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Charles Whybrow Ligar (1811–1881)

by J. M. Powell

This article was published:

Charles Whybrow Ligar (1811-1881), by unknown photographer, c1859

Charles Whybrow Ligar (1811-1881), by unknown photographer, c1859

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H8065

Charles Whybrow Ligar (1811-1881), surveyor, soldier and grazier, was born in Ceylon, where his father was stationed. Aged 13 years and 7 months he entered the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, on 8 February 1825. After four years he was reputedly commissioned in the Royal Engineers, but resigned to join the British Ordnance Survey which was then producing the famous one-inch topographical maps. He was mapping in Ireland until 1840 and gained experience in cartographic detail, particularly hill-shading techniques, to add to his military training in surveys.

Appointed surveyor-general of New Zealand, Ligar arrived at Wellington on 8 December 1841. His work was overshadowed by the excellence of some of his subordinates and he is mostly remembered as a land titles commissioner in the late 1840s. He was also a lieutenant-colonel in the Auckland Militia. He resigned from the New Zealand civil service in 1856 and went to Otago, hoping to obtain the post of provincial surveyor. However, he failed to dislodge John Turnbull Thomson (1821-1884), the capable incumbent, and made many enemies in the process. In his search for grazing country Ligar discovered gold in the Mataura River. He visited Victoria in 1857 as land commissioner for Otago, but incurred the wrath of his New Zealand neighbours when he tried to persuade Victorian pastoralists to buy large blocks in southern Otago. Despite these setbacks he retained influential connexions and was highly recommended to C. G. Duffy as the most competent officer to reform the Victorian survey system.

In 1858 Ligar became surveyor-general and for a time was impressive with his promises to reduce the cost of survey and open the land quickly for settlement. Within a few months he deliberately withheld large blocks of land from the market until they could be subdivided, claiming that the original scheme would surrender these areas to the squatters, 'a sacrifice of the public domain'. He took issue with A. J. Skene over appraising the quality of land in the colony and strongly protested that much larger areas were suitable for small-scale farming. At the same time he and his family were investing heavily in livestock and with Hugh Glass, R. S. H. Anderson and John O'Shanassy as his partners Ligar leased three million acres (1,214,070 ha) in the Riverina. His plan for a geodetic survey was adopted in September 1858, a great improvement on the former magnetic surveys which were unreliable as legal documents and inadequate as a foundation for planning the expansion of settlement. The new survey adhered strictly to the true meridians and parallels, and despite much criticism provided an accurate framework for speeding local surveys. However, much of this achievement should be credited to R. L. J. Ellery, who managed the new scheme in 1858-74.

Ligar's initial proposal to replace the entire staff of government surveyors by contractors was a major blunder and, since he had been appointed over the head of the experienced C. Hodgkinson, his career in Victoria was doomed to failure from the first. He was always unpopular in the Lands Department and, because his promises to reduce expenditure and speed the surveys were not fulfilled by 1869, prominent politicians were demanding his removal. He resigned in September on a government pension of £500 and retired to Europe where he lived on the Mediterranean coast for some years before taking up a ranch in Texas.

On 12 March 1866 Ligar read a paper, 'Grass Tree', to the Royal Society of Victoria of which he was a councillor in 1859, 1860, 1863 and 1868, and vice-president in 1861 and 1865-67. In 1839 he had married Grace Hanyngton of Tyrone, Ireland. She died in April 1868 and he married Marie Williams of Auckland in 1869. He died in February 1881 in Texas and was buried at Willow Springs, Parker County. His diary from 22 November 1845 to 19 November 1846 is in the Auckland Public Library.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. McLintock, The History of Otago (Dunedin, 1949)
  • J. M. Powell, The Public Lands of Australia Felix (Melb, 1970)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Otago Provincial Council), 1856 (5th S), appendix
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1858-59 (A9, A18), 1859-60, 4 (38)
  • New Zealand Gazette, 29 Dec 1841, 5 Oct 1842, 9 Feb 1846, 8 Feb 1847
  • New Zealand Journal, 28 May 1842, 13 Mar 1847
  • Nelson Examiner, 6 Mar 1847
  • B. de Vries, The Role of the Land Surveyor in the Development of New Zealand, 1840-76 (M.A. thesis, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, 1968)
  • T. S. Hocken, MS notes 37 (Hocken Library, Dunedin, New Zealand)
  • private information

Citation details

J. M. Powell, 'Ligar, Charles Whybrow (1811–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Whybrow Ligar (1811-1881), by unknown photographer, c1859

Charles Whybrow Ligar (1811-1881), by unknown photographer, c1859

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H8065

Life Summary [details]


Sri Lanka


February, 1881 (aged ~ 70)
Texas, United States of America

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