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Meehan, James (1774–1826)

by T. M. Perry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

James Meehan (1774-1826), surveyor, explorer and settler, was born in Ireland and sentenced to transportation for a part in the Irish rebellion of 1798; Commissioner John Thomas Bigge later remarked that his offence was not serious. He arrived in Sydney in the Friendship on 16 February 1800 and in April was assigned as a servant to Charles Grimes, the acting surveyor-general. In 1801 he accompanied Grimes and Francis Barrallier on an exploration of the Hunter River and in 1802-03 went with Grimes and Fleming to King Island and Port Phillip.

While Grimes was on leave in 1803-06 George Evans was appointed acting surveyor general but most of the departmental duties were performed by Meehan, now conditionally pardoned; Grimes considered Meehan capable of carrying out the duties and commended his faithfulness and impartiality on his return. During this time Meehan measured farms to grantees and explored part of the Derwent (1803-04) and Shoalhaven (1805) Rivers. In 1806 he received an absolute pardon and in 1806-07 was again working in Van Diemen's Land.

After Governor William Bligh's deposition in 1808 Colonel George Johnston sent Grimes to England with dispatches and the work of the Surveyor-General's Department again devolved upon Meehan, who was appointed acting surveyor of lands with a salary of £182 10s. Because of his part in overthrowing Bligh Grimes was not permitted to return to New South Wales and Meehan's appointment was confirmed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. After John Oxley assumed the office of surveyor-general in 1812 Macquarie appointed Meehan deputy-surveyor of lands, and in 1814 he became collector of quitrents and superintendent of roads, bridges and streets as well.

Since a great part of Oxley's time was taken up with exploration, much of the routine work of his department, particularly the measuring of grants, was undertaken by Meehan who told Bigge, 'I have measured every farm that has been measured' since August 1803. Macquarie held a high opinion of Meehan's knowledge of the country and included him in the parties which accompanied him on most of his tours of inspection in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. In 1812-13 Meehan was in Van Diemen's Land resurveying land and correcting previous mistakes there and in 1818 Macquarie sent him with Charles Throsby to seek a route from the Sutton Forest district to Jervis Bay. After parting from Throsby, who went downstream, Meehan followed the Shoalhaven gorge upstream; he failed to find a crossing place, but discovered Lake Bathurst and the Goulburn plains. Apart from fixing the boundaries of land grants Meehan made several contributions to the mapping of the colony, most notably a map of Sydney drawn in 1807, and he surveyed the townships of Richmond, Castlereagh, Windsor, Pitt Town, Wilberforce, Liverpool and Bathurst in New South Wales, as well as Hobart Town in Van Diemen's Land.

In 1803 Meehan was granted 100 acres (40 ha) in the Field of Mars (near Ryde). This he sold five years later when Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Foveaux granted him 130 acres (53 ha) at Bankstown for 'His services and attention to his duty as Acting Surveyor in the Colony'; later he was granted 1140 acres (461 ha) at Ingleburn. These grants, like others made by the insurrectionary governors, were cancelled and reissued by Macquarie. Meehan named his Ingleburn farm Macquarie Field and there built a house which the governor referred to as Meehan's Castle.

In 1821 as a result of the 'Hardships, privations and Difficulties' endured during his early years in the colony and of his declining health he tendered his resignation and sought a pension. Acceptance of his resignation was delayed while he completed writing descriptions of the farms that had been measured, and collected the quitrents that were due, none of which had been collected since 1815 because Meehan had been wholly occupied with other tasks. His request for a pension was sent to England with glowing testimonies to his character and service from both Macquarie and Oxley, and in 1823 Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane was authorized to grant him a pension not exceeding £100 when accounts were tendered for the outstanding quitrents, which he had by this time supplied. He retired to Macquarie Field where he died on 21 April 1826. His property passed to his son Thomas (b.1809).

Meehan was one of that small group of emancipists who played an important part in the affairs of the colony during Macquarie's governorship and whose energy and ability justified Macquarie's belief that good conduct and reformation should enable a man to regain the place in society which he had lost when sentenced to transportation. He was one of those whom Macquarie invited to Government House, and in his Letter to … Viscount Sidmouth (London, 1821) Macquarie paid him this tribute: 'I have … had an opportunity of witnessing his indefatigable assiduity in the fulfilment of his arduous duties. I believe that no man has suffered so much privation and fatigue in the service of this Colony as Mr Meehan has done … His integrity has never, to my knowledge, been impeached; and I certainly consider him to be, both on account of his professional skill, and the faithfull and laborious discharge of his duty, a valuable man'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7-12, series 3, vols 1-2
  • L. Macquarie, Journals of His Tours in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, 1810-1822 (Syd, 1956)
  • B. T. Dowd, ‘James Meehan’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 28, part 2, 1942, pp 108-18
  • manuscript catalogue under James Meehan (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

T. M. Perry, 'Meehan, James (1774–1826)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/meehan-james-2443/text3257, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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