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Mr Surveyor Thomson, by John Hall-Jones

31 July 2011

Early Days in Otago and Southland

This is the first proper biography of John Turnbull Thomson, Chief Surveyor of Otago and later first Surveyor-General of New Zealand. As stated in the subtitle, it is also the story of early Otago and Southland, since the two provinces were surveyed and mapped by Thomson in the days when they were one. Written by Thomson‘s great grandson, John Hall-Jones, this biography was later superseded by a second book (“John Turnbull Thomson. First Surveyor-General of New Zealand”) published in 1992.

Born in Northumberland (England) in 1821, Thomson emigrated to Malaya at the age of 16, then moved on to Singapore 5 years later. There, he distinguished himself for surveying the colony, and for his engineering works. The construction of the Horsburgh Lighthouse, which still stands today in the Straits of Singapore, was arguably one of his greatest achievements, but also took a severe toll on his health, forcing him to return to England.

Thomson arrived in New Zealand in 1856; he was preceded by his reputation as a surveyor he had acquired in the far east, and was soon offered the post of Chief Surveyor of Otago. After taking on the job, Thomson surveyed Bluff and Invercargill, then embarked on two long reconnaissance surveys, during which he mapped Southland and North Otago, explored the headwaters of the Tasman River and measured Mt Cook. During his stay in Dunedin, Thomson wrote a book about his experiences in Asia, “Some glimpses into life in the far east“, from which a few extracts are reproduced in this biography.

In 1874, Major H.S. Palmer was sent from England to observe the transit of Venus, and after touring all the provinces of New Zealand, issued a report on the state of the surveys in the colony. Palmer’s report was devastating; it was only in Otago that he found a system that satisfied his standards. On Palmer’s recommendation, the New Zealand government formed a national Survey Department with headquarters in Wellington, and in 1876 Thomson was appointed first Surveyor-General. Three years later he resigned and retired in Invercargill, where he passed away in 1884.

While on his reconnaissance surveys of Southland and Otago, Thomson explored and named a number of geographical features, including Lindis Pass, Grandview Mountain, Black Peak, Mount Pisa and Mount Aspiring. The chapter on the naming of the latter needs re-writing, since new information has recently come to light (see this link). Thomson also named Mount Sefton (‘Mt Stokes’) and other features at the head of the Tasman River, but his nomenclature was ignored and replaced by Julius von Haast a few years later.

Thomson was not only a capable surveyor, but also a talented artist, and left behind a number of paintings, a few of which are reproduced in this book. John Hall-Jones’ work is a pleasure to read, well written and enriched with many extracts from Thomson‘s own diaries. Many black-and-white photographs and maps add to the quality of the text. Since much additional information about Thomson has come to light in recent years, the book “John Turnbull Thomson. First Surveyor-General of New Zealand” should be used as a main source of biographical information.


Hall-Jones, J. (1971) Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early Days in Otago and Southland. AH & AW Reed, Wellington, New Zealand. 146 pages

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kaye Stalker permalink
    31 December 2011 5:16 pm

    Can you give me any details of Captain nathanial Bates who was Thomson’s surverys guide on many trips from Southland through to the Wakipapu, Nathanial knew these routes because of his wife’s Maorie connections and their knowledge of the area.

    Nathanial Bates is my husbands great grandfather

  2. hikingtwins permalink
    24 January 2015 9:15 am

    As a visitor to New Zealand and a keen hiker, I found your blog very interesting to read. Going to try and get the book, thanks.

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