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Charles Robert Scrivener (1855–1923)

by Terry G. Birtles

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Charles Robert Scrivener (1855-1923), surveyor, was born on 2 November 1855 at Windsor, New South Wales, second son of Charles Ambrose Scrivener, bookbinder, and his wife Jane, née Passefield, both from London. Charley was educated at a denominational school and from the age of 8 assisted his partially blind father in his general store. He was an accountant at Orange in 1875 before joining the New South Wales Department of Lands as cadet 'geodetic computer' in the trigonometrical branch (1876). He passed the draughtsman's examination (1877) and then was a surveyor's apprentice, passing the Surveyors' Board examination (1880) with 100 per cent score to become a licensed surveyor. On 23 April 1878 he married Eugenie Emmeline Rogers (d.1883) at Woollahra, and on 4 March 1885 Mary Beatrice Harding (d.1886) at Ryde.

Scrivener was posted to Maitland in 1888. On 24 April 1889 he married Annie Margaret Pike at Balmain. From 1891 he carried out the re-survey and definition of the boundaries of the Gloucester estate of the Australian Agricultural Co. and in 1896 he was acting district surveyor of the Wagga Wagga district, which included the southern Monaro. Scrivener's surveys in rugged country established his reputation as an extremely able bushman.

However, he is best known for his association with the Federal capital site selection. Influenced by the Snowy River 'surplus overflow', Alexander Oliver had recommended Bombala, with sea access at Eden, as the best prospect for Australia's capital city. Political indecision and promotion of Tumut by Sir William Lyne eventually forced Sir John Forrest into an inspection of twenty-five locations in April 1904. Scrivener's advice caused him to favour Buckley's Crossing. Scrivener is also believed to have drawn attention to possible cheap hydro-electric power generation at Jindabyne.

For two months during the winter of 1904 Scrivener and an assistant worked on horseback in snow-covered country to prepare contour maps, drawn in a tent on rough drawing-paper by Scrivener, with such accuracy that the Land Department swiftly published 4000 copies. His reports proved vital to the choice of Dalgety. Scrivener next marked out prospective territorial boundaries but on his own initiative added 1550 sq. miles (4015 km²) taking in the Snowy River watershed including Mount Kosciusko. In an angry response (Sir) Joseph Carruthers withdrew the Dalgety site and threatened High Court action if a single Commonwealth survey-peg was driven into New South Wales soil. Scrivener served in Hay as district surveyor in 1906-08, and engaged in cadastral surveys in the Deniliquin district.

Following Commonwealth acceptance in December 1908 of a capital in the Yass-Canberra district, Andrew Fisher chose Scrivener in preference to the New South Wales chief surveyor to determine the best city site and water-catchment territory. Scrivener forced a small team on a sixteen-hour day schedule to complete the task within two months. He again triggered prime ministerial correspondence and New South Wales hostility by suggesting a boomerang-shaped territory of 1015 sq. miles (2630 km²) determined by the Cotter, Queanbeyan and Molonglo river catchments. Despite negotiation of alternative territory, Scrivener's recommendation for a city in the Canberra valley with railway access to Jervis Bay was accepted. His survey was the basis of the competition for the design for the capital city.

In 1910 Scrivener was appointed first director of Commonwealth lands and surveys. He established the land survey and property branch of the Department of Home Affairs and concentrated on the topographical, cadastral, triangulation and railway surveys connected with city planning and land purchase, until he and his staff were posted to Melbourne in 1914. He retired in 1915, having been appointed I.S.O. in 1913.

A taciturn man, Scrivener was a technically minded advocate of the motor cycle which he learned to ride in his mid-fifties. He was described as 'a long, lean man with a kindly hairy countenance'. His family, raised in tents, later occupied Acton House.

Scrivener was the main author of the 'departmental plan' for Canberra, proposed in 1912 as the cheaper and technically simpler alternative to W. B. Griffin's design. He rejected Griffin's idea of three connected lakes at different levels, proposing a single lake impounded close to the present Scrivener Dam. He could never appreciate Griffin's intentions, in particular his geometric symbolism. Impatient to build the city, Scrivener became frustrated by Griffin's frequent amendments and necessary re-surveys. His professional detachment from Griffin proved to be a major element in the 1916 royal commission on Federal Capital administration which found in Griffin's favour.

Scrivener attempted to initiate a triangulation survey of Australia, but to his great disappointment the government shelved the project. After retirement he lived in rainforest at Mount Irvine in an unusual house of hexagonal rooms with extensive irrigated gardens of his own design and construction. He engaged in local shire road surveys and assisted a sawmill. Scrivener died on 26 September 1923 at Killara and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife, five sons and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Surveyor (Sydney), Jan 1915, Nov 1923
  • Canberra Times, 9 Mar 1972
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27, 28 Sept 1923, 9 May 1927
  • summary of C. R. Scrivener's life and career (6 Apr 1972, on file at Canberra and District Historical Society)
  • Scrivener papers (National Archives of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Terry G. Birtles, 'Scrivener, Charles Robert (1855–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 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

Charles Scrivener, n.d.

Charles Scrivener, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 40586415

Life Summary [details]


2 November, 1855
Windsor, New South Wales, Australia


26 September, 1923 (aged 67)
Killara, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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