Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Pioneer surveyors in Canterbury, Nelson, and Westland Provinces.

Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson (1841–1934), Edward Dobson (1847–1934), and George Dobson (1840–66) were the sons of Edward Dobson (1816–1908), who arrived at Lyttelton in the Cressy on 27 December 1850 with Arthur and George, their mother arriving, with the rest of the family, on the Fatima in 1851. Finding it difficult to settle down in Canterbury with two small sons, Dobson in 1851 sent Arthur and George to stay with their uncle, the Rev. Charles Dobson, Vicar of Buckland, Prossers Plains, Tasmania, where they remained for three years. On their way back (1854) their ship touched at Nelson, where the boys stayed a while with another uncle, Alfred Dobson, who was then surveying Nelson Province, and who soon was to become the Nelson Provincial Surveyor. Their father meanwhile had built a small cottage in Christchurch and a “soddy” at Sumner, as well as a small office at Lyttelton. In 1854 Edward Dobson was appointed Surveyor for Canterbury Province and, as money was more plentiful, the Dobson boys were enrolled in a small church school, later to become Christ's College.

In 1859–60 Arthur was employed in surveying work in Lyttelton, having charge of boring operations to establish the depth of the mud in the harbour bed. He was also engaged in surveying roads near Kaiapoi and Rangiora, and in the survey work connected with the proposed Lyttelton-Christchurch railway tunnel. Later he worked on a survey scheme for draining 18,000 acres of the Rangiora Swamp formed by the Eyre and Cust Rivers. In 1860 he assisted on the survey of the upper waters of the Hurunui and Lake Sumner, being associated with John Henry Whitcombe, then Government Engineer in North Canterbury. In 1861 Arthur marked out the line for the main south road from Riccarton to the Rangitata River, and surveyed the road line from Timaru to Waitaki River. He also worked with Von Haast in the geological survey of the Port Hills. Early in 1862 he was with Von Haast in the Mackenzie Country traversing the Ohau, Pukaki, and Tekapo Rivers, in preparation for fixing boundaries for some grazing runs. In 1863 he travelled on the West Coast, then unknown country, surveying a block extending from Grey River to Abut Head, and inland to the main range, while his brother Edward was clearing a rough track through the bush along the old Maori route over the Hurunui Saddle (Harper Pass).

Arthur spent seven months surveying on the West Coast, and then returned to Christchurch to report. Other surveyors were indignant that such work was given to a boy, but Thomas Cass the Chief Surveyor, was very pleased and offered him further contracts. One of these was to find out if there was an available pass out of the Waimakariri watershed into valleys running to the west. On 8 March 1864 he set out with his brother, George, for the upper Waimakariri, where the latter was setting out road lines. At Craigieburn, Edward joined him and accompanied him up the Waimakariri and into the valley of the Otira, where he climbed to 3,000 ft. When he returned to Christchurch he made a sketch of the country traversed and gave it with a report to Cass. Dobson did not name the pass, which he found to be very steep on the western side. When the gold rush began, a committee of businessmen offered a £200 prize for anyone who would find a better or more suitable pass from Canterbury to the West Coast. At the same time George Dobson was sent to examine every available pass between the watershed of the Taramakau, Waimakariri, and the Hurunui, and after examining passes at the head of every valley he reported that “Arthur's” pass was by far the most suitable for the direct crossing.

In 1864 the Canterbury Provincial Government decided to construct a road to connect Christchurch and Hokitika, a distance of 156 miles. Edward Dobson had charge of the work, which was completed so quickly that by July 1866 the road was open to coach traffic. It ran over Porters Pass, through to Cass, along the right bank of the Waimakariri to Bealey, up Bealey and over Arthur's Pass, and into Otira and down the Taramakau. Arthur Dobson completed the West Coast surveys in 1866, and then worked for the Nelson Government, laying out roads through Moutere Hills and other valleys.

In 1866 George Dobson was working on the road construction in the Grey Valley. He was missed on 24 May, and it was later discovered that Sullivan, Burgess, Kelly, and Levy, the Maungatapu murderers, had mistaken him for a gold buyer named Fox and murdered him.

Arthur Dobson, in 1867–68, opened up country in the Waimea and Motueka Valley, and surveyed a foot track over the Mt. Arthur Range. In April 1869 he was appointed District Engineer on the Nelson—West Coast goldfields with headquarters at Westport, and in 1871 he succeeded Blackett as Chief Surveyor for Nelson Province. The General Government appointed him Nelson District Engineer in 1875, and in this capacity he was in charge of all railway constructions in the area. As Chief Surveyor he was associated with Sir James Hector in exploring and mapping the Westport coalfields. In 1878 Arthur Dobson left Westport and joined his father in private practice in Christchurch. Their first undertaking was to mark out the road to the Rakaia bridge. They did engineering and survey work at Coalgate, Ashley township, and in the Heathcote Valley in 1879, and in 1880 undertook the Timaru water-supply works from the Pareora River to a reservoir west of the town and resurveyed an earlier scheme which had been unsuccessful. In 1884 he was employed for 13 months by the Public Works Department surveying the projected railway line from the main line near Waikari up the Hurunui and down the Taramakau to a place opposite Jackson.

By 1883 there was agitation afoot to link Canterbury and the West Coast by rail. C. Napier Bell surveyed the Arthur's Pass route, and Dobson the Hurunui, the Arthur's Pass route being chosen. An Act was passed authorising the Government to give payment in land to any substantial company which was formed to prosecute the work. The company was formed, and two financiers, Alan Scott of Christchurch, and Charles Fell of Nelson, together with Arthur Dobson, visited England in 1885 to raise capital for the Midland Railway Co. Edward Dobson, with his long experience in such matters, was called upon to advise on legal points involving title and occupation of land. On his return to New Zealand in September 1885 Arthur Dobson found little work awaiting him. He therefore went to Australia where he entered into partnership for the construction of Warrnambool breakwater designed by Sir John Coode. On the completion of this project he did survey work for the Victoria Railway Department. Dobson lost considerable money when a financial crisis closed all but two Victorian banks, and this misfortune led him in 1898 to return to New Zealand. He took over his father's office and was soon busy, first on water races in the Rakaia district, and then on land surveys. In June 1899 the Timaru Harbour Board engaged him to lay out a railway from the breakwater to the stone quarries, and later he reported on an abortive proposal to supply Christchurch with electricity from a scheme on the Waimakariri. In 1901 Dobson was appointed City Engineer in Christchurch, and held the post until 1921. There were 40 miles of streets when he began, and by the end of his service there were 175, while the population had doubled. He completed Sydenham Waterworks, and also began to tar seal the city streets. He built the Colombo Street and Fitzgerald Avenue bridges over the Avon, the Colombo Street bridge over the Heathcote, and also designed and supervised the construction of the bridge over the Waimakariri on the Great North Road.

A tardy recognition of the Dobson family's services to New Zealand came in 1930, when Arthur, the senior survivor of the brothers, was knighted. He died on 5 March 1934, a man who had done much to open up the lands and resources of three provinces. He had come to Christchurch on the first ship, and yet lived to see the Lyttelton-Christchurch railway electrified. An obelisk by the road running westwards from Arthur's Pass stands today as a memorial to him.

His brother, Edward, was for some time manager of the Kaituna and Ahuriri properties of the Rhodes Brothers. He afterwards farmed on his own account at Okoroire, Waikato, and Te Aroha, and for 30 years was judge of stock at shows, his specialty being Friesians. Edward was regarded highly as a Maori scholar and an authority on Maori language. He died at Waipukurau in October 1934.

Both surviving brothers married. Arthur married on 20 November 1866, at Nelson, Eleanor, daughter of Henry Lewis, a surveyor on the Nelson Provincial staff. Edward (in 1884) married Beatrice, daughter of T. H. Potts of Governors Bay.

by Oliver Arthur Gillespie, M.B.E., M.M. (1895–1960), Author.

  • Reminiscences, Dobson, A. D. (1930)
  • Early New Zealand Engineers, Furkert, F. W. (1953)
  • Press (Christchurch), 1934 (Obit).


Oliver Arthur Gillespie, M.B.E., M.M. (1895–1960), Author.