Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Brooks (1847–1918)

by Harley Wood

This article was published:

Joseph Brooks (1847-1918), surveyor and astronomer, was born on 2 August 1847 at Stockport, Cheshire, England, son of James Brooks, surveyor, and his wife Ann, née Goddard. The family arrived in Adelaide when Brooks was 9, and he was educated there at the Collegiate School of St Peter. He joined the South Australian Department of Survey and Crown Lands in 1864 as a draftsman, and was attached to G. W. Goyder's 1869 expedition of about 150 men to the Northern Territory that led to the establishment of the town of Palmerston (Darwin); although official photographer, Brooks was much involved with drafting and planning for the settlement. In 1875 he was transferred to the field-staff as trigonometrical surveyor.

Brooks moved to Sydney in 1877, joined the Department of Lands as a licensed surveyor in June, and at St Andrew's Cathedral married Amy Florance Beilby Kendall on 20 December. From 1879 he assisted W. J. Conder in the triangulation of New South Wales which had begun from a base measured at Lake George, but he soon became responsible for the field-work. He displayed physical endurance in coping with adverse weather conditions and in carrying instruments to near-inaccessible places on mountain tops; in 1880 his party suffered severely from scurvy 'owing to impossibility of obtaining proper food and vegetables'. At many of the trigonometrical stations Brooks determined astronomically latitude and azimuth, and at some stations found longitude by comparing telegraphically his local time with that at Sydney Observatory. He maintained a high standard of accuracy and the closing error of the triangles was less than that of the great trigonometrical surveys of many other countries. 'He was a born observer with considerable mechanical ability, which enabled him to use his instruments to the best advantage'. He bore the main burden of the extensive surveying work in New South Wales and was aware of its value to Australia; in his report for 1898 he had claimed that 'the trigonometrical survey becomes more important year by year especially to enable the compilation of maps for the various purposes of government'.

After retirement in September 1906, Brooks developed his lifelong interest in astronomy: he joined expeditions to observe total solar eclipses on 3 January 1908 at Flint Island near Tahiti, on 9 May 1910 at Port Davey, Tasmania, and on 28 April 1911 at Vavau, Tonga. On these expeditions he was responsible for establishing by observation the geographical co-ordinates needed to interpret some of the data, and for observation at the time of the eclipse. In 1908 good photographs of the corona were brought back and he assisted with the work on the spectograph, but in 1910 and 1911 they were frustrated by bad weather.

Brooks wrote critical and sometimes derogatory marginal notes in his handbooks and had a somewhat difficult temperament. He could be impatient of shortcomings in others, and his men sometimes thought it necessary to hide their awareness of his foibles — for example, by taking a rest on the way to camp so as to avoid his annoyance when he did not get there first. He was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and of the Royal Geographical Society of London, and a member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and of the Royal Society of New South Wales. In his earlier days Brooks was a noted tenor singer and, in 1882, was a founder of the Sydney Liedertafel; he remained a member for many years. Survived by his wife, a son and two daughters, he died of Bright's disease at his home at Woollahra on 9 May 1918, and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • F. K. McClean, Report of the Solar Eclipse Expedition to Flint Island January 3, 1908 (Lond, nd)
  • F. K. McClean et al, Report of the Solar Eclipse Expedition to Port Davey, Tasmania, May, 1910 (Lond, nd)
  • G. H. Knibbs (ed), Federal Handbook: Prepared in Connection with the Eighty-Fourth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Australia, August, 1914 (Melb, 1914), p 380
  • W. A. Orchard, Music in Australia (Melb, 1952)
  • M. G. Kerr, The Surveyors (Adel, 1971)
  • Observatory (London), 1911
  • Surveyor (Sydney), 27 (1918)
  • Royal Astonomical Society, Monthly Notices, 210 (1924)
  • records held by New South Wales Department of Lands (Sydney), and< South Australia Departmentt of Lands (Adelaide)
  • records (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Harley Wood, 'Brooks, Joseph (1847–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 August, 1847
Stockport, Cheshire, England


9 May, 1918 (aged 70)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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