Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Selina Murray Sutherland (1839–1909)

by Ruth Hoban

This article was published:

Selina Murray MacDonald Sutherland (1839-1909), nurse and child welfare worker, was born on 26 December 1839 at Culgower, Sutherlandshire, Scotland, third child of Baigrie Sutherland, crofter and road and bridge-builder, and his wife Jane, née MacDonald. 'Sulie Baigrie' attended the Portgower school and the Free Church of Scotland in Helmsdale, and worked on her father's croft until she was 25. Early fired by Florence Nightingale's example, she decided to follow her sister to New Zealand and to become a nurse. She left Gravesend as a 'domestic servant and assisted emigrant' in the Eastern Empire on 28 August 1864, and in the Wairarapa Valley worked for the sick and helpless both Maoris and settlers. Stressing prevention and permanent provision for welfare, she lectured on child-rearing, advocated better care for orphans and fatherless children and in 1879 was a principal founder of Masterton Hospital. From early 1879 to December 1880 she was matron of Wellington Hospital, but deep-rooted troubles in the hospital flared up in accusations against her and the hospital dispenser. Their accusers were dismissed and they were exonerated but given the 'privilege of resigning'. Her sense of injustice unallayed by a presentation and acclaim, she left New Zealand and settled in Melbourne in 1881.

After brief periods of nursing at the Melbourne Lying-in and Alfred hospitals, Selina became captured by the plight of destitute children. By August she was 'lady missionary' with the Scots Church District Association which on her advice set up in October a Neglected Children's Aid Society. She also superintended the Scots Church Sunday school and, with her close friend Mrs Maria Lord Armour, conducted a Saturday afternoon class and savings bank for local children. In 1885 at her suggestion her society rented premises, which she supervised, for children needing temporary care. By March 1883, also at her instigation, her association in co-operation with all Church denominations had established the Society in Aid of Maternity Hospital Patients. She urged the establishment of a skilled nursing service for the sick poor in their own homes, and remained a lifelong active committee member of the Melbourne District Nursing Society formed on 17 February 1885.

In May 1886 the Presbytery of Melbourne appointed Miss Sutherland missionary within their bounds. Next year her society was the first to be approved under the provisions of the Neglected Children's Act, 1887, and she was 'specially authorised' to apprehend children in brothels. By now well known and much respected, she was fearless in her search for children in back streets and alleyways, brothels and gambling houses, going in perfect safety, recognizable in her 'no-nonsense' habit of firmly fitting coat and skirt, mannish hat and umbrella. Although only of average height, her dignity and confidence gave her undeniable authority.

Convinced that, except in some cases of severe handicap, 'family life, in however humble a home, is far better for a child than that in any institution, however well regulated', she appealed through country clergymen of all denominations for permanent foster homes for her children, while encouraging the formation of local groups to support the work of the society. She pronounced with conviction on all social issues, offering strongly critical comments on all stages of the Neglected Children's Act, 1890, and the Infant Life Protection Act, 1890. In November she gave evidence to the royal commission on charitable institutions, advocating her foster home system and arguing that voluntary aid alone could not solve the problems of poverty. In 1891 she wrote an important paper on slum life in Melbourne for the second Australasian Conference on Charity.

By now 'Miss Sutherland's Children's Society' was highly regarded, receiving particular praise from the inspector of charities who supported her call for expansion in a time of growing unemployment. However, in September 1893, fearing financial embarrassment, the society's committee ordered limitation, and she and fourteen committee members resigned. By November, through her advocacy, the Presbyterian General Assembly had set up the wider-based Presbyterian Society for Destitute and Neglected Children with Miss Sutherland as agent. The society flourished, but criticism led the General Assembly's commission to direct that it receive children only under legal guardianship, give preference to Presbyterian children and use only Presbyterian foster homes. A bitter press debate on these issues was intensified when she stated that resentment arose from her denunciation of Church office-holders receiving rents from houses used for immoral purposes. She was arraigned before various Church courts and admonished by the General Assembly on 15 November 1894. Next day she resigned and was followed by her entire ladies' committee. On 7 December a public meeting organized by her committee resolved to inaugurate the Victorian Neglected Children's Aid Society with Miss Sutherland as agent, a controlling ladies' committee and an advisory council of twenty-five gentlemen.

The new society prospered. To their city receiving centre a home in Parkville was added, twice extended and in 1905 named the Sutherland Home: 'The value of Miss Sutherland's noble work', wrote Alfred Deakin in 1906, 'is simply incalculable'. From July 1895 she had been helped by Sister Ellen Sanderson and in 1899-1901, though her own salary was never more than £100 a year, she paid a second assistant from her own pocket. In 1897, impaired in health, she visited the United Kingdom during Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, raising money for her society on the way. In 1904 she was severely injured in an accident, while an old New Zealand injury was worsening. In 1908 she was clearly thinking of reducing her duties but the committee, listening to complaints from domestic staff, moved into a head-on dispute with her and in May dismissed her.

Determined to carry on her work, Miss Sutherland moved to the City Receiving Home, rented in her name, and was joined by Sister Sanderson and other supporters. By June 'The Sutherland Homes for Orphans, Neglected and Destitute Children' had been formally constituted with a committee of prominent citizens, including some of her old committee. On 3 November a government inquiry into her dismissal, instigated by her critics, completely vindicated her. The new society attracted generous support. On 17 April 1909 Miss Auguste Meglin made a gift of house and property at Diamond Creek to the Sutherland Homes Trust and in July bequeathed it a substantial share of her estate. By September the trust had completed plans to remove the receiving home there while retaining the city centre as headquarters and for emergencies. But Miss Sutherland died suddenly of pneumonia in Melbourne on 8 October 1909, the day which was to take the children to Diamond Creek. Her tombstone in the Melbourne general cemetery, erected by public subscription, paid tribute to her twenty-eight years as 'an unwearying friend' of Melbourne's poor. While her brusqueness and impatience with ineptitude, her zeal and disinterested honesty in exposing social evils often ruffled the feelings of others, she gained and kept the strong loyalties of those with whom she worked closely. Her work must rank with that of Catherine Helen Spence and Caroline Chisholm and, Christian rather than sectarian, is perpetuated in the continuing services of the societies she established.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Thomson, Rescue of Neglected and Destitute Children. A Defence of Miss Sutherland and the Rev. A. Stewart (Melb, 1894)
  • J. C. Jessop, Selina Sutherland. Her Life and Work (Melb, 1958)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1892-93, 4 (60)
  • Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Proceedings of the Second Australian Conference on Charity (1891), and of the General Assembly and the Commission of the General Assembly (1893-94)
  • Scots Church District Assn and Neglected Children's Aid Society, records, 1881-93 (Scots Church, Melbourne)
  • records, 1885-1909 (Melbourne District Nursing Society)
  • Presbyteries of Melbourne, Minutes 1886 and Melbourne North, Minutes 1893-94 and Presbyterian Society for Destitute and Neglected Children, records 1893-95 (Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Melbourne)
  • Kirk Session minutes, 1893-94 (Scots Church, Melbourne)
  • Victorian Neglected Children's Aid Society records, 1894-1909 (Victorian Children's Aid Society, Melbourne)
  • Sutherland Homes for Orphans, Neglected and Destitute Children records, 1908-09 (Sutherland Homes for Children, Melbourne)
  • City Council and Hospital Committee minutes, 1880-81 (Wellington City Council)
  • Chief Secretary, 1908/C 7697 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • papers, IMCH 4/63 (Archives New Zealand)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ruth Hoban, 'Sutherland, Selina Murray (1839–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 July 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sutherland, Sulina Murray

26 December, 1839
Culgower, Sutherland, Scotland


8 October, 1909 (aged 69)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Events
Key Organisations