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Robert Hoddle (1794–1881)

by Marjorie J. Tipping

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Robert Hoddle (1794-1881), by unknown artist, c1830

Robert Hoddle (1794-1881), by unknown artist, c1830

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H4332

Robert Hoddle (1794-1881), surveyor, was born on 20 April 1794 in Westminster, London, a son of a clerk of the Bank of England. In 1812 he became a cadet-surveyor in the army and for nearly ten years in the Ordnance Department took part in the trigonometrical survey of Great Britain. He then left for Cape Colony, where he worked as assistant engineer on military surveys. He sailed in the William Penn in April 1823, and arrived in New South Wales in July. Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane appointed him assistant surveyor under the surveyor-general, John Oxley, on whose instructions he surveyed the newly-discovered Bell's line of road over the Blue Mountains. In 1824 he accompanied Oxley on an expedition to Moreton Bay where he assisted with the initial survey and the establishment of the site of Brisbane. He spent the next twelve years surveying several country districts of New South Wales, including the sites of Berrima and Goulburn. Governor Sir Ralph Darling called him 'one of the most competent men in the department', but Oxley's successor, (Sir) Thomas Mitchell, unjustly criticized the governor for recommending Hoddle as deputy surveyor general, a man who 'can scarcely spell … this man can only be employed as he has always been, at the chain'.

Hoddle arrived at Port Phillip with Governor Sir Richard Bourke in March 1837, and was appointed senior surveyor over Robert Russell and his assistants, D'Arcy and Darke. Whether Hoddle planned Melbourne or used Russell's ideas has been a subject of controversy. Russell himself claimed to have laid out the township before Hoddle's arrival, and Hoddle severely criticized Russell for neglect of duty. In a detailed study H. S. McComb concludes that Hoddle designed both Melbourne and Williamstown and gave the first sketch of them in his field book, but that Darke assisted him with the lay-out, while Hoddle drew the first plan of Melbourne on Russell's feature plan of the settlement. Hoddle conferred with the governor on the limits of Melbourne and the direction of streets, and they set aside areas for reserves and public buildings. They disagreed on the width of streets, Hoddle insisting that the major streets should be at least 99 feet (30 m) wide. The governor agreed to this, but was adamant that the 'little' streets should be only 33 feet (10 m) wide. William Lonsdale appointed Hoddle auctioneer at the first sale of crown land on 1 June 1837, at which he sold half-acre (0.2 ha) allotments averaging just over £35 an acre. His commission was £57 12s. 7d., and he bought two allotments for himself costing £54.

By 1838 Hoddle had surveyed and planned Geelong, and later he surveyed many country areas of Victoria. Next year he clashed with Governor Sir George Gipps and, threatened with ill health, planned to retire, but he recovered and was reinstated some months later. In 1842 he became alderman for Bourke ward in the first City Council of Melbourne. With remarkable foresight he provided for wide boulevards from the city to the suburbs, but the subdivisions of early speculators in inner suburbs created the bottle-necks of today. After the separation of the colony in 1851 he became Victoria's first surveyor-general. To a select committee on roads and bridges he advocated the provision of three-chain (60 m) roads and the widening of all existing main roads from one (20 m) to three chains (60 m). His outspoken criticism of the manner in which streets and highways had been allowed to develop was not well received, and in 1853 Governor Charles La Trobe queried his suitability for a job in which 'younger and firmer hands, more fitted to perform … the various duties of the office' might be preferred; 'the office had outgrown him … functions beyond his physical power, and trying to his age and temper'. In effect he was eased out to make room for Andrew Clarke. However, La Trobe did recommend that he should be granted an annuity of £1000, and this he received for his remaining years.

In Surrey in November 1818 Hoddle married Mary Staton, by whom he had one daughter. After Mary's death in 1862 he married, in July 1863, Fanny Agnes, the 18-year-old daughter of Captain Benjamin Baxter; they had three daughters and one son. After Hoddle's death on 24 October 1881, his widow married Richard Buckhurst Buxton.

The Hoddle family lived in a fine house that he built in 1842 on the corner of Bourke and Spencer Streets. Here he spent his long years of retirement, tending the trees and garden he loved and enjoying the books and pictures he had collected. He played the organ and flute, and made translations from the Spanish. He was actively interested in the Old Colonists' Association of Victoria, and sometimes attended the Anglican Cathedral. His energy and resourcefulness, technical accuracy and imagination had been invaluable attributes in the pioneer conditions which he had to face, and the difficulties of his personal relationships perhaps arose because he was more able and far-sighted than his colleagues. Losses as a shareholder in the Bank of Australia when it failed, and litigation brought against him by two grandsons, made him very cautious, but commissions from his land auctions, acquisition of valuable land, and his handsome pension enabled him to leave about £500,000 when he died.

Hoddle's portrait in oils by an unknown artist, in the State Library of Victoria, is in poor condition, but a portrait by his daughter Agnes (later Mrs Grant McDonald), also held in the State Library of Victoria, is better preserved.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 12-17, 21, 24
  • Select Committee on Roads and Bridges, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Council, Victoria), 1852-53
  • A. W. Greig, ‘The Official Foundation of Melbourne’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 7, no 1, Jan 1919, pp 35-48
  • T. O'Callaghan, ‘Scraps of Early Port Phillip History’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 11, no 4, June 1927, pp 198-23
  • A. W. Greig, ‘Who Selected the Site of Melbourne? (A Reply to Mr. Callaghan)’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 11, no 4, June 1927, pp 232-36
  • I. Selby, ‘Robert Hoddle and the Planning of Melbourne’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 13, no 2, Dec 1928, pp 53-64
  • H. S. McComb, ‘Surveyor Hoddle's Field Books of Melbourne’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 16, no 3, May 1937, pp 77-101 and vol 17, no 1, May 1938, pp 20-40
  • H. Selkirk, ‘Robert Hoddle: Was He with Oxley at Moreton Bay in 1824?’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 11, part 1, 1925, pp 52-56
  • J. Jervis, ‘Robert Hoddle … Early Work in NSW’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 23, 1937
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 June 1897
  • Hoddle's plan and field books (Public Record Office Victoria and State Records New South Wales and Victorian Lands & Survey Dept)
  • Pritchard family collection (State Library of Victoria)
  • maps and sketches (State Library of New South Wales)
  • letters and other documents (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia)
  • I. Selby, Robert Hoddle's Survey: A Photographic Atlas, 1928 (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Hoddle, Robert (1794–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 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

Robert Hoddle (1794-1881), by unknown artist, c1830

Robert Hoddle (1794-1881), by unknown artist, c1830

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H4332

Life Summary [details]


20 April, 1794
London, Middlesex, England


24 October, 1881 (aged 87)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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