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Hamilton Bartlett Mathews (1873–1959)

by John Atchison

This article was published:

Hamilton Bartlett Mathews (1873-1959), surveyor-general, was born on 23 March 1873 at Deepwater, New England, New South Wales, eldest son of Robert Hamilton Mathews and his wife Mary Sylvester, née Bartlett, and elder brother of Gregory, the ornithologist. As a child he travelled constantly with his father before attending The King's School, Parramatta. In May 1894 he qualified as a licensed surveyor and practised privately. He studied at night at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1899), graduating with first-class honours in mathematics. On 16 June 1900 at Parramatta he married Enid Chatfield Mackenzie (d.1934).

Mathews had been appointed assistant surveyor in the Department of Lands on 31 August 1897 and worked under Charles Scrivener in the Metropolitan Land District until transferred to Maitland in August 1901. After service at Moree (1911-14) and Goulburn (1914-15), he was district surveyor at Forbes (1916-21) and Wagga Wagga (1921-26). Mathews was appointed surveyor-general and metropolitan district surveyor on 16 June 1926, chief mining surveyor in 1927, and an electoral districts commissioner in 1928.

His western experience had brought Mathews into close contact with soldier settlement; the non-viability of many subdivisions caused him substantial anguish, which he attempted to convey as chairman of the Soldiers' Settlements Appraisement Board (1925-28). His initial task as surveyor-general was to implement a policy, bitterly contested, of introducing motor transport in lieu of horse-drawn vehicles for field surveys. He resumed the trigonometrical survey and oversaw completion of triangulation of the ranges from Newcastle to the Queensland border.

Mathews played a key role with the university and Sydney Observatory in establishing a new standard of invar bands for long metre tapes in suspension, required for preparing the harbour bridge site. He strongly influenced the Surveyors Act of 1929 which provided for the registration of surveyors, regulated the making of surveys by amending existing legislation, and supplemented the reciprocal arrangements previously agreed to by the Australian States and New Zealand.

Identifying strongly with the emergence of surveying as a profession, Mathews regularly attended conferences of the staff surveyors where 'this fine old gentleman, formal and erect, in his old alpaca frock coat and stiff collars' relayed vivid impressions of earlier days. He married a widow Rachel Naomi Margaret Kearney (d.1949), née Tasker, at Turramurra on 1 July 1936. He retired next year.

A trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney, from 1926 and president in 1945-58, Mathews developed a lifelong interest in its work. He was a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1926 and of the board of visitors, Sydney Observatory, in 1927-58. He became a member of the Institute of Land Valuers in 1930, served as chairman of the Port Kembla Environs Planning Committee in 1934-40 and was elected an honorary fellow of the Institution of Surveyors, New South Wales, in 1938 and of the Australian Planning Institute in 1954.

Mathews' abiding interests were the Presbyterian Church (session clerk at Wagga Wagga, and at St Stephen's, Macquarie Street, 1947-58) and Freemasonry. He was initiated at Lodge Orient, Maitland, on 26 January 1906, and eventually served as grand master of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of New South Wales in 1930-46 and as first grand principal of the Supreme Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of New South Wales in 1934-40. He wrote the comprehensive article on Freemasonry in the 1958 edition of The Australian Encyclopaedia.

Mathews died at his home at Potts Point on 21 January 1959 and was cremated. His son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Lands (New South Wales), Annual Report, 1926-37
  • New South Wales Valuer, 1, no 2, Apr 1930, p 50
  • Australian Surveyor, 30 June 1916, p 75, Mar 1959, p 324
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 1959
  • Bulletin, 18 Feb 1959
  • private information.

Citation details

John Atchison, 'Mathews, Hamilton Bartlett (1873–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 March, 1873
Deepwater, New South Wales, Australia


21 January, 1959 (aged 85)
Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.