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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.




Engineer and surveyor.

A new biography of Rochfort, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

John Rochfort was born in Bayswater, London, in 1832 and as a youth served an engineering apprenticeship under Sir I. K. Brunel. He later decided to visit New Zealand and, with a brother, arrived in Wellington via Lyttelton on the Marmora in 1851. After a reconnaissance journey up the coast to Wanganui, Rochfort accepted a temporary position on the survey staff under Robert Park to mark out native reserves in the Rangitikei Block. Conditions were unsatisfactory. Rochfort soon resigned and travelled over the lower Ruahines and across country to Ahuriri to collect his instruments which he had sent round in anticipation of surveying the Ahuriri Block. He decided, however, to go to Australia and left in mid-1852 for Melbourne. After a lively time on the Victorian diggings he returned to London in October 1853 to publish a most interesting frank narrative of his adventures.

Within a few years he was back in New Zealand with headquarters at Riwaka, Nelson, and in 1858 he commenced a series of engagements for the Nelson Provincial Government. In 1859 he surveyed the Canterbury-Nelson boundary and travelled from Lake Sumner over Harper Pass and down the Taramakau to Lake Brunner and over to the Grey, then down to the coast. A second journey from Nelson that year found him again at the Buller in August, and in November he was eventually able to start a canoe journey up the Buller, but the survey was abruptly ended by the loss of the canoe and all supplies in the river. Coal seams had been noted and F. Millington, of his party, collected the first gold from the river. Rochfort proposed the name Westmore-land for the region, but Westland appeared on his accompanying map. In 1861 Rochfort discovered the Amuri Pass, for which he claimed a reward from the Nelson Government and later, both independently and in company with James Burnett, carried out extensive exploratory surveys in the Mokihinui, Wangapeka, and Karamea areas, in the course of which coal and other minerals were reported.

In November 1863 he was appointed Assistant Surveyor to the Canterbury Provincial Government and in 1864 completed the coastline survey of South Westland north to Abut Head. He transferred to the General Government in 1869 and two years later laid out a line of railway – not that subsequently adopted – over the Rimutaka Range. From 1874 to 1876 he was engineer to the Timaru and Gladstone Board of Works, but rejoined the Survey Department.

His main task came in 1883 with his commission to investigate the central route of the North Island Main Trunk railway. Leaving Marton in June 1883 he went up the Rangitikei and Hautapu valleys to Karioi, where Maoris stopped him, then returned to Wanganui to seek the intercession of Major Kemp, but was again stopped at Ruakaka on the Manganui-o-te-Ao. Visits to Kemp and to Wellington to interview John Bryce preceded yet another advance up the Wanganui to Te Papa, where warning shots were fired over his head. After a short pause, however, Rochfort learned that the most resolute opponents of the survey had dispersed and he therefore returned to complete the traverse to Waimarino. At Tau-marunui there was further difficulty, which Rochfort circumvented by travelling north via West Taupo. Opposition was finally removed by a meeting at Kihikihi between Bryce and Wahanui after which Rochfort finished the northern sector of his survey. The work was an outstanding example of Rochfort's tenacity, courage, and unequalled eye for route location in broken bush country. He later completed a traverse and level survey and, although the problem of the descent from the Volcanic Plateau by the Spiral was left to later engineers to solve, the fact that the line throughout its distance substantially follows this route is a tribute to his work.

Rochfort married, first, in 1863, Mary Elizabeth Hackett, who died in 1864 and, secondly, in 1867, Amelia Susan Lewis, the daughter of the surveyor Henry Lewis. Rochfort left Government service in October 1887 and died at Kihikihi on 8 March 1893. Although the number of routes over which Rochfort has priority in discovery is not great, very few explorers surpassed his record of nearly 30 years in difficult field work on primary surveys.

by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.

  • The Adventures of a Surveyor in New Zealand, Rochfort, J. (1853)
  • Journal of the Royal Geographic Society, Vol. 32 (1862), “Journal of Two Expeditions to the West Coast of the Middle Island …”, Rochfort, J.
  • Engineers' and Assistants' Association Year Book, 1955–56, “Exploration … of the Marton – Te Awamutu Section of the North Island Main Trunk Railway”, Lee, J. R.


Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.