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Archibald McDowall (1841–1918)

by Paul D. Wilson

This article was published:

Archibald McDowall (1841-1918), surveyor and public servant, was born on 2 December 1841 at Moonee Ponds, near Melbourne, son of Archibald McDowall of Logan, Bothwell, Van Diemen's Land, and his wife Charlotte, née Gill. Educated privately in Hobart Town and at Campbell Town Grammar School, he studied surveying under J. E. Calder and moved to Queensland in 1861. He joined the Surveyor-General's Department on 13 May 1862. Appointed commissioner of crown lands, West Maranoa, in addition to his surveying duties, he carried out the first town-survey of Roma in 1862. On 7 December 1863 he became commissioner for the Maranoa, then for the Warrego in 1867-68. After a brief term as commissioner for the Kennedy district, he worked for seven years at Toowoomba, being variously Darling Downs commissioner for crown lands, land commissioner, first-class surveyor and district surveyor. He was at Maryborough as district surveyor in 1875-85. Returning to Toowoomba, he served as district surveyor until appointed surveyor-general on 23 February 1891, remaining in that office till retirement on 30 June 1902. He served on the 1900 royal commission into railway extensions in Queensland.

McDowall was a conscientious public servant and a thoroughly professional surveyor. In 1877 he introduced to Queensland the standard steel tape for ground measurement, in place of the chain. In 1883 he supervised the vital field-work involving the establishment of the Jondaryan base line, the foundation of the triangulation survey of south Queensland. Once appointed surveyor-general, he took every opportunity to modernize survey practice, eliminating the use of magnetic compass and chain in favour of the theodolite, steel tape and careful astronomical observation. Advocating survey before land selection and careful planning of access roads, his evidence to the 1897 royal commission on land settlement had a constructive effect on consequent legislation. In 1892 he supported the initial intercolonial surveying conference in Melbourne, stressing the need for reciprocity of training and qualifications. Chairman of the Queensland surveyors' board of examiners from 1892, McDowall became first president of the rejuvenated Queensland Institute of Surveyors in 1899.

His impact as surveyor-general, although impressive, was weakened by the depression of the 1890s which reduced staff numbers and capital expenditure to bare survival level. He inaugurated the use of telegraphic time-signals for accurate longitude observations; supported increased use of photo-lithography in map-production; introduced strict adherence to surveys on the true meridian; rationalized the parish and county boundaries of Queensland; introduced parish maps to promote land settlement; and set up a time-standard system, using carefully controlled clocks, telegraphic time-signals and a time-ball on the Brisbane observatory building.

McDowall commented on the wastefulness of Queenslanders in destroying stands of native timber and pioneered reafforestation experiments on Fraser Island in 1882 with kauri pine. He speculated on 'the hard things the future generation will certainly say of the present inhabitants', accurately forecasting the ecological menace of prickly pear and water hyacinth.

McDowall enjoyed a comparatively untrammelled public career, earning a high reputation for impartiality. He married Annie Coutts with Presbyterian forms on 26 May 1871; they had three sons and one daughter, but Annie died on 18 April 1878 and their daughter the following year. Risking the disapproval of the Anglican and Catholic establishments, he married his sister-in-law, Ada Sarah, on 2 June 1880 at Maryborough. Their son Valentine became a prominent Brisbane radiologist. McDowall died at Middleton, Tasmania, on 13 May 1918.

Select Bibliography

  • Alcazar Press, Queensland, 1900 (Brisb, no date)
  • S. E. Reilly, The Profession of Surveying in Queensland (Brisb, 1970).

Citation details

Paul D. Wilson, 'McDowall, Archibald (1841–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 13 June 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

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