This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966
George William Evans (1780-1852), surveyor and explorer, was born on 5 January 1780, the third child and eldest son of William Evans, secretary to the earl of Warwick, of the parish of St James, Westminster, England, and his wife Ann, née Southam. He served a short apprenticeship with an engineer and architect and gained some elementary training in surveying. In 1798 he married Jennett, daughter of Captain Thomas Melville, commander of the Britannia in the Third Fleet and later of the Speedy, and migrated to the Cape of Good Hope. He was employed in the Naval Store-keeper's Department at Table Bay and remained there until May 1802 when, in compliance with the treaty of Amiens, British forces were withdrawn. Evans was persuaded by Captain William Kent to go to New South Wales, and he arrived at Port Jackson in H.M.S Buffalo on 16 October.
Evans was initially given the position of store-keeper in charge of the receipt and issue of grain at Parramatta, but in August 1803 was appointed acting surveyor-general in the absence of Charles Grimes who was on leave in England. In September 1804 he discovered and explored the Warragamba River, penetrating upstream to the present site of Warragamba Dam. Discharged from the Survey Department by Governor Philip Gidley King in February 1805, he began farming at the Hawkesbury settlement on land granted to him the previous year. This venture failed during the disastrous flood of March 1806, but he remained in occupation until Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson appointed him assistant surveyor at Port Dalrymple in 1809. However, his services were needed in Sydney and he did not leave to take up this office. In March 1812 he surveyed the shores of Jervis Bay whence he led a small party overland on foot to Appin; this journey of two weeks was conducted under most arduous circumstances and resulted in the settlement of the Illawarra district during the drought years that soon followed. His success probably induced Governor Lachlan Macquarie to select him for the task of penetrating the interior of New South Wales. In September 1812 he went to Van Diemen's Land with the acting surveyor-general, James Meehan, to remeasure grants made by former lieutenant-governors; these were in a deplorable state through the inefficiency and misconduct of Deputy-Surveyors George Harris and Peter Mills. While thus engaged he was appointed in November 1812 deputy-surveyor of lands, Van Diemen's Land, but in August 1813 he was recalled to Sydney and instructed to try to find a passage into the interior.
He set out in November and successfully accomplished this task, reaching the Macquarie River some forty-two miles (68 km) beyond Bathurst, and was thus the first European to cross the Great Dividing Range, the more famous expedition led by Gregory Blaxland not having actually crossed the main range. Upon Evans's return after an absence of seven weeks, Macquarie predicted that the achievement would have momentous effects on the future prosperity of the colony, and in recognition rewarded him with £100 and a grant of 1000 acres (405 ha) on the Coal River near Richmond, Van Diemen's Land. Evans and his family sailed for Hobart in May 1814, but Macquarie recalled him in March 1815 to act as guide on a tour of the recently discovered country through which William Cox had constructed a road to Bathurst. In May and June Evans led another expedition from Bathurst southward to within sight of the Abercrombie River, explored the middle reaches of the Belubula River, discovered the Lachlan River eight miles (13 km) downstream from Cowra, and traced its course as far as Mandagery Creek.
In July 1815 he returned to Hobart, remaining until 1817 when he was required to act as second-in-command to Surveyor-General John Oxley in an expedition then setting out from Bathurst to determine the course of the Lachlan River. Though forced to return by flooded marsh country when about nine miles (14 km) below Booligal, Oxley paid tribute to Evans's able advice and co-operation, and the accuracy and fidelity of his earlier narrative. In September 1817 Evans returned to Van Diemen's Land, but six months later he was again recalled to fill the position of second-in-command to Oxley, this time in his attempt to trace the Macquarie River to its termination. Once again flooded marshes proved too great an obstacle, so the party turned eastward to Port Macquarie and thence southward to Port Stephens. After twenty-three weeks the exploration was completed in November 1818.
Evans returned to Hobart and for the first time since his appointment as deputy-surveyor was able to confine his attention to his duties in Van Diemen's Land, where land surveys were in serious arrears through inadequate staff and continual demands for his services on exploration. None the less, he went with the first party to Macquarie Harbour in 1822. William Sorell had a high opinion of Evans, but the administration was lax and the surveyor had great power. Not only were mistakes often made but, in the issue of grants, a certain discretionary power was given to surveyors to 'throw in' additional pieces of land. Sorell also sanctioned the acceptance of 'presents of office' by surveyors to supplement their inadequate pay. This practice understandably brought complaints and accusations of corruption from disgruntled settlers and these were supported by (Sir) George Arthur, who replaced Sorell in May 1824. The new lieutenant-governor sent to the secretary of state a lengthy account of Evans's alleged involvement in bribery and his illegal disposing of crown lands in an attempt to force him from office. When Evans asked to retire on a pension, Arthur, in order to expedite his removal, was prepared to concede that his practices had been condoned by Sorell, but the stigma effectually prevented all further promotion of Evans's assistant, Thomas Scott.
Evans resigned in December 1825 on the ground of ill health, eight months after his wife had died. A dispatch from London in May 1826 appointing him the first surveyor-general of Van Diemen's Land had only recognized his position as the Colonial Office knew it when revising the establishment of the Surveyor-General's Department; soon afterwards Earl Bathurst wrote welcoming his resignation, confirming his pension and agreeing to abandon further investigation of his past conduct. Evans sailed for England with his second wife, Lucy Parris, daughter of Thomas Lempriere, in November; while there, he supplemented his pension of £200 by teaching art, but in November 1828, when he heard of Oxley's death, he applied for appointment as surveyor-general in New South Wales, claiming that his health was fully recovered. He was unsuccessful but in 1831 he surrendered his pension for a lump sum of £600, and returned to Sydney next year. Arriving in August he set up as a bookseller and stationer, and soon became drawing master at The King's School, then housed in Harrisford, George Street, Parramatta, while his wife conducted a finishing school for young ladies. He returned to Hobart in 1844 to live with his family in Warwick Lodge, his home in New Town. After his wife died in August 1849, he moved to Macquarie Street, Hobart, where he died on 16 October 1852, aged 72, and was buried in St John's churchyard, New Town. He had at least twelve children, seven by his first marriage and five by his second.
As well as being a competent surveyor and a resolute explorer, Evans was an artist of some note. His aquatint view of Hobart in 1820 was published as a frontispiece in his Geographical, Historical and Topographical Description of Van Diemen's Land … (London, 1822; second edition, 1824; and a French edition, Paris, 1823). The original, with another aquatint of Hobart in 1829, is in the Dixson Library of New South Wales, where four of his views of Sydney are also hanging. He appears to have drawn a number of sketches and water-colours, both of the settled areas of the colony and of the interior, when he journeyed with Oxley. His artistic skill may also have helped him to win Paterson's favour in 1809 and so to restore him to official life at that time.
Statues of Evans are in Bathurst, Melbourne, Adelaide and the Mitchell Library, Sydney.
A. K. Weatherburn, 'Evans, George William (1780–1852)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/evans-george-william-2029/text2501, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 October 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966