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John Cuthbert (1815–1874)

by Bede Nairn

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John Cuthbert (1815-1874), shipbuilder, was born on 24 June 1815 in Cork, Ireland, son of Gilbert Cuthbert, excise officer, and his wife Catherine, née McCarthy. Apprenticed as a shipwright he worked in the Government Dockyard at Cork and on ships trading between Ireland and Canada. At 29 he migrated to Sydney in the Johnson and worked at Corcoran's shipyard. Of a provident nature, he had saved enough by 1849 to buy some land fronting Darling Harbour where he set up on his own account and concentrated on the developing steam business. In 1853 his growing success and reputation were marked by his appointment as shipwright surveyor at a salary of £100 in terms of the Steam Navigation Act. On 19 December the same year, he married Susan Dawson, with catholic and Church of England forms, firstly at St Mary's Cathedral and then at St Philip's Church of England.  By 1865 he had expanded his yards to Millers Point, occupied the patent slip wharf, was lessee of Mort's dock and a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron. He recognized the advantages of Darling Harbour as a shipbuilding site and helped to reclaim parts of it.

In 1867 a complimentary banquet to Cuthbert on his visit to Ireland was attended by representatives of 'every section and interest of the community, political, social, mercantile, and, above all, the hardy sons of toil'. The chairman noted that Cuthbert was 'the proprietor of one of the largest ship building establishments in the Australian colonies … [and] employed not less than three hundred mechanics of various sorts, that could if necessary put forth every description of vessel, from the beautiful yacht to the iron-clad ship of war'. In 1871 Cuthbert claimed that his business was 'second to none in Australia', but a serious strike in his shipyard reflected economic growth and the changing pattern of industrial relations in which the patronizing role of the individual employer was beginning to yield to an impersonal general system. Jacob Montefiore presided at a dinner to express the sympathy of shipping and mercantile leaders with Cuthbert, and remarked that the shipbuilder had always treated his employees fairly and that wage rates were beyond his control; 'when capital decreased or labor increased wages would decrease—but when capital increased or labor decreased wages would increase'. Cuthbert was hurt that his character had been traduced by the strikers and said that he favoured trade unions but 'when they made laws injurious to themselves, and tyrannical to their employers, they became a curse to society'. Cuthbert recovered from this set-back and in 1872-73 built schooners for the Admiralty for the suppression of the Polynesian slave trade. In the 1860s he had built a gunboat for the British government for the Maori war.

Cuthbert was not active in politics, though in 1870 Henry Parkes's voluntary sequestration showed him as an unsecured creditor for £433 1s. 10d. In 1873 he reminded Parkes of the urgent need to establish a large dry dock in Sydney. He was one of the outstanding colonial shipbuilding entrepreneurs, thrifty, prescient and responsive to technological change. Generous and charitable, if paternalistic, he had achieved a reputation for 'unostentatious liberality' before his death on 8 December 1874. In his substantial will he left bequests to St Vincent's Hospital, the Randwick Asylum, the Ragged School, and the Kent Street soup kitchen. He was buried in the Petersham Catholic cemetery. In 1853 in Sydney he had married Susannah Dawson; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. Watson, ‘Early Shipbuilding in Australia’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 6, part 2, 1920, pp 96-120
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 1867, 10 Dec 1874
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 3 June 1871.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Cuthbert, John (1815–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 June, 1815
Cork, Ireland


8 December, 1874 (aged 59)
New South Wales, Australia

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