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Surveyors: Mapping the Distance, Early Surveying in Australia

by Ann Moyal

Robert Russell, Surveyor's camp, Dec 27 1851

Robert Russell, Surveyor's camp, Dec 27 1851

State Library of Victoria, 49182982

Together with the Governor of New South Wales, the office of Surveyor-General is one of the two oldest established public offices in Australia. The first holder of the post, Augustus Alt (1731-1815), was appointed before the departure of the First Fleet as ‘Surveyor of Lands’ in April 1787 and renamed ‘Surveyor-General of New South Wales’ a month later. Of German descent, the son of one of the diplomatic staff of the Hessian legation in London, Alt had served as a distinguished British soldier across his career and, having some experience of building roads in Scotland in 1763, was appointed by Governor Phillip to one of the key official posts to be filled in the new colony. When the Fleet landed with its cargo of convicts and military men, the only two known places in the distant continent described by James Cook and Joseph Banks were Botany Bay and the Endeavour River: the rest was an unfathomable blank. Governor Arthur Phillip carried the authority from the Colonial Office to assign land grants, but in the absence of free settlers or emancipists able to rent lands in the immediate months of settlement, the task of land survey and assessment was quiescent. Alt’s earliest task was to oversee the construction of a wharf at Port Jackson for the convenient landing of stores, while his first recorded duty, in respect of land, was to accompany Governor Phillip in November 1788 on an excursion to establish settlement at the head of the Parramatta River. With Governor Phillip’s early creation of Courts of Justice on 7 February 1788, Alt was appointed, together with Judge Advocate David Collins, as a magistrate in the Civil Court and became heavily engaged in the administration of justice in the colony’s early days. Augustus Alt was in his late fifties when he accepted the post of Surveyor-General and, reduced by ill health by 1791, Phillip employed the astronomer, Lieutenant William Dawes, and the master of convicts, David Burton, to conduct the business of surveying settler farms. The youthful Dawes, skilled in cartography and map making, claimed the laying out of Sydney and Parramatta and the government farm at Sydney as his work.

In 1794 Phillip transferred Charles Grimes (1772-1858), then surveying roads on Norfolk Island under Lieutenant-Governor Gidley King, to serve as active deputy-surveyor to Alt. Stationed initially on the Hawkesbury River, Grimes proved an energetic officer. During 1796 he was engaged in surveys at Concord, the Field of Mars, Prospect, Parramatta, Toongabbie, Hacking River, and Portland Place, and drew up a general plan of all the settlements and names and locations in the colony. In April 1801 Governor King appointed him to the position of Surveyor-General. That year he explored the Hunter River with Francis Barrallier and, in 1802, examined Port Phillip and located and named the Yarra River. Granted leave to take official documents to Britain in 1803, Grimes was absent from Australia until 1806 when he made another comprehensive map of the settlements of New South Wales. In 1807 he conducted surveys in Van Diemen’s Land and rationalised land holdings in New Norfolk.

Initially, surveying in early Australia was essentially about land settlement, the measuring of land grants and land sales, and keeping the records of a moving frontier. From the outset, the Surveyor-General’s Department was serviced by assigned convicts. One, however, James Meehan (1774-1826), born in Ireland and transported for his part in the 1798 Irish rebellion, was assigned as a servant to Charles Grimes. Across the period of his master’s absence in England, and working under the acting surveyor-general George Evans, most of the Department’s duties fell to him. His work included measuring farms for grantees and exploring part of the Derwent River in Van Diemen’s Land and later the Shoalhaven in New South Wales. An assiduous worker, Meehan received an absolute pardon in 1806 and was again working in Van Diemen’s Land. Aware of Meehan’s knowledge of geography, Governor Macquarie sought him out to accompany him on most of his tours in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Fixing the boundaries of land grants and registering the thrust of land settlement, Meehan contributed to the mapping of the colony with a notable map of Sydney in 1807. He conducted surveys of the townships of Richmond, Castlereagh, Windsor, Pitt Town, Wilberforce, Liverpool, Bathurst, and Hobart Town. After John Oxley assumed the position of Surveyor-General in 1812, Governor Macquarie appointed Meehan deputy-surveyor of lands and, in 1814, added to his tasks, collector of quitrents (tax imposed on freehold or leased land) and superintendent of roads, bridges and streets. For Macquarie, Meehan’s performance reinforced his opinion that a man could be transformed by energy and good conduct to regain his place in society. ‘I believe no man’, he set down, ‘has suffered so much privation and fatigue in the service of this Colony as Mr Meehan has done’. From his professional skill and ‘laborious discharge of his duty’, he had, ‘proved a valuable man’. Meehan resigned his posts in 1821.

With the dual responsibility of the Surveyor-General’s Department for both New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, there was an ongoing diffusion of tasks in the surveying and measuring of land grants, the collection of quitrents from emancipist landowners, and an ongoing interchange of duties. George William Evans (1780-1852), appointed acting surveyor-general in 1804-05, led a chequered career of exploring and surveying both in New South Wales, where he found the Lachlan River, and in Van Diemen’s Land where, with the closure of Norfolk Island as a penal settlement and the removal of its convicts there, necessitated his transfer to the second colonial establishment. He was appointed deputy-surveyor under Oxley in 1812 and played a critical role after the ‘crossing’ of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson in 1813, when it fell to Evans to survey their route across the Great Dividing Range, and establish a crossing to the Macquarie River some 70 kilometres beyond the future site of Bathurst, and lay the basis for the road. Evans left the service in 1825.

The arrival of John Oxley (1784-1828) as Surveyor-General in 1812 brought a distinctive player to the field. Born in 1784, Oxley had joined the navy as a midshipman and first arrived in Australia in October 1802 where, as master’s mate aboard the Buffalo, he engaged in coastal survey, including an expedition to Western Port. Returning to England in 1807, he was commissioned lieutenant and returned to Australia in 1808. Moving back and forth to Britain, Oxley eyed off and applied for the Surveyor-General’s post, and, retiring from the navy in 1811, returned to Sydney to take up the position the following year.

During Governor Macquarie’s administration Oxley was substantially occupied with exploring expeditions, examining with Evans the area around the Lachlan River, tracing the Macquarie River and, in 1818, identifying the Castlereagh and exploring the rich Liverpool Plains. He named the Peel River, crossed the southern end of the New England Range, found the Hastings River and followed it to its estuary which he named Port Macquarie. After six months of hazardous journeying down the coast, he reached Newcastle in November 1818. Although Oxley failed in his primary object of tracing the Lachlan and Macquarie Rivers to the sea (venturing instead a theory of an ‘inland sea’), he opened up rich pastoral lands in the Illawarra, in the County of Argyle, south-east of Goulburn, west to Bathurst and beyond, and north, up the Hunter Valley and in the County of Gloucester, areas quickly taken up by settlers. His Journals of Two Expeditions into the Interior of New South Wales (London, 1820) provided the first detailed description of the Australian inland. In 1823 he explored Moreton Bay and the Brisbane River and recommended that another penal settlement be established there. Governor Macquarie praised Oxley’s ‘zealous, indefatigable and intelligent exertions’ and, as with the other surveyors, rewarded him with a series of grants of land. Oxley developed strong pastoral and cultural interests in Australia. In 1824 he was one of the first four members of the Legislative Council, a member of the early Philosophical Society under Governor Brisbane and, for a time, director of the Bank of New South Wales. But his handling of financial interests reflected a negative aspect of his character and endeavours and he died, aged 42, in severe debt and ill health in May 1828.

By the mid-1820s, the Surveyor-General’s Department had managed to establish some basic frameworks. There was a patchwork of recorded land settlements in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land defining the ever moving boundaries of settlement; a skein of townships had been delineated, parts of the coastline had been explored, and a series of expeditions into unchartered, often very difficult territory, had opened promising lands for pastoral development. But by the end of Oxley’s service, the department itself was in critical need of reform. The long absence of senior men on journeys of exploration had left the registration and marking of land sales in chaotic arrears while departmental administration – with its assigned convict workers often taking bribes for settling land sales – was seriously malfunctioning.

The question of new and upgraded equipment was also urgent. The basic business of surveying in all countries depended on ‘Gunters Chain’. First developed in 1624, it was a chain totalling 66 feet (20.1 metres) in length used for ground measurements. Along its 66 feet it had 100 links marked by a brass ring every ten links that enabled ten square chains to measure one acre. The chain folded up easily for carriage by the ‘chain men’. It was not until 1828 that a Ramsden 10 feet rod arrived in New South Wales and was applied to standardise the chains used for measurement. The ‘Circumferentor’ was another principal instrument in use, made up of a compass mounted on a straight post with two movable sighting arms which could locate magnetic north. By locating magnetic north, a parcel of land could be aligned along its boundaries. Equipped with a telescope, the Circumferentor was described as ‘a simple but robust’ instrument and was deployed into the 1860s. The plane table, with a sight rule to hand for marking off natural or man-made features, was also a simple and reliable measuring tool for opening up virgin territory. Equipment, however, was a continuing problem. As Oxley complained, three years could pass between ordering and receiving equipment. In addition, the instruments built to British specifications, were often unsuitable for the mountainous terrain and rough work demanded in the colony. Two theodolites had at last arrived in 1825 but, with Oxley away from work through illness, they were not put to use.

The advent of Major Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1792-1855) in Sydney as Deputy-Surveyor in 1827 was to transform the department and the profession of surveying in Australia. With Oxley close to death at his Camden farm, Mitchell at once became de facto Surveyor-General, initiating a regime that, marked by high self-opinion and a forceful style, endowed him with extraordinary, if often contentious, influence until his death in office in 1855. Born in Scotland, educated in several languages and proficient in scientific knowledge, Mitchell had a background of service and intellectual initiative. He had served in the Peninsular War, engaging variously in obtaining topographical intelligence and producing plans of the major Peninsular battlefields for the Quarter-Marshall General, Sir George Murray, who, appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1828, carried his useful patronage of Mitchell forward. Obtaining his majority in 1826, Major Mitchell had also honed considerable technical and engineering skills across his career and published his major work drawn from his Peninsular experience, Outlines of a System of Surveying, for Geographical & Military Purposes, Comprising the Principles on Which the Surface of the Earth May be Represented on Plans, in 1827. Governor Darling’s selection for the job, Mitchell took in the department’s disarray at a glance. There was, he noted, ‘not a single theodolite in the colony that was fit for use’ and he at once set about repairing this accurate survey instrument with its clear line of sight for measuring horizontal and vertical angles. He also gained permission for making a trigonometrical survey of the colony. Succeeding to the post of Surveyor-General on Oxley’s death in 1828, he carried forward the concept of a general survey of the colony.

Mitchell’s first investigative journey beyond Sydney took him south of Mittagong where he established ‘trig points’ with his theodolite on the top of a hill (his men chopping down the trees that obscured the open view) and took the angles of every hill and landmark of importance. It was the beginning of the survey, extended with further trigonometrical points made around Bowral the following day, that would enable Mitchell to build his Map of the Colony of New South Wales published in 1834. This landmark work divided the Colony into nineteen counties, with a description of their boundaries, and proved a major tool in providing foundations for a reliable network of survey control for the years ahead. On this exploratory excursion Mitchell also embarked on what would become his trademark legacy in attempting to make friendly and co-operative relationships with the Indigenous people.

From the outset, adopting a procedure decades ahead of Imperial practice elsewhere, he instructed his assistant surveyors to record Aboriginal names for new places, cautioning them to reduce the names (as they were often lengthy) to nine letters. In his first four years in Australia, as his biographer Don Baker relates, Mitchell ‘had experienced their [the Aborigines] great value as guides through their own country…[He] realized the difficulties and dangers of their position as the white invaders appropriated their land… and had begun to appreciate something of the complexity and beauty of Aboriginal culture’. (p 39).

In 1829, Mitchell was also given responsibility for the survey of the colony’s roads and bridges. Here his impact was also immediate. By 1830 he had made considerable changes in the roads from Sydney to Parramatta and Liverpool, plotted a new road south through Berrima to Goulburn, and discovered and constructed a new western descent from Mount Victoria towards Bathurst. The building of the Great North Road and the Great Western Road had preceded his arrival, but he was an important contributor to the formidable engineering work on the Great North Road, involving the building of stone culverts, embankments and massive masonry walls by some 400 convicts. His duties accumulated and, with the Colonial Office’s abolishment in 1830 of the Commissioners of Survey responsible for dividing up and valuing the whole of the Colony, he was given full authority for survey in the colony.

Mitchell’s rise was singular; but his extending influence was not achieved without conflict. Governor Darling, confronting his Surveyor-General’s ‘insubordination’ and ‘insolence’, privately regretted giving him both the Surveyor-Generalship and his post with the Department of Roads and Bridges, and sought his dismissal. But it was Governor Darling who was recalled. Mitchell, rather, persuaded the acting governor to allow him to embark on his first investigative enterprise beyond the boundaries of settlement in 1831-2 to test reports, which Oxley had supported, of a large river flowing inland to the north-west. He took assistant surveyor, George White, with him as his second-in-command along with fifteen convicts to serve as chain men and camp workers. In this and future journeys, Mitchell made sure he had competent carpenters, wheelwrights and blacksmiths to deal with emergencies and the characteristic difficulties of the Australian environment with its severe changes of weather.

Mitchell regarded exploration as part of the general survey of the colony and systematically measured each mile travelled with a chain. On this occasion he moved through known country to Tamworth, explored to the Namoi and followed it down as far as Narrabri, then cut across the plains to the Gwydir near Moree. He then chartered the tributaries between the Gwydir and the Barwon River but found no predicted river flowing to the north-west. This journey extended the many contacts he made with the Aboriginal people of different regions but two men from his party were murdered at their hands.

The task of colonial survey was not for the faint-hearted: it offered constant and unpredictable challenges. Picking their way through unknown territory, surveyors confronted massive mountain ranges, deeply forested country and often impenetrable vegetation. In Oxley’s time a survey team was allocated six men, six bullocks, a dray, pack saddles, a tent, cooking utensils, and three months’ provisions. But frustrations gathered with the collapse and death of a bullock (those furnished being usually of the weakest description), resulting in a long wait for a replacement. By 1827 the Surveyor-General’s Department listed an allotment of thirteen assistant surveyors, four draftsmen, two clerks and five assigned convicts, two of the latter kept at base and three taken out to learn surveying.

From the outset, Mitchell was well served by a band of younger assistants whose work inched out and registered an extending area of knowledge of the landscape. British-born Thomas Florance (1783-1867), whose early career included work as a surveyor and engineer in Upper Canada and with the engineers in the American war, had arrived in Sydney in 1817 and, after a period of freelance work in Van Diemen’s Land, moved to Sydney in 1825 and to the appointment of assistant surveyor the following year. Using a theodolite under Mitchell in 1828, he completed Trig maps of Port Jackson which gave the first accurate maps of the region. Robert Dixon (1800-1858), an assistant surveyor from 1826, made an early survey with Mitchell to explore the Grose Valley near Mount Victoria in 1827, returning to carry out a trig survey there a year later. Dixon’s surveys in the Blue Mountains made it possible for Mitchell to lay the new line of road to Bathurst. Dixon also conducted the first survey of Goulburn, surveyed Queanbeyan and along the Molonglo River to the Murrumbidgee and, in 1831-32, carried out surveys in the Upper Hunter and New England. Visiting England on leave for two years in 1836, Dixon fell foul of Mitchell by imprudently publishing a map of the colony compiled from official sources and documents, and was refused reinstatement in the department on his return to Sydney. In 1840 he became surveyor in charge of the Moreton Bay district, but, moving once more on his own initiative to publish a map of Moreton Bay, again attracted official opprobrium. In the Australian Dictionary of Biography’s verdict, however, Robert Dixon ‘ranks high among early surveyors and explorers’.

Irish-born George White (1802-1876), appointed assistant surveyor in February 1827, impressed the Surveyor-General with his early work in the Hunter district and, having accompanied Mitchell on his expedition to the Barwon River, later returned to do a thorough survey of the Hunter Valley and the Hunter River and was promoted surveyor in 1838. Two noteworthy aspects of White’s career arise from the fact that he kept a substantial and often highly critical diary relating largely to the Hunter region (White Papers, State Library of New South Wales). Elected to the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales in 1858, as representative of Northumberland and Hunter, he became chairman for a time of the famous Royal Commission of Inquiry into the management of the Survey Department for the first half of the nineteenth century. White’s testimony to the Commission in 1858, revealed his great respect for Mitchell as an explorer and administrator.

For a brief period William Romaine Govett (1807-1848), held the post of assistant surveyor on Mitchell’s survey. Arriving in Sydney as a comparatively recent student from Blundell’s School in Tiverton, Devonshire, in 1827, he was swiftly appointed as an assistant. He specialised in exploring the rugged ranges of the Blue Mountains and proved a particularly gifted pioneering surveyor when, surveying on the old Bathurst road, he discovered the plunging chasm of ‘Govett’s Leap’ which Mitchell named in his honour. Rarely given to praise, the Surveyor-General’s report of 1832 described Govett as a wild young man who needed control, who had come to the colony ignorant of surveying but who with much natural talent had become perhaps the ablest delineator of ground in the department. He was, said Mitchell, remarkably clever at dealing with unexplored country. Govett’s surveying career ended abruptly in 1833 when the department suffered financial constraints and he returned to England. There he wrote several articles as ‘Sketches of New South Wales’ published in The Saturday Magazine between 7 May and 2 September 1837, illustrated with assorted sketches of his survey camp, the Aborigines, the landscape he had surveyed, and an early detailed account of the koala. Govett died in 1848 at the age of 41.

Of all the surveyors, Samuel Augustus (S.A.) Perry (1787-1864), chosen by Sir George Murray to serve as Deputy-Surveyor following Mitchell’s accession to lead the Department in 1828, suffered most severely from the dictatorial and jealous attitude of his overlord. Perry had also served as a lieutenant in the Peninsular War under Sir George Murray, had been a professor of topographical drawing at the Royal Military College in Britain, and had served as private secretary and aide-de-camp to the Governor of Dominica before returning to England on half pay. He arrived in Australia under Murray’s patronage in 1829. Mitchell greeted him with hostility and for several years kept him from accessing all of the Department’s major documents. As Governor Darling reported to the Colonial Office, ‘The jealousy of [Mitchell’s] disposition prevents his permitting the Employment of any Person whom he supposes likely to deprive him of any part of the service’. However, as Mitchell was alert to the need for a deputy to lead the Department during his long absences exploring and, later, in London, Perry, paradoxically, remained the competent Deputy-Surveyor in New South Wales for nearly twenty years. Consolidating the Department’s registration of lands within the nineteen counties and beyond, Perry’s major survey focussed on the Clarence River of which he completed a detailed survey in 1842. Following two years’ leave in England, he was part of the investigation that proposed Port Curtis as a centre of a new colony in Australia. Reduced eventually to ill health by Mitchell’s hostile treatment, the industrious, long-suffering Perry retired from the Survey in 1853 and died the following year.

With his successful Map of the Nineteen Counties behind him, Mitchell set off in March 1835 on his second expedition of exploration to trace the Darling River from where Charles Sturt had left it in 1828 to its junction with the Murray River. On this occasion, he travelled down the Bogan River to its junction with the Darling and on down the Darling to the vicinity of Menindee. But, while he chartered the Bogan’s course, and some 300 miles of the Darling River, he failed to follow the river to its junction with the Murray. On this journey, he also established a positive relationship with the Aborigines he met, but despite adopting a tribesman as a guide, responses from the Indigenous inhabitants became uncertain and Richard Cunningham, the Colonial botanist, travelling with the expedition was killed on the Bogan.

Mitchell’s third major inland expedition, launched in March 1836, was designed to fill the Darling gap and marked one of the epic journeys of Australian exploration. Travelling to the Lachlan River, Mitchell followed it to the south west and came upon the Murrumbidgee, tracing it to the Murray. In late May he reached the Darling and, turning north upstream, he decided to leave the arid areas of dry desert country and concentrate on the more promising resources of land along the Murray. So doing, he turned into what would subsequently become Victoria, naming a landscape of great richness, ‘Australia Felix’. He again failed to complete the full exploration of the Darling, but the rough tracks his wagons cut into the earth were soon followed by pastoralists who opened up the lush soils of what would become the Western District of Victoria.

Thomas Mitchell was absent in Britain from 1837-1841 where he published his Three Expeditions Into the Interior of Eastern Australia (1838) and received a knighthood in 1839. Back at the helm in Australia, he conducted a final exploration to attempt to find an overland route to the Gulf of Carpentaria and Port Essington. On this expedition in 1845, Mitchell’s party was of considerable strength, with a surgeon/naturalist, three assistants and twenty-three convicts, and Edmund Kennedy, then a surveyor in the Department as second-in-command. Kennedy took charge of the expedition’s base depot on the Maranoa for four months while Mitchell was absent exploring the Warrego and Belyando Rivers and discovering a river he named the ‘Victoria’. He published his account of this exploration as Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia (1848) on his second visit to London that year. He also published ‘Trigonometrical Survey of Port Jackson’ in 1853.

Proud, ambitious and overbearing, Sir Thomas Mitchell was, in the broadest sense, the centrepiece of the history of surveying in Australia – following Oxley – in the first half of the nineteenth century. On the administrative side and in the recording of land settlement between 1828 and 1834, he and his surveyors had measured almost two million of the three and a half million acres alienated from the Crown since 1788, achieving a cover of more than the total land measurements made in the previous forty years. Mitchell’s own capacities were extensive. He served as a painstaking and competent surveyor on his journeys, introduced the use of theodolites across the department, and brought a new professionalism to the role of surveying in Australia. Unrelenting in his dealings with governors and the Colonial Office, he managed to maintain his independence and occupy a prominent position in colonial society. Sir William Denison, on becoming Governor, hoped to remove this troublesome servant of the crown from office and instigated the Royal Commission into the Survey Department in July 1855. But Mitchell escaped the force of its many criticisms. While surveying near Braidwood, he contracted a chill and died from pneumonia at his home in Sydney in October 1855. Many towns and topographical landmarks record his name.

In Australia, survey and exploration went hand in hand. The surveyor’s chain accompanied the explorer on his pioneering journey. His field books recorded his endeavour. Yet the surveyor is often obscured in the remembrance of the exploring hero. Born and trained in survey in Guernsey, Edmund Kennedy (1818-1848), arrived in New South Wales in 1840 and, appointed assistant surveyor in the Surveyor-General’s Department at the age of 21, he hoped above all to ‘lead a distinguished life’. He conducted initial survey work in western Victoria but after a slow period at the Survey during the stagnant forties, he was, as noted, appointed second-in-command of Mitchell’s expedition of 1845 to find a route to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Back at base in 1847, Kennedy volunteered to lead an expedition to retrace Mitchell’s ‘Victoria River’ to the north west and the Gulf, only to find that it flowed south-west to become part of Cooper’s Creek. He renamed the river the Barcoo and located and named the Thomson River. Kennedy, however, never expressed criticism of his former leader for whom he had a great respect and, as a not inexperienced explorer himself, as Edgar Beale his biographer notes, ‘he had already seen it was all too easy to be wrong in surmising the nature of the unknown’.

Kennedy’s own chance of distinction came at the beginning of 1848 when he was chosen to lead a well-equipped team travelling aboard Tam O’Shanter under cover with HMS Rattlesnake to Rockingham Bay from where he launched an ambitious overland journey to cut a route to Cape York. Challenged by mountainous country and dense tropical undergrowth, Kennedy left eight of his thirteen men at Weymouth Bay. He left three more, one wounded, camped further along the route while he pressed on alone with the Aboriginal guide, Jackey Jackey, to meet the supply ship Ariel at Albany Passage, Cape York. Tragically, Kennedy was killed by an Aboriginal spear within twenty miles of the point of rendez-vous while Jackey Jackey carried the news of the disaster to the waiting vessel. Only two of Kennedy’s original company survived. Edmund Kennedy had achieved a life of distinction. But it was distinction of a special kind. He died at 30. He is commemorated in a tablet in St James Church, Sydney, which reads ‘To the cause of science, the advancement of the colony, and the interests of humanity… Requiescat in pace’.

While the core of survey activity was concentrated in New South Wales, early work, as noted, was carried out in Van Diemen’s Land as an outpost of the main colony. The advent in Hobart in 1827 of George Frankland (1800-1838) as first assistant surveyor, with service behind him as surveyor-general at Poona, brought a man of experience and opinion to the second colonial post. The Lieutenant Governor, Sir George Arthur, appointed him Surveyor-General in the colony and directed him to begin a general trigonometrical survey. From 1828 into the mid-30s Frankland’s expeditions explored the wild country westwards of the upper Derwent, the upper Huon and the central highlands around Lake Clair, unravelling the river systems of the Derwent, Gordon, Huon and Nive. Frankland believed in exploration, complaining of the Governor’s preference for the department to perform ‘the plodding work of marking the Settlers’ lands’, and opining the lack of credit given in the colony to ‘the cause of science and general knowledge’. Frankland had served as foundation vice-president of the Van Diemen’s Land Society formed to stimulate scientific knowledge in the colony in 1830, and proved an informed and congenial companion for young Charles Darwin when visiting Hobart aboard HMS Beagle in February 1836, generously sharing both his geological knowledge and hospitality. ‘I had been introduced to Mr Frankland, the Surveyor-General’, Darwin wrote in his diary, ‘& I passed at his house, the most agreeable evenings since leaving England’. (They included Darwin’s 27th birthday). In surveying, Frankland’s ideal key achievement lay in his Map of Van Diemen’s Land which remained far ahead of other topographical maps for the next twenty years. Like Mitchell, his forthright and professional spirit won him the critique of arrogance although he maintained good relations with his staff. Frankland died in 1838 at the age of 38.

Assistant surveyor, Thomas Scott (1800-1855), another émigré from Britain, had been active in Van Diemen’s Land from 1821 under George Evans, surveying many of the early settlements in the colony, exploring parts of the east coast between 1822-24, laying out the town of Boswell, and publishing a chart of Tasmania that showed more than earlier maps. He was appointed Surveyor-General of Van Diemen’s Land in 1825, but two years later was obliged to step aside for Frankland, back to the rank of assistant surveyor. Promoted senior assistant surveyor in 1830, he became surveyor for the County of Cornwall in 1832. With his strong Scottish heritage, Scott was responsible for the naming of the town of Deloraine, taking the name from the Lay of the Last Minstrel written by his kinsman, Sir Walter Scott. In 1836 he departed for Scotland for two years leaving his brother, James Scott (1814-1884) as his deputy. Trained in surveying by Thomas, James would fill Thomas’ post on his resignation from the department in 1838. Known for his explorations of the north-east of Tasmania and for his part as the only surveyor in Launceston for most of the 1850s, James Scott later conducted much of the early survey of Port Sorrell and Devonport.

Van Diemen’s Land also benefitted from a scatter of early surveyors with strong educational backgrounds. James Sprent (1808-1863) had an MA degree from Glasgow University with further education at St John’s College, Cambridge, when he arrived in Hobart in 1830. He opened a school for ‘young gentlemen’ and offered trigonometry and mathematics in his teaching. He also lectured in astronomy at the early Mechanics Institute. In 1833 he was appointed a temporary assistant surveyor in the colonial survey where he was placed on the trigonometrical survey, triangulating much of the south-eastern half of the colony and establishing many observation stations for accurately measuring parts of the settled district. Sprent’s imprint was large and the record of his field work conveyed a sharp picture of the nature of surveying in Tasmania’s rough terrain. Working on the trigonometrical survey, he reported that he and his men had suffered many privations, hidden and almost forgotten in rugged mountains and heavy forests, their tents and clothes falling to pieces while, with short supplies, they were often obliged to eat ‘carnivorous quadrupeds’. Frankland particularly praised Sprent’s zeal and skill but, as department finances sagged in the forties, he was retained only as a permanent assistant surveyor. In 1847 he resumed charge of the newly-resumed trigonometrical survey with eleven men in his team, an undertaking completed with 206 observation stations in 1853. The Select Committee on the Survey of 1855, recorded his perseverance and exceptional knowledge of the colony. Sprent became deputy-surveyor in 1856, chief surveyor, and later Surveyor-General and Commissioner of Crown Land. His large achievement rested in his division of the colony into districts, each with its own surveyor to bring his local map up to date. Sprent’s detailed map of Tasmania was completed in 1859. He died at the age of 55, a terminal age for Australia’s leading early surveyors.

John Helder Wedge (1793-1872), was already appointed as an assistant surveyor when he reached Van Diemen’s Land in 1824. He was soon employed leading difficult expeditions through heavily timbered country in the north-east and central highlands and, in 1828, examined the lands of the Van Diemen’s Land Co. His work included investigation of grants surveyed earlier by George Evans and Thomas Scott which, reportedly, had been extended beyond the authorised acreage from bribes to the surveyors, a claim not uncommon in the early years of survey in Australia. A resourceful bushman, he led a party in Frankland’s expedition into country between the Derwent, Gordon and Huon Rivers in 1835.The diaries of Wedge’s explorations and survey work were published by the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1962.

Assistant surveyor, James Erskine Calder (1808-1882), a product of the Royal Military College and a member of the Ordnance Survey in England, arrived in Hobart Town in 1829 destined to become one of the colony’s most outstanding early surveyors. In 1831 he made an exploratory journey up the Huon River; in 1832 he measured fifty-four towns and sub-lots amounting to almost 50,000 acres, and subsequently cut a track across the mountains in preparation for Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin’s expedition to Macquarie Harbour. During 1842 he made it possible for Sir John and Lady Franklin to make their way overland to the Gordon River, a journey which, in bad weather and flooded rivers, took the party twenty-one days. Across his career, Calder was chosen for tasks requiring special abilities. In 1834 he carried out and submitted a report on Maria Island; by 1851 many of his varied 130 official reports led to legislation. He was appointed Surveyor-General in succession to Sprent in 1859 serving until 1870 when his office was abolished and the duties taken over by the Minister of Lands and Works. Like Mitchell in New South Wales, Calder pleaded for the use of Aboriginal names and in retirement wrote on the Indigenous Tribes of Tasmania and their language.

While Van Diemen’s Land was a natural site for survey, events shaped more slowly in other regions of Australia. In 1841 James Charles Burnett (1815-1854), appointed originally as a clerk in the Survey Department in Sydney and, rising through the ranks of draftsman and assistant survey during fieldwork in the Illawarra district, was sent with Thomas Mitchell’s son, Roderick Mitchell, as second-in-command of an expedition to trace the Great Dividing Range as far as possible to Moreton Bay. He later made a plan of the Richmond River from its sources to its mouth. In 1844 he was appointed to head the new Survey Office in Brisbane. Placed in charge of tracking the waters of a large river system beyond the Upper Brisbane River, Burnett submitted reports that gave birth, in 1847, to Maryborough. In recognition of his work, Governor Fitzroy decreed that the large river be called the Burnett. Burnett left the Brisbane Survey Office in 1848 to conduct private surveys in the Darling Downs. He died at the age of 39. On this the Moreton Bay Courier’s judgment was firm: ‘Burnett had been suffering from a premature decay of constitution, mainly caused by an enthusiastic and almost reckless devotion to the trying duties of his profession’. (22 July 1854)

In Victoria, initial attempts at survey were begun at the infant settlement of Port Phillip by the arrival of the English architect/surveyor Robert Russell (1808-1900) with his assistants Frederick D’Arcy, draughtsman, and William Darke, chainman. But with Governor Sir Richard Bourke’s visit to Port Phillip in March 1837, accompanied by Robert Hoddle (1794-1881), Russell was placed under Hoddle as senior surveyor. Hoddle, well versed in surveying from work on the trigonometrical survey of Great Britain, and as an engineer in Cape Colony, had arrived in Australia in 1823 and been appointed by Governor Brisbane as an assistant surveyor under Oxley. He had accompanied Oxley on an expedition in 1824 to Moreton Bay where he assisted with the initial survey and establishment of Brisbane and had spent the next twelve years surveying in New South Wales. Hoddle produced a grid plan of Melbourne conferring with the Governor on the Limits of Melbourne and the direction of the streets, and setting aside areas for reserves and public buildings. By 1838 he had surveyed and planned Geelong and later surveyed many country regions of Victoria. With the separation in 1851 of the colony of Port Phillip from New South Wales, Hoddle became Victoria’s first Surveyor-General.

In Western Australia, the first appointed Surveyor-General was to bring glamour, coastal exploration and diverse achievement to the survey story. With early naval experience in the Channel Islands and on the China station, John Septimus Roe (1797-1878), joined the British survey ships HMS Mermaid in December 1817 as master’s mate under the command of Captain Phillip Parker King on the first of three journeys of exploration and coastal survey to complete the exploratory work of Matthew Flinders in his circumnavigation of Australia. As Roe wrote at the beginning of these journeys, the interruption of Flinders’ exploration ‘had left in much, and indeed almost total geographical uncertainty, the whole of the western, north-western and northern coasts of Australia, comprised between Cape Leeuwin and the Gulf of Carpentaria, with much of the north-eastern coastline from Torres Strait to Breaksea Spit’. The Mermaid’s first journey surveyed north of Exmouth Gulf; in 1819 they sailed around the coast westwards of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Bonaparte Archipelago; and on the ship’s last circumnavigation, King’s company surveyed the northern coastline of Australia. In 1821, Roe transferred to the brig Bathurst, again surveying along the west coast between Cape Leeuwin and Cape Leveque. As Lieutenant Roe he joined the Tamer in 1824 and sailed under Captain Sir James Bremer to Port Essington to found a settlement and take possession of the northern coast of Australia.

In 1827 Roe was appointed to the Hydrographic Office in Britain but, two years later, was offered the post of Surveyor-General at the new settlement of Swan River in Western Australia. Lent by the Admiralty for an active forty years, he retired in 1870, his influence in the development of Western Australia immense. Roe made surveys of the sea approaches to the Sawn River, surveyed the sites of Fremantle and Perth and, with one assistant, marked the town lots and the land taken up by settlers. He was, himself, responsible for drawing up most of the land regulations. As Surveyor-General, he also became a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils. Roe left records of some sixteen journeys of exploration. One of his last entries in his diary before retirement wisely observed: ‘I have not been an idle man in my generation’.

In the new colony of South Australia, it was a different story. With a military background in Britain, Mauritius and Ireland, Boyle Travers Finniss (1807-1893), turned his attention to the proposed colony of South Australia, became a member of the South Australian Building Committee, and sold his military commission in order to qualify for appointment as deputy-surveyor in the new colony. Finniss arrived in South Australia in 1836 and began survey on Kangaroo Island. In 1837 he joined Colonel William Light on the site of Adelaide, was given charge of survey of the western part of the proposed city, and assisted Light in north Adelaide to fix the first points for trigonometrical survey. Critical of the Governor, Sir John Hindmarsh, Finniss signed the 1837 memorial for speeding up the surveys. In 1838 he reported on Encounter Bay. With other members of the survey, he resigned in protest against the instructions brought from the Commissioners in London and became part of the firm Light, Finniss & Co. which surveyed in the Lyndoch valley for the South Australia Co. until Light’s early fatal illness. A varied career led Finniss through many public appointments until he became the first premier of South Australia in 1856. His return to surveying when appointed government Resident in the Northern Territory in 1864, however, was not successful. When the survey party he commanded was instructed to examine the Adelaide River and the neighbouring coast, Finniss’s selection of a capital site at Adam Bay earned his recall to face a Royal Commission for poor judgment and heavy expenditure of public funds. From surveyor to premier, he was judged as lacking the personal qualities of large leadership.

There has, as the author of Sails to Satellite. The Surveyors General of NSW 1788-2007 suggests, ‘traditionally been a lack of acknowledgement of land surveyors in standard histories in Australia’. Nonetheless, as one later Surveyor-General, F. M. Johnston, recalled, ‘It was only through the tedious measurements taken by early surveyors that accurate maps were produced. They scaled the peaks and probed the depths with their triangulations and traverses of river and other features, giving essential starting points to the pioneer squatters and settlers who followed’. However, the first three volumes of the Australian Dictionary of Biography have brought to view a substantial cohort of the men who, from 1788 to 1855, served in this vital activity in the Australian colonies. Subsequent volumes tell the later story. Yet given the early state of Australian historiography in the decades from 1960s, this collective biographical information is a testament to the determined research efforts of the early Working Parties of the ADB. They offer a record of this founding profession of surveying in the Australian story and its crucial part in the identification of the country’s landscape and its evolving settlement.

Sociologically several conditions emerge. Surveyors were drawn from a spectrum of backgrounds, from naval and military experience, from secondary, often high tertiary education, and from practice and at times scientific background overseas. For an occupation that conferred social status and the receipt of land grants to high performers, surveying features some uncertain aspects. Assistant surveyors appointed with or without background, slid up and down the employment pole, their roles – often the subject of political or personal negotiation – likely to be cropped or truncated when depression struck the economy. One characteristic, however, was conspicuous. Colonial surveying was not an occupation for the cautious. Spectacularly challenging in rough and uncharted mountainous territory, unexpected, physically demanding, acutely stressful, dangerous and at times lethal, it was a career that called on high determination and enterprise, the participants’ field books and reports were littered with the word ‘privations’. It was a word that encompassed ‘terrible hardships’, extended periods of wet weather, fierce storms, insects, sand flies and mosquitoes, drought and the need to dig for water, bushfires, constant travelling ‘hampered by poor beasts and poor equipment’, helpless periods of waiting for stores or repair, and a wariness of the displaced Indigenous people. There, too, was the interminable silence. Few members of the profession to the mid-century lived to old age. As George White, reflecting in 1858 on his early period of survey, pointed out, ‘you require men who are not only competent to do the duties, but who have considerable nerve and power of endurance’. The toll of young men, cut off prematurely from their exertions in their thirties, reveals a story of wide pioneering endeavour and commitment, and bravery and purpose.

It was not until well into the second half of the nineteenth century that the professional training of surveyors became mandatory in Australia.


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Citation details

Ann Moyal, 'Surveyors: Mapping the Distance, Early Surveying in Australia', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, originally published 25 August 2017, accessed 15 July 2024.

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