Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harry Sunderland (1889–1964)

by Edmond Scott

This article was published:

Harry Sunderland (1889-1964), football administrator and journalist, was born on 23 November 1889 at Gympie, Queensland, eldest of three children of Joseph Sunderland, an English-born engine driver, and his wife Sarah, née Lidgard, who came from New South Wales. Educated at two state schools at Toowoomba, Harry became a journalist on the Toowoomba Chronicle. On 6 June 1910 he married 17-year-old Annie Smith with the forms of the Joyful News Mission in her parents' home at Kelvin Grove, Brisbane.

In 1913-22 Sunderland was secretary of the Queensland Rugby League. For the first five years of his appointment he stood as guarantor for the league's financial dealings and helped to make the Q.R.L. financially viable. The league's action in continuing its competition throughout World War I struck a number of people as being unpatriotic. Sunderland countered the ensuing criticism by donating proceeds of football carnivals to the Queensland Patriotic Fund and by arranging games between representative sides and Brisbane-based servicemen. Many Rugby Union players and supporters, and sometimes entire clubs, transferred their allegiance to Rugby League.

Sunderland accompanied the Australian Kangaroo tour of England for the Sydney Sun in 1921-22. His journalistic activities and his position as secretary of the Q.R.L. gave rise to accusations of a conflict of interest. In 1918 the Brisbane Truth had revealed that Sunderland received as secretary of the league 'in the vicinity of £300. This, for about twelve weeks' work, pans out at £25 per week'. His salary, when added to his earnings from articles written for the Brisbane Daily Standard and Daily Mail, and his income from his part-ownership of a sports magazine, Pink-un, antagonized those involved in what was predominantly a working-class sport. Officials and players resented his administrative style and called him the 'little dictator' (he was a short man with a pot-belly). In 1922 the discontent led to a players' strike. Brisbane players broke away from the Q.R.L. to form the Brisbane Rugby League.

That year Sunderland moved to Melbourne to work on the Sun News-Pictorial. He tried, unsuccessfully, to promote Rugby League in Victoria. Persuaded to return to the Q.R.L. in 1925, he was its secretary (1925-38), a Queensland selector and coach, and a member (1925-39) of the Australian Rugby League Board of Control. He managed the Kangaroo teams on their tours of England in 1929-30, 1933-34 and 1937-38, and did much to establish the game in France, particularly through a demonstration match between Australia and England, held in Paris in 1933. An avid follower of sport in general, he attended the Olympic Games (1932) at Los Angeles and several baseball matches in the United States of America. He was sometime secretary of the Queensland Cricket Association, the Queensland Amateur Boxing Association and the Queensland Wrestling Union.

Following a dispute with the Australian Board of Control during the 1937-38 Kangaroo tour, Sunderland left for England in 1939 to become manager of the Wigan Rugby League Football Club. He covered Rugby League for the northern edition of the London Daily Mail and worked as a broadcaster. Survived by his wife and one of their three sons, he died on 15 January 1964 at Chorlton upon Medlock, Manchester. The Sunderland medal, awarded to the best Australian player in each home Rugby League series against England, was named (1964) after him. His son (Sir) Sydney Sunderland was dean (1953-71) of the faculty of medicine, University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Pollard (ed), Rugby League the Australian Way (Syd, 1981)
  • Truth (Brisbane), 6 Oct 1918
  • Telegraph (Sydney), 7 June 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 1938
  • E. J. Scott, Rugby League in Brisbane: From the Genesis to the Formation of the Brisbane Rugby League (M.Qual. thesis, Human Movement Studies, University of Queensland, 1989)
  • Scott papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Edmond Scott, 'Sunderland, Harry (1889–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 5 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 November, 1889
Gympie, Queensland, Australia


15 January, 1964 (aged 74)
Chorlton upon Medlock, Manchester, England

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