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Sprent, James (1808–1863)

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

James Sprent (1808-1863), surveyor, was born at Manchester, England, the son of a publisher from Glasgow. After education in local schools he went to Glasgow University (M.A., 1825) and to St John's College, Cambridge. He sailed from Liverpool in the Norval and arrived at Hobart Town in May 1830, bringing 'a large investment in books, engravings and stationery' worth £1260. In Liverpool Street he soon opened 'a public school for young gentlemen', where he taught foreign languages, English grammar, geography, arithmetic, geometry, mensuration, trigonometry and 'all those parts of Natural Philosophy connected with these subjects'. In 1832 he began classes for young ladies and adults after school hours, and lectured on astronomy at the Mechanics' Institute. Early next year he moved his academy to his cottage at Mount Pleasant. Soon afterwards it closed, for his application for a free land grant had been rejected by the Colonial Office in spite of his capital and his claim that when he left England his ultimate intention was to establish himself on the land.

In August 1833 Sprent was appointed a temporary assistant surveyor at a salary of £200. For 'attainments of a high order' he was placed on the trigonometrical survey. Within three years he had triangulated much of the south-eastern half of Van Diemen's Land and established many observation stations for accurately measuring sections in the settled districts. In this arduous performance he and his men had suffered many privations; hidden and almost forgotten in rugged mountains and heavy forests their tents and clothes fell to pieces and they were often obliged to eat 'carnivorous quadrupeds'. Although the work was stimulating and involved no clashes with settlers, Sprent was still on the department's lowest rung and in August 1836 he sought promotion. The surveyor-general, George Frankland, testified to his zeal and skill, but could do little more since work on the trigonometrical survey was about to be suspended. In March 1838 Sprent was made a permanent assistant surveyor at £300 a year. In the department's retrenchment next year, when other government surveyors were reduced to casual contracts at fixed rates, he and James Calder were the only assistants retained on the permanent staff. For 'their great personal activity and large share of scientific skill' they were each given a salary of £450 from which they had to pay their labourers and all other expenses. With the onset of depression land sales fell off and Sprent's work became varied. In 1841 he was ordered to Hobart for special duty for a month and returned to Eastern Marshes to find his camp and equipment burnt to ashes; for this loss he was compensated. Later that year he marked out three roads from the settled districts to prospective harbours on the east coast, and in 1842 he began surveying the sections of the Van Diemen's Land Co. in the north-west of the island. About this time Sprent married Susannah Hassall, fifth daughter of Francis Oakes of Parramatta; in July 1843 he recorded anxiety about leaving 'his family in the power of drunken ruffians' at Circular Head.

In 1847 Sprent joined the Bridgewater Bridge Commission, was appointed a first-class assistant surveyor at £500 a year and given charge of the newly-resumed trigonometrical survey. This time he had eleven men and sometimes used a schooner to move his camp. Again he encountered terrible hardships and rough terrain, especially on the west coast, but the survey was completed in 1853 with the establishment of 206 observation stations at a total cost of some £20,000. Sprent then retired from active field-work, although he later reported on the proposed Launceston-Deloraine railway and submitted a plan for maintaining the flow of the River Clyde in summer.

In September 1855 the select committee on the Survey Department paid tribute to his skill, perseverance and exceptional knowledge of the colony, and recommended him for appointment as head of the department. Next year, through the economies of the first parliament under responsible government, Robert Power was allowed to retain office as surveyor-general and Sprent became his deputy at £350 a year. In June 1857 he was appointed chief surveyor and acting surveyor-general and his salary was increased in half-yearly stages to £600. Although handicapped by lack of funds he divided the colony into districts each with its own surveyor to bring his local map up to date and to prepare land for sale and lease. In this way his own map of Tasmania was completed by 1859 in great detail. Coloured and mounted on rollers it was in such demand that thirty copies had been supplied to courts and government offices by 1860 and only one remained at the Survey Department.

Early in 1859 Sprent's health became impaired. He ceased duty as surveyor-general and commissioner of crown lands on 1 September and was given a pension of £217 11s. 10d. He died of apoplexy at his home in Warwick Street, Hobart, on 22 September 1863, aged 55. Of his seven children, three died in a scarlet fever epidemic in 1853, and the only surviving son, Charles Percy, after education at Hobart High School, followed his father's profession and did much exploration work. From 1882 until his death he was administrative head of the Tasmanian Lands and Surveys Department.

Sprent was resourceful, intelligent and an excellent bushman. According to Edward Boyd he was 'a man of too rigidly correct principles to swerve from the strict line of his duty at the instance of any living man'. Among his wide interests was an observatory which he set up in his home, and he was a close friend of Rev. John Lillie whose first will named him as an executor.

Select Bibliography

  • Select Committee on Survey Dept, Report, Journal (Legislative Council, Tasmania), 1855 (56)
  • GO 33/11/173 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • correspondence file under Sprent (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

'Sprent, James (1808–1863)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sprent-james-2687/text3757, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 September 2014.

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

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