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Tyers, Charles James (1806–1870)

by Nowa Tyers

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

Charles James Tyers (1806-1870), by unknown photographer

Charles James Tyers (1806-1870), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 16867

Charles James Tyers (1806-1870), surveyor and public servant, was born in London, the son of John Tyers, a linen merchant in Piccadilly, and his wife Elizabeth, née Theobold. After education at Christ's Hospital he entered the navy in 1828 as a schoolmaster. He served under Admiral Lord Lyons in the Blonde and Captain James Bremer in the Alligator. He made a study of marine surveying and computed longitudes in the Channel, Mediterranean, West Indies and South Africa, becoming recognized as an expert, and in 1837 he was commissioned to survey the Port Essington area. He left the navy in 1839 to join the colonial service as a surveyor. Later that year he was instructed by Governor Sir George Gipps to fix the 141st meridian east longitude, the declared boundary between Port Phillip and South Australia, to ascertain in which colony the mouth of the Glenelg River was situated. Tyers made a triangulation and a chain traverse to Portland from Melbourne, thus fixing the longitude of Portland at 141° 35' 52", and made chronometer readings from Sydney and lunar observations. Taking a mean from these three calculations he fixed the meridian, but because of differing opinions on the longitude of Sydney, Captain Lort Stokes placed it 57 chains (1147 m) west and Captain Owen Stanley and Sir Thomas Mitchell at positions farther west again. Thus Tyers's position was most favourable to South Australia. Governor Gipps wrote to the Colonial Office: 'I have to explain that I have caused Mr Tyers' report to be printed in order that by being circulated amongst the officers of the departments it might stimulate them to exertion, and serve as a model in future operations of this nature'. However, after long disputes the boundary was not finally settled until 1914 when documents had to be sought from Tyers's descendants.

Tyers was appointed surveyor in charge of the Portland district in 1841. His work included the laying out of the town and a marine survey of the bay. He was in close contact with the Aboriginals and compiled a vocabulary of about a hundred of their words. He maintained that if treated as 'gentlemen' they were responsive and friendly. He was gazetted a commissioner of crown lands at Portland Bay in August 1842 and a year later became the first commissioner of crown lands for Gippsland. At Charles La Trobe's request he left Melbourne in September to open a coastal route to Gippsland and then a route over the ranges. However, the task of penetrating the thick bush was aggravated by floods and bad weather and Tyers eventually took the sea route to Port Albert, where he arrived in January 1844. Later a third attempt succeeded despite the difficulty of carrying tents and equipment through the thick scrub. La Trobe was very pleased to have the way mapped and travelled it himself on horseback, surprising Tyers by his unexpected arrival at Alberton.

Tyers was responsible for inaugurating government in Gippsland and virtually became 'King' of the huge isolated area, where lawlessness had been common and the Aboriginals hostile. He made a map showing holdings and their occupants and sent it to La Trobe in July 1844 with a descriptive and statistical report. He regulated the liquor trade and on his recommendations two police stations and a Court of Petty Sessions were established and two justices of the peace appointed. He improved Port Albert to cope with the growing trade with Hobart Town. He made extensive explorations of Gippsland, always making his land valuations after trigonometrical survey and collection of geological specimens. In 1846 he investigated the suitability of Gabo Island for a light-house. He was appointed a stipendiary magistrate in 1853 and generally had a staff of two or three constables, bullock drivers and rangers. To this position was added that of warden of the Gippsland goldfields in 1861.

He moved from Old Port to Eagle Point, where in 1849 he married Georgina Caroline, daughter of William Scott, a grazier at Swan Reach. Later he moved to Sale and then built a home, Seabank, at Old Port, where he retired in 1867. He died at Melbourne on 20 September 1870.

Tyers was a man of upright character, with the reputation of showing justice rather than mercy, able to undergo great physical hardship yet setting a standard of civilized life in a remote part of the colony. He was a scholar and aesthete as well as a sailor and administrator and did much for the colony in its early days, as did many other naval men possessing similar qualities.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 22, 23, 25, 26
  • T. F. Bride (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers (Melb, 1898)
  • A. W. Greig, ‘The Beginnings of Gippsland’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 2, no 1, May 1912, pp 1-14 and vol 2, no 2, Oct 1912, pp 49-69
  • A. S. Kenyon, ‘The South Australian Boundary and its Surveyors’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 11, no 2, Sept 1926, pp 75-99
  • Port Phillip Patriot, 21 Sept, 28 Dec 1843, 24 June 1844
  • G. Cox, ‘Notes on Gippsland history’, nos 18, 42, 44, 52, 56, Gippsland Standard, 1912-14
  • manuscript catalogue under Charles Tyers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Nowa Tyers, 'Tyers, Charles James (1806–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tyers-charles-james-2749/text3891, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 19 April 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

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