Woman Sutherland, Selina Murray Macdonald

Child Rescuer

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Selina Sutherland was born in Scotland in 1839, the third child of crofter, Baigrie Sutherland and his wife, Jane. She received a basic education in Scotland, and in 1864 migrated to join her sister in New Zealand where she worked as a nurse. In 1881 she relocated to Melbourne where she constructed a career in child welfare, working initially through Scots' Church. Following the passage of the 1887 Neglected Children's Act she became Victoria's first licensed child rescuer.

Modelling herself on child rescuers in Britain and North America, Sutherland carefully cultivated a relationship with the press which allowed her to position herself as a child welfare expert (Argus, 27 July 1900). In 1905 she was ranked ninth in a list of Victoria's ten best citizens, one of only two women to make the list (Advertiser, 10 May 1905). A familiar of Alfred Deakin, Dr William Maloney, and many of the other influential figures in Melbourne's social reform movement, she was able to command the support needed to both maintain and advance her work. She also had the trust of many of those amongst whom she worked, taking more children into her guardianship than the rest of Victoria's child rescuers combined. Described as possessing 'an abundance of human sympathy', she was 'received by the vilest' and 'disarmed their resentment' as she went about her work in Melbourne's poorest districts (Fitzroy City Press, 20 November 1908).

A strong personality, Sutherland had a history of conflict with her supervising committees. She was proud of her 'brisk and businesslike methods of dealing with legal form and matters of red tape', arguing that 'formalities were nonsense when a child was sick or starving' (Argus, 14 November 1901). As one disgruntled committee member commented: 'Miss Sutherland managed herself' (Argus, 29 September 1908). In order to escape such conflict she had established a non-affiliated organisation, the Victorian Neglected Children's Aid Society in 1894. However, in 1908 she fell out of favour with this committee as well, and when they tried to replace her, staged a very public sit-in (Argus, 6 May 1908) before agreeing to compromise, allowing the committee to take over the newer of her two homes while she retained control of the other (Argus, 8 May 1908). Sutherland's dispute with the Victorian Neglected Children's Aid Society led to an official inquiry to investigate claims that she had been intoxicated and dealt with the children in a harsh and grossly negligent way, punching and caning them erratically. When the charges were heard, 72 witnesses came forward to speak on Miss Sutherland's behalf, greatly outnumbering her accusers, and the magistrate concluded that the charges had not been sustained (Argus, 5 November 1908). In the wake of the inquiry, Sutherland, a salaried employee throughout her career, was critical of the society ladies who controlled Melbourne's charities. Charities, she argued, were treated like 'toys ... a lot of the money never reaches the children or the poor ... They wanted to invite ladies up there and show off. When I was there they could not spend 5/- on anything that was not for the good of the children' (Argus, 21 November 1908).

A fortuitous bequest enabled her to found a new home in rural Diamond Creek, but Sutherland died in 1909, on the day she was to take possession of the property. In her obituary she was acclaimed as 'a fine figure in the records of Victorian charity; a hard worker, and a woman whose heart was in her work' (Argus, 9 October 1909). In a monument erected over her grave by public subscription, Sutherland is described as 'The Children's Friend' (Fitzroy City Press, 20 May 1910). The new home at Diamond Creek was also named in her honour.

Published Resources


  • Hilton, Della and Oz Child / Children Australia, Selina's legacy: from VCAS to Oz Child, Oz Child /‚Äč Children Australia, Oakleigh, Victoria, 1993. Details
  • Jessop, J.C, Selina M. Sutherland: her life story and work, Sutherland Homes for Children, Elsternwick, Victoria, 1958. Details

Book Sections

  • Swain, Shurlee, 'Selina Sutherland: Child rescuer', in Lake, Marilyn and Kelly, Farley (eds), Double Time: Women in Victoria - 150 Years, Penguin Books, Richmond, Victoria, 1985, pp. 109 - 116. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources