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Calder, James Erskine (1808–1882)

by Jack Thwaites

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

James Erskine Calder (1808-1882), surveyor, was born on 8 June 1808 at Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire, England, ninth of eleven children of Alexander Calder, quartermaster at the Royal Military College. He was educated at village schools and in 1822-26 at the college after it had moved to Sandhurst. He then joined the Ordnance Survey in England, and his interest in this work led his father to seek from the Colonial Office an appointment for him at the Swan River settlement or in some other colony. Calder was offered and accepted appointment as assistant surveyor in Van Diemen's Land on 5 June 1829. A month later he sailed in the Thames for Hobart Town, at half pay on the voyage. On 21 November he took up his position at full pay under the surveyor-general, Edward Dumaresq.

Calder became one of the colony's most distinguished early surveyors. Big of frame, with a strong physique, he was tireless in the bush, drove himself hard and quickly won repute for tackling difficult tasks. In May 1831 while in the Huon Valley he made a ten-day exploratory trip up the river with Alexander McKay whom he regarded highly and took on several later expeditions. Next year between 1 April and 30 September in a severe winter when fifty-eight days of snow and rain were recorded, Calder measured fifty-four town and sub-lots, a total of 48,932 acres (19,802 ha), investigating old boundaries round Sandy Bay and Brown's River. One of the best examples of his exacting work was the track he cut across the mountains in preparation for Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin's proposed expedition to Macquarie Harbour. In his typical manner, as soon as Calder got permission to take the road where he liked, he 'stuck at nothing but went straight ahead like a rhinoceros well knowing that no-one except our old dare-devil Governor would ever travel over it … so I took it up and down hills nearly as high and no less steep than the Dromedary'. Calder left Hobart with seven men in November 1840 and began work at Marlboro' on a bridle track. It went past Lake St Clair towards the south-west coast through country that he thought worthy of extensive draining, 'a favourable scene for the Employment of newly arriving Convicts'. By March 1841 the party was within thirteen miles (21 km) of the Gordon River, in mountainous country 'presenting some insurmountable impediments to progress'. Failing Macquarie Harbour as an outlet, Calder recommended Port Davey as the terminal, reporting that although his own knowledge of the area did not extend beyond the Arthur Range, McKay had vouched for the way being open. When Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin made their overland journey in 1842 it is improbable that they would have reached the Gordon River without Calder's assistance. The journey should have taken eight days but took twenty-one; persistent bad weather flooded rivers and turned plains into swamps, while food shortages added to Calder's troubles. In back-tracking to depots for supplies he once travelled 48 miles (77 km) in 54 hours bringing a return load of 80 pounds (36 kg), at the same time cutting a section of new track and securing bridges.

By a special licence issued on 8 January 1838 Calder had married Elizabeth Margaret, daughter of Richard Pybus of Bruny Island. After his marriage Calder's field-work continued, but his duties became 'much more of a special than of an ordinary nature', as he was given tasks that required much discrimination. In 1834 he had carried out a survey of Maria Island and submitted a comprehensive report on it. Now his reports became more numerous and varied. By 1851 he had submitted some 130 official reports, many of them leading to new legislation. However, the long years of arduous work and exposure ruined his constitution; he was attacked by rheumatism, and became largely tied to office work. In 1852 his wife became very ill and he had to take leave for eighteen months on half-pay.

He was appointed surveyor-general on 1 September 1859 in succession to James Sprent. While in office Calder kept the department on a good footing. His careful regulations and his appointment of reliable surveyors accountable for the proper conduct of all surveys in their districts did much to found the present survey system in Tasmania. On 30 June 1870 his position was abolished and the duties taken over by Henry Butler, minister for lands and works. The office was not held again by a professional officer until 1894 when, under Edward Counsel's administration, the prestige temporarily lost since Calder's retirement was restored.

In June 1870 Calder was given a choice of field-work as commissioner of the Fingal goldfields at a salary of £600 or an annual pension of £470 and the office of serjeant-at-arms in parliament at a salary of £100. He accepted the latter position but reserved the right to press for a pension equal to his net salary as surveyor-general. His claim, 'which I humbly think will not be denied to me', was based on his meritorious conduct and on the Imperial Pensions Act; he also argued that since he was the only officer in the service appointed by the British government entitled to claim the advantages of the Act no inconvenient precedent would be established. His pension ceased when he died in Hobart on 20 February 1882. His wife died on 10 March 1891, survived by two sons and three daughters.

Calder had been a prolific writer. He published several official reports in Hobart and such works as Oyster Culture (1868), Tasmanian Industries (1869) and, in London, The Woodlands, etc. of Tasmania (1874). From 1870 until his death Calder contributed many valuable items to the press on the early history of the colony. Among them were topographical sketches of areas in which his work had taken him, and chatty notes on such prominent personalities as Thomas Gregson, John Wedge, Anthony Fenn Kemp, John Foster and on Governor (Sir) George Arthur, of whom he was no admirer. He also maintained a great interest in the Tasmanian Aboriginals and pleaded for the use of their place names; his Some Account of the Wars, Extirpation, Habits, &c., of the Native Tribes of Tasmania (Hobart, 1875) was a collection of material that had appeared in the Mercury, Australasian, and Tasmanian Tribune in 1872-75. His Language and Dialects Spoken by the Aborigines of Tasmania was published as a parliamentary paper in 1901.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. Calder, Correspondence on the Late Changes in the Survey Department (Hob, 1857)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 21 Feb 1882
  • Parliamentary Papers (Tasmania), 1870 (94): S. Franks, Land Exploration in Tasmania, 1824-1842 (M.A. thesis, University of Tasmania, 1959)
  • Calder papers (State Library of New South Wales and State Library of Victoria)
  • CO 323/133.

Citation details

Jack Thwaites, 'Calder, James Erskine (1808–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/calder-james-erskine-1865/text2173, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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