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George Frankland (1800–1838)

by P. R. Eldershaw

This article was published:

George Frankland (1800-1838), surveyor, was a son of Roger Frankland, canon of Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England, and of Catherine, daughter of the earl of Colville, and a grandson of Admiral Sir Thomas Frankland, fifth baronet, whose title descended to George's brother. He became an ensign in the army in 1819, served on the earl of Colville's staff in India as aide-de-camp and in the 24th Regiment, and in July 1822 married Anne Mason, a friend of Lady Colville's. Next year he was appointed surveyor-general at Poona, where he became acquainted with Edward Dumaresq. Ill health soon led Frankland to take his wife and daughter to the Cape of Good Hope on twelve months leave, at the end of which he resigned and returned to England. Family influence with R. W. Hay at the Colonial Office led to his appointment as first assistant surveyor of Van Diemen's Land in 1826 and he arrived in the colony in July 1827. Next March he succeeded to the charge of the department.

Frankland's 'acquaintance with the superior branches of his profession' led Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur to direct that he should begin the general trigonometrical survey of the island; later his frequent absences from his office in the field were to try Arthur's patience, but the surveyor-general believed that exploration and discovery were major functions of his position. He insisted on his surveyors keeping careful journals of their observations and he conceived it his duty 'to observe and record every remarkable fact connected with the Natural history of the island whose surface and native production have, in a manner, been placed so peculiarly in his custody'. In 1828 Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling offered Frankland appointment as deputy surveyor general in New South Wales, which he said, offered a wider range of employment than Van Diemen's Land, but Frankland declined.

In 1831 Frankland was seeking a lead mine, convinced of its existence by specimens which had been shown to him by Aboriginals; and it was he who, in 1829, suggested the notable 'comic strip' proclamation to the Aboriginals. Expeditions in which he personally took part explored the wild country westwards of the upper Derwent (1828), the upper Huon (1829) and the central highlands around Lake St Clair (1835). The most significant outcome of these efforts was the unravelling of the Derwent, Gordon, Huon and Nive river systems.

Lamenting the lack of credit given in the colony for work 'in the cause of science or general knowledge', Frankland wrote that he would have more time for exploration 'were it not for the circumstance of Colonel Arthur being so very averse to any of the officers of the Survey Department leaving the plodding work of marking the Settlers farms even for a day'. It is true that office responsibilities during Frankland's term were greater than those of his predecessors; yet geographical knowledge was extended more by Frankland's exertions and those of his men than in any other decade.

Much of his term of office was troubled by criticism; in November 1833 the Colonial Office questioned the slow progress of surveys. Why had no reports or charts come from the commissioners of survey and valuation, of whom Frankland was the chief? Frankland justified himself at length, both to Downing Street and to a local board of inquiry. He pointed to the gross inaccuracies of earlier surveys; scarcely a grant existed whose described boundaries could be marked on the ground without incompatibility with itself or neighbouring grants. The Caveat Board, of which the surveyor-general was a member, had been set up to issue new confirmatory grant deeds, and to decide the inevitable disputes; and responsibility for the resurvey of all lands adjudicated upon 'heaped upon this Department a load of additional labour which belonged to periods long gone by … in addition to the current demands of the times'. His explanations were accepted.

A difference with Arthur in 1835 reveals in Frankland a sensitivity and a pride amounting almost to arrogance. Frankland had employed a convict to draft estate diagrams to be supplied privately to settlers. Arthur objected to the practice because he thought official resources were being used for private gain and suspected that it could be a cause of the delay in the description of boundaries. Frankland bristled at the 'direct impeachment' of his honour and the 'foul calumny', and listed the privileges he claimed as surveyor-general; they included the publication, at his own expense, of maps based on official surveys made under his orders. This Arthur denied, and refused to retract his reproof; Frankland continued to demand satisfaction: 'I cannot … allow the matter to rest without degrading the Family of which I am a Member—the Commission I hold in the Army and the Office with which the King has honoured me in this Colony'. As for private gain, he wrote, 'I would no more dream of selling my manuscript drawings, than I should think of hawking about fish for sale in a tray on my head—Nevertheless I consider I have a perfect right to do so if I see fit'. The quarrel was finally patched up by Alfred Stephen though neither party capitulated.

Frankland never seems to have thought of himself as a colonist, and soon after his appointment referred to it only as one 'likely to detain me many years in this Colony'. He took a maximum land grant, but at the end of 1835 sought two years leave to visit Europe. It was postponed until 1838, when he appeared intent on leaving for good: in January he was advertising for sale his beloved house, Secheron, designed by himself on Battery Point. It did not sell and in September he tendered it to the government for five years.

Frankland may also have felt that he had done his duty to the colony by the completion of his map; although based on incomplete triangulation, it delineated the new counties and parishes and showed the position of each settler's grant. Certainly he was tired of official reproofs, and revealed his ruffled pride in a long memorandum of 1838 enumerating his multitudinous duties, only one of which was the preparation of accurate maps; he doubted whether any English maps were as perfect as some of his county charts and quoted Under-Secretary Hay's compliment: 'Your Map is by far the most valuable contribution that has been received at the Colonial Office from any of the Colonies during my time'.

On 30 December 1838 Frankland died from an unspecified illness aggravated by the prevailing influenza. His wife, two daughters, Sophia Catherine and Georgina Anne, and one son, Augustus Charles, sailed for England next February. Augustus was killed in Persia in 1857.

His drawings, his forceful and intelligent language, his map and his house all show Frankland to have been a man of genuine accomplishment, professionally and in the arts and sciences. James Calder and John Wedge criticized his ability as a surveyor, Arthur said he was 'a little unbending in his manner', Lady Jane Franklin thought he was 'more accomplished than efficient' and the Colonial Times at his death referred to his unpopularity as a government officer; but his map remained the best for twenty years, and no one doubted his integrity. He was popular with his officers, whom he defended warmly against criticism and with whom his correspondence was of an unusually friendly kind. They erected a monument to him and even George Boyes lamented his loss.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Stancombe, ‘The Early Surveyors of Tasmania’, Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 9, no 1, Feb 1961, pp 8-15
  • correspondence file under Frankland (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. R. Eldershaw, 'Frankland, George (1800–1838)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 13 April 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]




30 December, 1838 (aged ~ 38)

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