John Turnbull Thomson: First Surveyor-General of NZ
With trained professional eyes, New Zealand’s early surveyor/explorers sketched and mapped their way up the rivers and through the mountains of our country. Their journals and art works form a large, important, but scattered record. How fortunate then that the descendants of John Turnbull Thomson had kept together over 300 paintings and sketches in a unique collection. John Hall-Jones, with justifiable pride in his great-grandfather’s achievements, takes us on a journey from Thomson’s youthful years in Northumberland, through the realising of his dream of travelling to the Far East (where he remained for fifteen years), and on to southern New Zealand. Those who have enjoyed Dr Hall-Jones’s 1971 Mr Surveyor Thomson (amongst his many earlier southern histories) will again find many quotations from Thomson’s journals. Although these are now necessarily abridged in early chapters of John Turnbull Thomson the new and expanded pieces in earlier chapters are ample recompense.
Dr Hall-Jones has travelled many miles from his home in Invercargill (which city Thomson laid out in 1856) to the border country of England and Scotland Penang Island and Singapore in search of his ancestor.
He has tramped in Thomson and his reconnaissance party’s footsteps through inland Southland and Central Otago (then unknown to Europeans), and has stood with Thomson’s ghost on the crags from where he had taken his survey observations and made his sketches. Fascinating, and essentially valuable to our historical knowledge, Hall-Jones traces throughout the book the origins of dozens of place-names given by Thomson to mountains, ranges and rivers. Many are nostalgically derived from his homeland, while others have come from encounters with wild dogs and pigs. The well-known Pigroot Road has its origins with Thomson; he gave the splendidly apt name Mt Aspiring to that dramatic peak; and Thomson with his party were the first Europeans to approach Mt Cook from the east. But oh for a modern-day map with which to trace the journeys.
Thomson’s reconnaissance maps are reproduced but are not easy to follow today. Perhaps Appendix A on Thomson’s forebears might have been sacrificed? For the general reader they are sufficiently covered in Chapters 1, 15 and the Epilogue.
The landscape form of this book suits the sixteen colour reproductions. Thomson is no Charles Heaphy, but here are competent, colourful and draughtsmanlike depictions of the home farm of Glororum The Padang and the dramatic Horsburgh lighthouse at Singapore (Thomson designed and oversaw the building of the pharos), the first house in Invercargill, Dunedin, Wellington, Mt Cook, Skippers Canyon, primitive Queenstown, two fine bridges (which Thomson also designed), as well as portions of his immaculate reconnaissance maps. There were also novelties in the north, and Chapter 14 has paintings of Maori Rotorua and Taupo, Te Wairoa, Lake Rotomahana and the Pink and White Terraces. In selecting the nearly ninety excellent black and white reproductions of paintings and sketches, Dr Hall-Jones happily includes the humorous, along with the grand views and topographical fieldbook sketches. All accord well with text and quotations.
Some readers may be puzzled by the cover subtitle First Surveyor-General of New Zealand. Wasn’t that Felton Mathew? Mathew was provisional Surveyor-General in 1840 under New South Wales administration. Charles W Ligar was Surveyor-General by Royal appointment from 1841-1856 under colonial government. Provincial government between 1856 and 1876 saw the role of Surveyor-General abandoned, each Province having a Chief Surveyor. With the abolition of the provinces in 1876, responsible central government reinstated the office of Surveyor-General. No one was better placed than Thomson to assume this high position. While Chief Surveyor and Engineer for Otago Province, he had established the most advanced system of survey in the country. Following his move from Dunedin to Wellington he toured the country observing the state of surveys and sketching as he went. In 1879 he retired to Invercargill where he died in 1884 aged 63.
John Hall-Jones, in his introduction writes John Turnbull Thomson has probably not received the recognition he deserves. In this attractive book Dr Hall-Jones has accorded him full honour.
Nola Easdale is the author of a history of surveying in New Zealand. She lives in Howick.