 1868.  Manuscript.  Sutherland Shire Library. 

7.Kendall, Henry.  “Sonnets Referring to the Discovery of Botany Bay by Capt. Cook and to the Spot on Which he Landed” in Maitland Mercury.  8 August, 1863. 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 8, volume 41, number 2 (2018).

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