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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Day, Theodore Ernest (1866–1943)

by Marlene Millar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Theodore Ernest Day (1866-1943), by unknown photographer

Theodore Ernest Day (1866-1943), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7475

Theodore Ernest Day (1866-1943), surveyor, was born on 7 May 1866 at Forreston near Gumeracha, South Australia, son of Edward Day, storekeeper, and his wife Mary Anne, née Wilkey. Educated at the Grote Street School, at 16 he joined the South Australian Survey Department as a chainman and spent three years on surveys of the west coast.

In 1887 Day became a field cadet; he passed the departmental examinations leading to appointment as a surveyor in 1893 and after the Act of 1896 received a certificate to practise. He ran the west coast survey for the disputed boundary case and was in charge of the vermin destruction branch and vermin-proof fencing. In 1900-10 he lectured at the School of Mines and Industries. He was seconded to Western Australia for three months in 1905 to report on the construction of rabbit-proof barrier fences, and his suggestions were largely implemented in the Vermin Boards Act, 1908. Day also worked with the surveyor-general William Strawbridge on River Murray reclamation and irrigation works. On 7 May 1890 at Manoora he had married Emilie Moore; they had three daughters and two sons.

In 1911 Day joined the Federal Land Tax Office in Adelaide as chief staff valuer, but next year was appointed chief surveyor of the Northern Territory and member of the Northern Territory Land Board at a salary of £650. On 22 March 1915, following the drought of 1914, he set off from Oodnadatta on a nine-month journey to investigate the pastoral possibilities of the country between the overland telegraph line and the Queensland border, and between 21°S and 26°S. The party averaged 16 miles (26 km) per day and by 12 October Day telegraphed that he had mapped 35,000 sq. miles (90,650 km²) of country but that 'this amount of work in such a short period has … proved a severe strain on self and party none of whom are now in good health'. In April 1916 he made a second survey of country in the same area, but between the telegraph line and the Western Australian border. On both trips he used camels and Aboriginal guides. Although Day was concerned with the effects of over-stocking in low rainfall areas, and the need for compulsory spelling of the land, he was pleased to report his discovery of much valuable land for pastoral development, 'in areas formerly supposed to consist entirely of sandhills and spinifex'. He described both journeys in a lecture, published by the Royal Geographical Society of Australia's South Australian branch (1921-22), of which he was a member.

In 1916 Day became head surveyor at Cobdogla for the South Australian Department of Irrigation and Reclamation. In 1919 he was appointed chief surveyor in the Lands and Survey Department and chairman of the Board of Examiners for Surveyors at £450. Two years later this 'highly popular officer' became surveyor-general of the State and chairman of the Pastoral Board. No doubt remembering the isolated settlers that he had met in the Centre, he was a strong advocate for a direct north-south railway link and in 1925 piloted a parliamentary party over possible routes. In 1926-27 he chaired the royal commission on the pastoral industry that recommended reorganization of the board. The commission's recommendations were implemented in the Pastoral Act, 1929. Next year Day resigned as surveyor-general to become the first full-time chairman of the board: over the next five years large areas of land were thrown open for application and leased. Day was also a member of the Town Planning Council and inspector of pastoral lands for soldier settlers. He had been a foundation member of the Commonwealth Institute of Land Valuers and belonged to the South Australian Institute of Surveyors. He was an excellent photographer whose Central Australian lantern lectures were popular.

In 1935 Day retired. He died of chronic myocarditis on 19 August 1943 at Clare survived by his wife and children and was buried in the local cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £410. Mount Theo and Mount Day in the Northern Territory are named for him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Surveyor, May 1928
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 Mar 1921, 20 Aug 1943
  • Observer (Adelaide), 27 May 1922, 22 Mar 1926
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 11 Dec 1930
  • Northern Argus (Clare), 27 Aug 1934
  • file no 1340 (State Records of South Australia)
  • A3, items NT 15/5846, 16/1649, 16/1836, 17/77 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Marlene Millar, 'Day, Theodore Ernest (1866–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 27 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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