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Robert Dixon (1800–1858)

by Louis R. Cranfield

This article was published:

Robert Dixon (1800-1858), surveyor and explorer, was born at Darlington, Durham, England, the son of John and Elizabeth Dixon. He arrived in Van Diemen's Land in May 1821 in the Westmoreland with his brother George. For two years they were employed by Edward Lord, in charge of his extensive stockyards. In 1823 each brother was granted 100 acres (40 ha) in the valley of the River Clyde and in 1824 each received an additional 200 acres (81 ha).

In July 1826 Robert Dixon sold out to his brother and went to Sydney, where in September he was appointed assistant surveyor in the Surveyor-General's Department under Lieutenant John Oxley. One of his first tasks was to survey the southern districts as far as the Illawarra, which he accomplished with the aid of an open boat. Next year he accompanied Majors (Sir) Thomas Mitchell and Edmund Lockyer in an attempt to explore the Grose valley near Mount Victoria, but they were halted by extremely rough country. In November 1827 Dixon set out alone to explore the Burragorang valley, where he was completely lost for four days and came close to losing his life. In the next two years Dixon made many valuable surveys in the Blue Mountains; in 1829 he made a further attempt on the Grose valley but was again unsuccessful, though he did succeed in obtaining a trigonometrical survey of Mount King George. His surveys in the Blue Mountains made it possible for Mitchell to lay out a new line of road to Bathurst in 1829.

In 1828 Dixon surveyed the original site of the town of Goulburn, then known as Goulburn Plains; the town was moved from the banks of the Wollondilly River to its present site in 1833, and the Dixon plan is now part of North Goulburn. In 1830 he started near Queanbeyan, followed the Molonglo River to its junction with the Murrumbidgee and continued west with his comprehensive survey, but was somewhat severely reprimanded by Mitchell for failing to ascertain Aboriginal place names. In 1831-32 Dixon carried out surveys in the Upper Hunter and New England districts, and in October 1833 was sent to trace the ranges between the Lachlan and the Macquarie Rivers. He did not stick closely to his instructions but followed the unexplored Bogan River for sixty-seven miles (108 km) and later returned to Bathurst without having seen any of the high land that he had been sent to investigate. In 1836 he applied for two years leave to go to England on urgent private business. In London he impudently published a map of the colony compiled from official surveys and documents, and on his return to Sydney in July 1838 was refused reinstatement by Mitchell.

Dixon went to Moreton Bay, where on 24 July 1839 he married Margaret, daughter of John and Ann Sibly of St Neot, Cornwall. In January 1840 he was promoted surveyor in charge of the Moreton Bay district, but was suspended after an altercation with Lieutenant Gorman, commandant of the penal establishment. The charges against Dixon were that he had attempted to incite a mutiny after the arrest of his convict servant and that he had forced a sentry. Dixon denied these charges and made counter-charges of improper conduct against Gorman, who was later relieved of his appointment as magistrate; but Dixon was not reinstated. He had again offended by publishing on his own initiative in 1841 a map of Moreton Bay, which Governor Sir George Gipps regarded as an act of calculated defiance. With the opening of Moreton Bay for free settlement in 1842, Dixon applied for the lease of some government buildings. When this was refused he moved to Toongabbie, and offered to 'carry on Surveying in all its branches, on the most reasonable terms'. However, little work came his way and he sailed for England in 1846. After six years he returned to Sydney, reputedly to manage a gold-mine. He did not prosper. He died at his home in Cumberland Street on 8 April 1858, aged 58, survived by his wife and three of their six children.

Dixon played an outstanding part in extending geographical knowledge in New South Wales, and many of his surveys were performed under trying and hazardous conditions. He ranks high among early surveyors and explorers.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 13-15, 18, 21-22
  • H. Selkirk, 'The Origins of Canberra', Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 9, part 2, 1923, pp 49-78
  • J. Jervis, 'The Discovery and Settlement of Burragorang Valley', Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 20, part 3, 1934, pp 164-96
  • CSO 1/153/3704 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • LSD 4/157 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • letter from H. H. Macarthur to Robert Dixon, 15 Sept 1842 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Louis R. Cranfield, 'Dixon, Robert (1800–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Darlington, Durham, England


8 April, 1858 (aged ~ 58)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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