A Thames Riverside Family With Origins in Orkney

For many years I have researched my family name of SUTHERLAND in Gravesend, Kent, where I wrongly assumed they had been in existence since time began. The name surprisingly appears first in Gravesend about 1790 when two young fishermen arrived in the Thames from the Orkney Isles. Their names were :-

WILLIAM SUTHERLAND – born about 1771
ROBERT SUTHERLAND – born about 1779

On one of my visits to Orkney I found in the Orkney Room of the Kirkwall Library a book on Omond’s Diary referring to a business journey from Orkney in 1789. In this was a reference to a journey to Liverpool on Tuesday 9 June 1789. He left Kirkwall and spent two nights waiting to get a passage in a smack from the village of St Margaret’s Hope in Scapa Flow. The entry explains that this was probably one of the lobster smacks that came north from Gravesend twice monthly during the summers to buy up the local catch of lobsters for the London market. Could this be how the two men worked as fishermen and arrived in the Thames?

I have since found that there were two fishing companies operating the service with ‘welled fishing smacks” to and from the Isles. The two companies concerned were :-




but I have been unable to find any information on these two companies even at PRO, Kew, or Companies House. It would be most helpful if anyone has any information.

The two young men were in their mid-teens when they arrived in Gravesend and later they were listed in the 1851 Census as being born in Orkney and their trade shown as fishermen. The name SUTHERLAND is mainly found in the islands of Walls and Flotta with a few in South Ronaldsay.

WILLIAM’s first recorded date of existence in the Gravesend area is his marriage to a MARY HARRISON at Swanscombe on 9th October 1793. WILLIAM JOHN their son was baptised at St George’s Church, Gravesend, on 25 th January 1801.

ROBERT’s first recorded date is his marriage to a SUSANNA HARRISON at St George’s Church, Gravesend on 4th June 1799. MARY and SUSANNA were sisters baptised in Swanscombe.

There then appeared about the same time a young girl from Scotland named FRANCIS SUTHERLAND and in a later Census she is stated as an Aunt to one of ROBERT’S children – could this be a sister of ROBERT or of WILLIAM? Interestingly she does not say that her birthplace is Orkney as the two men did – but Scotland. During one of my visits to Orkney I was told that “No true Orcadian would say they were born in Scotland if they had been born in the Orkneys. Therefore could she have been born on the mainland?

The name of FRANCIS was rarely used in the islands in this period. She never married and died in Gravesend in 1860. Interestingly she is buried in the same grave with WILLIAM and ROBERT in the Gravesend Cemetery. The gravestone unfortunately only records their names but no relationship.

To date I have been unable to establish if these are brothers / sister or cousins because it would appear that WILLIAM was baptised in Flotta and ROBERT in Walls – FRANCIS unknown. I do have a problem with WILLIAM’s parentage as on the certificate for his second marriage in 1838 his father is shown as JOHN – but I can find no record that shows a JOHN having a son baptised in 1771 – but there is a JAMES SUTHERLAND and ANN PEEBLES having a WILLIAM baptised on 12th March 1771 in Flotta and I feel fairly certain that this is my WILLIAM.

I have also been unable to trace a marriage for JAMES SUTHERLAND and ANN PEEBLES, which may give me some clues as to the real identity of JAMES. The name of PEEBLES does appear in the islands, so I am hoping that one day this information will become available.

On one of my visits to the Archives Office in Kirkwall Alison found me an Abstract of the Survey of the Island of Flottay surveyed by David Aitkin 1766. This includes 3 JAMES SUTHERLAND and 1 JOHN SUTHERLAND listed and interestingly JOHN had been crossed out and JAMES inserted and one JAMES crossed out and JOHN inserted – infuriating isn’t it – but that is family history.

I have also listed all the SUTHERLAND’s shown on Flotta and I had indeed made a “Casagram” showing the families living in the various crofts over the years. This I will write about on another occasion.

The family name of SUTHERLAND has been a well established Thames waterside name in Gravesend from then until now and the men of the families have always been associated with the sea – fishermen, watermen, tugmen, Trinity House pilots [one being an uncle of mine who was a past President of the Cape Horners Association] .

The research has led me to many interesting aspects of the river and the Orkney Isles and their history. The reason for writing this article is to try and tie some of the loose ends together and hope that somewhere out there someone might know something about the two fishing companies mentioned or any knowledge of the sea trades between Orkney and the Thames in the period mentioned or just have an interest in the family.

I have been very grateful to various SUTHERLAND’s presently living in Orkney for sight of their family records but I would be more than willing to exchange ideas and information with anyone interested in the SUTHERLAND family.

Submitted by Stanley Sutherland

Contact the author via Flotta Web Guide

Previously published in Sib Folk News, Oct 1998.

12 thoughts on “A Thames Riverside Family With Origins in Orkney


    • Just making inquiries as to if you are the same Mason Durling that produced the book Langanfelda to Longfield in 2010

      • Yes that was me, i have just finished my second book on Swanscombe which will be on Amazon soon.

        regards Mason

  2. My greatgand fartherWilliam Sutherland. was from helmsdale on the coast of Scotland wher he was i understand born in 1855. he maried a Warmer from Gravesend and hadten cildren Helen,Emily,Alice,Kate,George,Bill,Ben,Albert. and Jack. I do have a photo some where of my greatgrand farther with me I am sitting on a three wheel bike on what was Forrest Fair ground Gravesend

  3. I too have found a link between Gravesend and Orkney in my research into my wife’s family tree. There are many similarities to your story. John Sharress was born in Orkney around 1792 and married Amelia Willett a girl born in Greenhithe. They married at St Peter & St Paul’s Church in Swanscombe. They too later moved to Gravesend and lived at various addresses within the parish of St George’s Church where their children were baptised and married.

    They both died within a month of each other 1863 and are buried at St George’s Church. Amelia’s died at Brewhouse Yard 27/2/1863. On her death certificate she is recorded as the “Wife of John Sherrass a Journeyman Sailmaker.” John died in Gravesend workhouse 25/3/1863, Fisherman.

  4. I too am descended from the William Sutherland born 1771 and buried in Gravesend. His son John Lacy and who’s second wife Jemima Lockwood are my gggrandparents. I have been able to track their movements in Gravesend, Swanscomb and my connecting families of Brown’s of Gravesend and Northfleet. My father wrote and published a small family history book on the “Graham’s, Brown’s and Sutherland’s” in in the1980’s. He had found that our William had been married 3 times. The first wife being Mary Harrison, the second Mary Elken but the third I have no record of. John Lacy’s son George William Sutherland married Martha Elizabeth Brown and had only one surviving child, Martha Caroline who married John King Chisholm Graham in 1911 and moved to New Brunswick,Canada. And here we are to this day. I am intrigued as well to prove William’s (1771) parents. Be it James and Ann Peebles or James and Anne ?.

  5. I am descended from Robert Sutherland m Susanna Harrison, their son Charles John Sutherland who is my GGGF emigrated to Australia after his wife died (Eliza nee Maryan). I have found them in the 1851 census but they disappear after that period and have re-appeared in Victoria, Australia. I would be interested to learn more about Robert Sutherland, who appears to have been born in the Orkney’s. Especially if possible a follow on from the information provided by STANLEY SUTHERLAND on how they (William & Robert) arrived in Kent. Have been researching “off and on” but it is somewhat difficult when so far away without any possibility of visiting the UK/Orkney’s’. My GGF is Robert Stuart Sutherland born in Kent. Also in my research, have noted the names “Lacey” and “Dundas” appearing, does anyone know the connection/s with these names? All info gladly received. Thank you from a “Sutherland family member” in Australia.

  6. I’m working on a project that will commemorate all those who lost their lives in the Battle of Passchendaele 100 years ago this summer. I’m looking for relatives of Private John Sutherland, born on October 8th, 1893 to Donald and Christine Sutherland of Windbrake, Flotta. John fought with the 8th Seaforth Highlanders and went missing in the battle of Frezenberg Ridge on August 22nd, 1917. His grave is in Tyne Cott cemetery and we have a picture of him in uniform, probably taken at home on leave. Any clues and contacts would be gratefully received and I can share more about our project that is being developed in conjunction with the Royal British Legion.

  7. James Robert Sutherland was my 4th great-grandfather. I have looked at all the information I can about William, his father, and Mary his mother but I can’t seem to find a record that shows William and Mary’s marriage “WILLIAM’s first recorded date of existence in the Gravesend area is his marriage to a MARY HARRISON at Swanscombe on 9th October 1793. ” Does anyone have the actual documentary evidence of the marriage? Once I have this I will have the definitive link to William. Hope someone can help.

    Kind regards


  8. I wondered if you know of an Alan Sutherland who has now passed away. Was a Thames waterman and tug skipper, lived in Gravesend in a house next to the river.

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