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Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1792–1855)

by D. W. A. Baker

This article was published:

Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, n.d.

Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 446903

Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1792-1855), surveyor-general, was born on 15 June 1792 at Grangemouth, Scotland, the son of John Mitchell and his wife Janet, née Wilson. Though poor he was sufficiently educated to read widely in several languages and be proficient in several sciences. In 1811 he was gazetted a second lieutenant in the 95th Regiment and in the Peninsular war served at the battles of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and Salamanca. However, he was chiefly engaged with the staff obtaining topographical intelligence and came under the notice of Sir George Murray, the quartermaster-general, who selected him in 1814 to produce plans of the major Peninsular battlefields, a task which continued after the war. Mitchell obtained his majority in 1826 but was placed on half-pay. In June 1818 he had married Mary, the daughter of General Richard Blunt, and being incapable of inactivity, Mitchell in 1827 with Murray's support became assistant surveyor-general of New South Wales with the right to succeed John Oxley.

In 1827, when Mitchell and his family arrived in Sydney, the Survey Department was in an unsatisfactory condition. Surveying instruments were scarce and some surveyors were incompetent; their technical problems were rarely appreciated by the public or the government; moreover successive surveys of small areas were made without attempt to relate them to a general survey, so small errors accumulated till they became serious. Thus title deeds and the collection of quitrents were delayed and doubts and disputes arose about boundaries. Mitchell in 1828 started on the necessary but seemingly impossible task of making a general survey. Tent poles were used to measure a base line, and hill-tops, denuded of all trees save one, as trigonometrical points.

In 1828, on Oxley's death, Mitchell became surveyor-general, and in 1829 became responsible for the survey of roads and bridges. In 1830 he assumed sole responsibility for the Survey Department when the commissioners of survey were abolished in accordance with his wishes as expressed in a private letter to R. W. Hay at the Colonial Office. Mitchell frequently used such private communications direct to the source of power, a fact of great importance, especially in 1828-30 when his old patron, Sir George Murray, was the secretary of state for the colonies. By the end of 1830 Mitchell had made considerable changes in the roads from Sydney to Parramatta and to Liverpool; he had plotted a new road southwards through Berrima as far as Goulburn and had discovered and constructed a new western descent from the Blue Mountains towards Bathurst. These roads were substantially the same as those used today.

This successful road building led to a serious conflict with Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling who feared that Mitchell's improvements might in time have to be superseded. Mitchell resented this implied criticism of his technical competence and, rightly confident that no better route existed, persisted against the governor's orders in building a new road down Mount Victoria. Darling retaliated by attempting to remove the Department of Roads and Bridges from Mitchell's authority. Mitchell officially, and unofficially through Hay, claimed authority, independent of the governor, directly from the Crown. In a dispatch of 28 March 1831 Darling stated bluntly that Mitchell should not be continued in the office of surveyor-general. His fear was that unless Mitchell were punished there would be 'an immediate end to all subordination and to the Government itself'. Meanwhile Murray had retired from the Colonial Office and his successor had determined on Darling's recall, so Mitchell, if not triumphant, at least survived. When Darling left the colony Mitchell at once persuaded the acting governor to send him exploring between the Castlereagh and Gwydir Rivers to test reports of the existence of a large river flowing to the north-west.

The expedition started in November 1831 northwards to Tamworth through known country. From Tamworth Mitchell explored to the Namoi and followed it down as far as Narrabri. He then cut across the plains to the Gwydir near Moree. Several weeks were spent charting the tributaries between the Gwydir and the Barwon without, of course, discovering the large river flowing to the north-west. In February 1832 after Aboriginals had killed two of his party and plundered the stores Mitchell returned to Sydney, not having disproved the existence of the mythical river, but rendering it, despite his hopes, much less likely.

During the 1830s the spread of squatting and the large number of free immigrants needing land greatly accentuated the problems of the Survey Department. On 15 June 1833, alarmed by the backwardness of the survey, Stanley wrote to Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke demanding that Mitchell provide an explanation. None was forthcoming till 5 May 1834 when Bourke transmitted from Mitchell a map of the colony divided into nineteen counties with a description of their boundaries, together with a memorandum emphasizing the necessity of a general survey before local surveys could effectively be made. On 10 October 1834 Bourke sent another more elaborate and very intemperate defence by Mitchell which was accepted by Stanley's successor, Glenelg, as satisfactory but with the pious hope that Mitchell would show no more insubordination.

In March 1835, excited as usual by prospects of glory, Mitchell began his second exploring journey. Its purpose was to trace the River Darling from the point where Charles Sturt had left it in 1828, down to its junction with the Murray. It was assumed, but not certain, that these points were on the same river. The party went by easy stages to Boree station, just west of Orange, which was also the starting place for Mitchell's later expeditions. The route lay north-west to the Bogan which was reached in April. There the botanist Richard Cunningham wandered from the main party and despite a prolonged search was lost. It was later discovered that he had been killed by Aboriginals. Mitchell travelled down the Bogan to its junction with the Darling and then down the Darling till the vicinity of Menindee was reached on 9 July. The Darling Aboriginals had been 'implacably hostile and shamelessly dishonest' and, after an affray in which shots were fired and several Aboriginals killed and wounded, Mitchell decided to return home by the way he had come. The results of this expedition were slight. The course and terrain of a section of the Bogan and about 300 miles (483 km) of the Darling had been charted. Mitchell had little doubt that this river was the same as that which entered the Murray but he had not followed it to this junction.

Mitchell's third expedition was intended to fill this gap. He was instructed to travel to Menindee, then down the Darling to the sea, if it flowed there; or, if it flowed into the Murray to go up the Murray to the inhabited parts of the colony. He was also empowered to follow the most promising stream flowing into the Murray. He set out in March 1836 vividly remembering a day exactly twenty-four years earlier outside the beleaguered towers of Badajoz. From Boree he went west to the Lachlan and followed that river until he reached the vicinity of Hillston on 20 April. Menindee was now about 200 miles (322 km) almost due west. Lack of water in that direction persuaded Mitchell to follow the Lachlan to the south-west as the only practicable route. He reached the Murrumbidgee on 12 May and followed it to the Murray. While travelling along the Murray to its junction with the Darling, Mitchell's party on 24 May encountered a large body of Aborigines who were at once recognized, according to Mitchell, as their old enemies from the Darling. Three days later near Mount Dispersion, fearing that his party might be subject to continual attacks and destroyed in detail, Mitchell set an ambush which was at once discovered. Firing broke out and, according to an Aboriginal with Mitchell's party, seven natives were killed; the remainder fled. At the end of May Mitchell reached the Darling and turned north upstream. He soon decided, while still about 130 miles (209 km) in a direct line from Menindee, to abandon the survey of the deserts around the Darling and to use his resources to explore the more promising country along the Murray. For the second time he failed to complete the full exploration of the Darling.

Retracing his steps Mitchell went up the Murray till 20 June when he reached the junction of the Loddon where the country seemed so promising that he turned south-west into what is now Victoria and was so enchanted by the area he called it Australia Felix. Travelling chiefly west and south he reached the mouth of the Glenelg on 20 August and some days later, to their mutual surprise, he found the Henty brothers already established at Portland. He turned north-east, reached the Murray on 17 October and on 3 November arrived back in Sydney ahead of the main party. The rapid occupation of Australia Felix followed. Already settlers from Van Diemen's Land were crossing Bass Strait and soon others were driving their flocks south-west along the tracks which Mitchell's heavy wagons had cut into the earth on their return to Sydney.

As on all his expeditions, Mitchell systematically surveyed as he travelled. After seven months his error, so he claimed, was only a mile and three-quarters (2.8 km). As a controversialist and thirster after glory, Mitchell was sometimes strangely blind to the truth; but he was a painstaking and competent surveyor, and his claim may be believed. In December 1836 the Executive Council conducted an inquiry into the killing of Aborigines near Mount Dispersion. It regretted that Mitchell had not made sufficient efforts to conciliate the natives, but in view of their numbers and threatening aspect the council could not severely blame 'a want of coolness and presence of mind which it is the lot of few men to possess'.

On 19 May 1837 Mitchell left Sydney on eighteen months leave. He secured permission to publish an account of his explorations which appeared in 1838 entitled Three Expeditions Into the Interior of Eastern Australia … and he began a long correspondence with the Colonial Office to obtain a knighthood. Lingering doubts about Mitchell's behaviour near Mount Dispersion delayed this honour till 1839 when he was also distinguished by Oxford University's award of an honorary doctorate of civil law. In July 1838 Mitchell obtained a further twelve months leave for he was still working on the plans of the Peninsular battles. These were finished at the end of 1840 and, as published by James Wyld, are beautiful examples of Mitchell's skill as a draftsman. In March 1840 Mitchell requested a further six months leave, was granted three and ordered to leave England by 18 June. He nevertheless was arrested, narrowly missed being imprisoned for debt in London on 8 August and did not reach Australia till 1841.

The depression of the early 1840s had disastrous effects on the Survey Department. Its budget in 1842 was £26,000, but in 1844 only £12,000. Some of its members were at once transferred elsewhere. Others became licensed surveyors who received a third of their previous salary, but also the right to private practice; they were to be paid extra, according to a rather low scale of fees, for any government surveying they performed. This reduction in the department left it quite inadequate to undertake the survey of leases under the 1847 Order-in-Council and to meet the demand for land in the 1850s after the discovery of gold. There were too few surveyors and the licensed surveyors, in particular, were difficult to discipline and naturally preferred the higher emoluments obtainable from private practice.

In April 1844 Mitchell was elected to the Legislative Council at a by-election in Port Phillip. He had promised to support the separation of that district from New South Wales. Governor Sir George Gipps keenly felt the anomaly of a government officer sitting in the legislature and being free, and in Mitchell's case likely, to vote against government measures. Gipps ruled that 'the member for Port Phillip may act as he pleases, but the Surveyor General of New South Wales must obey and support the Government'. Mitchell had difficulty in separating his two roles and in August prudently resigned his seat.

In December 1845 Mitchell began his fourth expedition north-west from Boree in search for an overland route to Port Essington. By June 1846 he had established a depot on the Maranoa and for nearly four months explored around the headwaters of the Maranoa, Warrego and Belyando Rivers, still hopeful of finding a great river flowing north-west. On 25 September, near Isisford on the Barcoo, which he called the Victoria, when short of supplies and threatened by Aboriginals, he turned back, but only after his observations and his hopes had deluded him that he had at last found his great river to the northward. He reached Sydney ahead of his party on 29 December. On this tremendous journey he had not found a practicable route to Port Essington. Nor had he found his large northerly flowing river, although his quickly published account of the journey naturally suggested that he had. But he had charted an extensive area of unknown country in a major expedition lasting over twelve months without losing a man or suffering serious incident.

On 27 March 1847 Mitchell left Sydney on another twelve months leave, and early in 1848 made the usual attempts to obtain more, but secured only another month. He nevertheless took more and arrived back in Sydney about July 1848. He had had time to prepare his Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia … (London, 1848). In 1850 Mitchell published The Australian Geography, designed for the use of schools in New South Wales; a second edition appeared in 1851. This work must have been one of the first to place Australia at the centre of the world, but its pedagogic technique now seems greatly antiquated.

From 1848 to 1852 there was much correspondence between Mitchell, the governor and the colonial secretary in which Mitchell attempted to assert his independence of the local administration while Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy sought to ensure his subordination. Mitchell no longer enjoyed such powerful friends in high places. In 1851 FitzRoy recommended Mitchell's dismissal, but Grey ruled in 1852 that Mitchell would be dismissed only if guilty of further insubordination. Following an inaccurate public statement by Stuart Donaldson, Mitchell on 27 September 1851 fought a duel with him, one of the last in Australia. Each fired three shots; it was reported that one went through Donaldson's hat and another within an inch of Mitchell's throat.

In 1850 Mitchell read a paper to the Philosophical Society of New South Wales on the application of the principle of the boomerang to ships' propellers. In 1852 a successful trial of the new propeller on Sydney Harbour enabled Mitchell to obtain another twelve months leave. During the voyage he worked on a verse translation of The Lusiad of Luis de Camoens … (London, 1854). Mitchell requested official support for the development of his boomerang propeller. The Admiralty remained unimpressed, but trials of the invention seemed to vindicate it and Mitchell later declared that marine engineers were quietly adopting his proposals while denying him the credit. Mitchell was again reluctant to leave England and a threat of dismissal was necessary before he sailed in January 1854, five months after the expiration of his original leave.

In January 1855 an anonymous pamphlet was published in Sydney entitled To Bourke's Statue this Appropriate Effusion of Unprofitable Brass is Unceremoniously Dedicated, by Ichneumon, Anxious to Instruct his Grandmothers in the Inductive Science of Sucking Eggs. There followed about thirty pages of satirical, scandalous and at times very witty doggerel attacking several prominent citizens. Mitchell was widely suspected of being the author and was urged by Sir Charles Nicholson and others to make a formal denial. He did so and may be believed, for he was one of those attacked and never otherwise displayed such a capacity for devastating self-criticism. There is a plausible family tradition that his eldest son, Livingstone, was responsible.

On becoming governor, Sir William Denison began an inquiry into Mitchell's work. Aware of his past record of determined insubordination he probably decided to be rid of him. On 4 July 1855 a Royal Commission, which included the Victorian surveyor-general and the professor of mathematics at Sydney University, was appointed to inquire into the Survey Department. Not only Mitchell believed that its real purpose was to secure his dismissal. Before its report was published Mitchell contracted a chill while surveying the line of road in the difficult country between Nelligen and Braidwood. He developed pneumonia and died at his home in Sydney on 5 October 1855. He was survived by his widow, but of his twelve children at least five predeceased him, two of them while employed in his own department.

The report of the Royal Commission severely condemned the methods and results of Mitchell's surveying and the administration of his department but is not a fair summary of his life's work. The criticism of his surveying technique is largely a priori and neglects both the substantial accuracy achieved, the inadequate and often primitive means at his disposal and the magnitude of the tasks he was required to perform. Mitchell was, however, a poor administrator. He had too many other interests and ambitions and was too often and too long away from his department either in England or exploring the interior. He had also a fatal inability to delegate responsibility to his subordinates with whom his relations were often very bad, and thus, despite enormous labours, he never got ahead of accumulating business. There was also insufficient supervision of surveyors in the field and consequently opportunities for the lazy and dishonest. But Mitchell was not responsible for the shortage of surveyors, the unrealistically large amount of work expected of them and, in particular, the division of the department into salaried and licensed surveyors which itself was a guarantee of inefficiency.

By 1855 the condition of the Survey Department was becoming a public scandal as its delays were preventing an increasing number of people from purchasing the land they wanted. Mitchell himself, however, was rarely blamed, and to the end retained great popularity. This was no doubt due in part to his well-known and repeated conflicts with governors; in part to his appreciation and fostering of those things peculiarly Australian, from an enlightened preference for convicts in his exploring parties to the retention of Aboriginal place names. Probably more important was his well-known belief, from as early as 1833 when he vainly resisted the acquisitions of the Australian Agricultural Co., that land should be readily available to small settlers and not monopolized by large landowners or squatters. Mitchell so pressed his views that after 1847 some squatters were hesitant to exercise their pre-emptive rights lest the land they selected immediately be declared government reserves. So the Tory surveyor-general (he had preferred to be fined rather than serve with emancipist jurors) who perhaps more than any other individual was responsible for delaying closer settlement, was distrusted by conservative squatters and admired by frustrated and radical settlers.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 13-26
  • G. E. T. Audley, The Public Surveys of New South Wales (Syd, 1866)
  • J. H. L. Cumpston, Thomas Mitchell (Melb, 1954)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1854, vol 2, p 1137, 1858-59, vol 2. p 41
  • B. V. Couch, The Administration of Thomas Mitchell 1826-37. A Study of the Man and his Contemporaries (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1963).

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. W. A. Baker, 'Mitchell, Sir Thomas Livingstone (1792–1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, n.d.

Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 446903

Life Summary [details]


15 June, 1792
Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, Scotland


5 October, 1855 (aged 63)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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