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How Sutherland Shire got its name
- an incredible tale, with five coincidences!

This is a strange story, strange but true - almost eerily so.

Let's accept that the story (not the naming of the Shire) begins with that death of Endeavour sailor Forby Sutherland in Botany Bay in 1770. Cook respectfully named the southern headland of the Bay "Sutherland Point" after him, and sailed on.

It was to be the first of a string of coincidences, each of which would hint at a kind of inevitability that nothing but the name "Sutherland" should be associated with this part of the world.

The second coincidence lay in the arrival in Sydney in 1827 of Thomas Mitchell (1792-1855). He had fought under the Duke of Wellington against Napoleon, reached the rank of Lieutenant, and shown distinction as a surveyor and draughtsman. Offered the job of Deputy to NSW Surveyor-General John Oxley, Mitchell was less than a year in Sydney when Oxley died and he took over. It was a time when the Surveyor-General had the power to confer many of the New South Wales' place-names we take for granted today. One name relished by Mitchell, a Scot, was "Southerland" drawn from his reading of Scottish history.

He thought it appropriate for an area south of Sydney, so he recommended its use to Governor Sir Richard Bourke who, on 27 May 1835, proclaimed the "Parish of Southerland" as the area between Georges River and Port Hacking River, with the Kurnell-Cronulla coastline for its eastern boundary and the Woronora River for its western --that is, most of what is today Sutherland Shire!

But "Southerland"? Well, that's the name that appeared on maps up to the 1880s. Whatever happened to "Southerland"?

The third coincidence happened. It took the form of a simple, careless error of bureaucracy (beginning a long tradition in these parts?). The document which carried Bourke's proclamation of the Parish of Sutherland into law, the Letters Patent, omitted the "o", so that the legal spelling from that moment became "Sutherland", no matter what any map might say otherwise. It was this misspelling of the intended name that opened the way for all the later guesswork that the Parish was named after Forby Sutherland.

A fourth coincidence arose when the busy railway-building of the 1880s pushed a line south from Hurstville across the Georges River. The name given to one of the new stations was Sutherland. Not, however, after either Forby Sutherland or the Parish of Sutherland. Instead an MP John Sutherland was thus honoured. He had championed the extension of the line in the NSW Parliament.

A fifth coincidence came when Council Chambers were to be built in 1906 for the newly proclaimed Shire of Sutherland. Sited where? The strongest claimant was Miranda. It was central, relatively populous and its residents had been more vocal than others in campaigning for establishment of a Shire. But a transport imperative prevailed. The Council Chambers were to be built in the small township around Sutherland railway station.

So many coincidences, so many Sutherlands!

It all adds up to a "Sutherland" phenomenon. Certainly it's a special story. And why not? For this is an extraordinarily special part of Australia. Special, undoubtedly, to the Aborigines who lived here for thousands of years. Special, historically, in that both Cook and Phillip came here first and each first hoisted a British flag here. And special geographically, being defined on almost all sides by lovely waterways.

Cook's tragic sailor didn't directly provide his name to Sutherland Shire; nor did the railway enthusiast John Sutherland MP. But both deserve immemorial places in our Shire folk lore.

How dull to think that our Shire's name is but a consequence of careless spelling! I prefer to sense a cosmic will at work behind the five incredible coincidences: Forby Sutherland's death in 1770, Mitchell's choice of Southerland in 1835, the spelling error that legalised Sutherland later in 1835, John Sutherland's name for the station opened in 1885, and the siting of the Council Chambers in Sutherland township in 1906.

Look at the sheer improbability this way.

Why, when the Endeavour was at sea for all of three years with 94 aboard, would a Scottish sailor called Sutherland happen to die during the single week the little ship was in Botany Bay - and be buried on the Kurnell Peninsula?

Why, when a Scottish Surveyor-General wanted to confer "Southerland" on the area between Georges River and Port Hacking, would an unknown clerk instead record the name "Sutherland"?

Why, when a new railway station across the Georges was to open in 1885, would it take the name of a Scottish carpenter-MP Sutherland, the only Sutherland ever in a NSW Ministry - and who died before the 1880s ended anyway?

Why, when Council Chambers might have been sited anywhere in the new Shire, would the choice fall on a site adjacent to Sutherland railway station in what would be become the suburb of Sutherland?

If you are reluctant to believe that the Hand of Providence guided the bureaucratic hand that perpetuated that fateful misspelling, you are left with Alice in Wonderland mumbling nothing more profound than, "Curiouser and curiouser".

Further reading. I had the benefit of several talks with Shire historian, the late Ms M.Hutton Neve, whose original research focused attention on the Southerland-Sutherland story. Her Bygone Days of Sutherland Shire (1970) is a great contribution. The Central Library, Sutherland, has other historical writings on the Shire. And a splendid read, mainly social history, is Laurel Dumbrell's Bicentenary anthology, Ink from the Bottlebrush (1987). - Bob Walshe