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John Sutherland (1816–1889)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

John Sutherland (1816-1889), by unknown photographer

John Sutherland (1816-1889), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

John Sutherland (1816-1889), builder and politician, was born on 16 February 1816 near Wick, Caithness, Scotland, son of John Sutherland, crofter, and his wife Louisa, née Thompson. His formal education was slight and his native shrewdness unadorned by literary ability. Trained as a carpenter, he paid his passage to New South Wales in 1838 and, after early struggles, prospered as a builder. By the time of his retirement in 1860 his Abercrombie Street business had handled some large-scale projects, and in 1866 he successfully sued the government for £3514 for contracts carried out in 1853-54. In 1863 with John Frazer and William Manson he took up 287 sq. miles (743 km²) near Port Denison in the Bourke district of Queensland; he held another 250 sq. miles (647 km²) in South Kennedy, and Lindisfarne in North Gregory in the 1870s.

Sutherland took an early interest in politics, supporting (Sir) Charles Cowper from the 1843 Legislative Council elections. In 1857-68 and 1871-72 he represented Phillip Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council and was mayor in 1861. In 1860-80 he sat for Paddington in the Legislative Assembly. He professed himself a 'workingman's M.P.', advocated improved working conditions and wages and had cordial relations with the Trades and Labor Council; but he was more concerned with economy in public works. He supported Cowper and (Sir) John Robertson, and by opposing overseas contracts and encouraging local manufactures he gained a 'protectionist' reputation; but his attitude was pragmatic and in October 1868 he helped to defeat the protectionist premier (Sir) James Martin. He was secretary for public works under Robertson and Cowper in 1868-70 and won repute, though his early attack on treasury procedures caused public alarm. In the same office in 1872-75 under (Sir) Henry Parkes, he broke politically but not personally with Robertson. In the parliamentary confusion of 1877 he refused to serve with either Robertson or Parkes, but in December he reluctantly accepted the works portfolio in J. S. Farnell's ministry, and next year sought efficiency in railway contracting and planning.

Sutherland had become expert in a post that needed administrative skill and political courage and, although he debated land law reform and promoted technical education, he preferred his own field. Blunt, 'straightforward, businesslike and thoroughly honest', he was also 'warm tempered and warm hearted', happier at his desk than in the House. He accepted the popular policy of rapid railway expansion but insisted on elaborate surveys and careful planning, and argued that local iron products would encourage native industry and eventually be safer and cheaper. His attitude provoked a long controversy that was not helped by his lack of any real consistency of action or knowledge of political economy.

Between September and December 1873 Sutherland and Parkes took up 3760 acres (1522 ha) of mineral leases near Jamberoo and held another 408 (165 ha) under conditional purchase; they persuaded Frazer, Governor Sir Hercules Robinson, (Sir) Saul Samuel and others to back them in a vain attempt to mine coal. About 1874 with James Rutherford he set up the Eskbank Ironworks at Lithgow and next year the firm lost over £100,000 under his management, despite the freight concessions he had arranged. In 1878 John McElhone questioned whether Sutherland, as a partner in the Lithgow Valley Iron Mining Co. which had government contracts, could remain in parliament: he was cleared by the Elections and Qualifications Committee. He resigned his seat in February 1880 because his unlimited liability company had accepted a government contract for re-rolling old rails. His disabilities legally removed, he won Redfern in November but did little. In 1881 he was nominated to the Legislative Council but did not take his seat; he represented Redfern in the assembly in 1882-89. A moderate supporter of (Sir) Alexander Stuart's 1883-85 government, he was bewildered by the mid-1880s political confusion produced by recession and fiscalism; but he joined Parkes's 1887-89 ministry in his old portfolio, as railway administration deteriorated and the use of the unemployed on public works grew: his contracting methods proved a problem for the free-trade ministry.

From the 1860s Sutherland had been a magistrate for Sydney, a vice-president of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and a committee-man of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales. He was a trustee of the Mutual Benefit building societies and chairman of the Australian Mutual Fire Insurance Society. A Freemason under the English constitution, he had a long connexion with the Oddfellows' and Foresters' friendly societies. A trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales and a vice-president of the Highland Society of New South Wales, he was a member of the Board of Technical Education from 1883 and of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1889.

Sutherland died of diabetes at his home in Abercrombie Place, Sydney, on 23 June 1889 and was buried with Masonic rites in the Congregational section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survive by his wife Mary, daughter of Captain Ogilvie of Campbelltown, whom he had married on 2 May 1839, and by their only daughter; two sons had died young. Although his estate was valued for probate at £11,286, his liabilities necessitated a memorial fund to assist his widow, which the Trades and Labor Council supported.

Select Bibliography

  • Ex-M.L.A., Our Present Parliament, What it is Worth (Syd, c1886)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1866, 1, 130, 5, 803, 1875-76, 2, 973, 1878-79, 2, 63
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1879-89
  • Government Gazette (Queensland), 27 June 1863
  • K. J. Cable, ‘Eastern suburbs railway: early plans and politics’, JRAHS, 51 (1965)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Dec 1860, 19 Nov 1864, 11 Nov 1868, 6 Dec 1869, 6 Jan, 14, 22 May 1872, 11 Apr, 9 Dec 1874, 29 Dec 1877, 24 Feb, 18 Nov 1880, 2 Dec 1882, 12 Oct 1885, 30 Apr, 2 May 1887, 29 Jan, 24 June, 18 Oct 1889
  • Sydney Mail, 14 Feb 1880
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 June 1889
  • Henry Parkes letters and autograph letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Sutherland, John (1816–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Sutherland (1816-1889), by unknown photographer

John Sutherland (1816-1889), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Life Summary [details]


16 February, 1816
Wick, Caithness, Scotland


23 June, 1889 (aged 73)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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