Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Arthur Percival (1879–1964)

by John Atchison

This article was published:

Arthur Percival (1879-1964), by unknown photographer, 1933

Arthur Percival (1879-1964), by unknown photographer, 1933

National Archives of Australia, A3560, 7221

Arthur Percival (1879-1964), surveyor-general, was born on 10 February 1879 at Dunedin, New Zealand, son of William James Sims Percival, draughtsman, and his wife Annie, née Bradley, both English born. After schooling at Napier, Hawkes Bay and Palmerston North, Percival trained as a land and mining surveyor, moving to Australia in 1897. Engaged on mining surveys and engineering works in New South Wales and Queensland, he cherished a drover's licence acquired at the time.

During his employment with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1902-09, especially on stadia surveying, he qualified for his local government engineer's certificate (1908). He defined the headworks for Melbourne's water supply, using the then new tacheometer, and surveyed the Upper Yarra, O'Shanassy and Ivanhoe Lake schemes, as well as Melbourne eastern suburbs and the Bendigo sewerage scheme.

In January 1910 Percival joined the camp at Kurrajong (Capitol or Capital) Hill, in the Molonglo Valley, to produce the contour base map supplied in the design competition for the Federal capital. His subsequent stadia surveys laid out the city, the transfer of levels from the New South Wales railway at Queanbeyan to Canberra, and dam sites on the Cotter and Queanbeyan rivers. During World War I he surveyed defence establishments in New South Wales and Victoria, carried out hydrographic work in Spencer Gulf, South Australia, and reported on land values for war service homes subdivisions.

In 1920 Percival was appointed officer-in-charge, property and survey branches, Department of Home and Territories, Melbourne. He returned to Canberra in 1929 as Commonwealth surveyor-general and chief property officer, responsible for all national surveys and property acquisitions. In this transitional decade towards mapping co-ordination, he advised the Australian Survey Committee on its reports (1930, 1934), urging a national geodetic and topographical survey, and in 1939 chaired a sub-committee of the inter-departmental committee on the aerial photographic survey of Australia. In 1935 he attended a conference of Empire survey officers in London, speaking on tacheometry. Chairman of the Commonwealth Shipping Board (1936), Percival was also a member of the Australian Shipbuilding Board. During World War II his heavy workload on property acquisition and valuation, combined with compensation claims, was aggravated by his high professional standards and unwillingness to delegate. When he retired in 1944 he was retained as adviser on land transfers for Garden Island naval facilities.

Percival was a member of the Canberra Advisory Council (1932-44) and its chairman in 1943-44. Completely ambidextrous and able to write or sketch equally well with either hand, he was a foundation member (1927) of the Canberra Artists' Society, its president (1930-34, 1945-50) and its first life member. A fellow of the Commonwealth Institute of Valuers, he was president (1928-29) of the Victorian Institute of Surveyors and member of the Victorian Institute of Engineers and the Institution of Engineers, Australia. A keen Rugby player in his prime, he enjoyed bowling in retirement.

On 4 January 1911 Percival had married Frieda Marie Brahe at Balaclava, Melbourne. He died on 27 January 1964 in Canberra Community Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. Two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. M. Johnston, Knights and Theodolites (Syd, 1962)
  • Australian Surveyor, 2, no 1, 1930, p 7, 1 June 1935, p 352, 1 Dec 1939, p 475, Sept 1965, p 565
  • Canberra Times, 28 Jan 1944, 6 Aug 1966
  • J. F. V. Knight, Engineering Heritage of the A.C.T. (manuscript notes, held by Institution of Engineers, Australia, Australian Capital Territory division)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Atchison, 'Percival, Arthur (1879–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Arthur Percival (1879-1964), by unknown photographer, 1933

Arthur Percival (1879-1964), by unknown photographer, 1933

National Archives of Australia, A3560, 7221

Life Summary [details]


10 February, 1879
Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand


27 January, 1964 (aged 84)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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