Surveyor and selector of the Canterbury site.
A new biography of Thomas, Joseph appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Very little is known of Joseph Thomas's life outside of his association with the New Zealand Company and the Canterbury Association. He was born in England about 1803 and educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. After his graduation he was posted to the 87th Regiment but later obtained a lieutenancy in the 19th. In the late 1820s he saw service in India and, for a time, served as aide-de-camp to Sir John Malcolm, the Governor of Bombay (1826-30). Early in the 1830s, Thomas retired from the army and travelled in South America. On his return to England he published (1839) a collection of drawings made on his journeys. He came to New Zealand in 1840 and surveyed for the New Zealand Company in Wellington, Wanganui, Wairarapa, Hawke's Bay. and Otago, before returning to England where his interest in the colonisation of the South Island was revealed in evidence before Lord Mounteagle's Committee on Irish Immigration, 1847. In July 1848 he returned to New Zealand to select, survey, and prepare a site for the Canterbury Association's settlement.
Between August 1849 and March 1850 he decided on the site, won the reluctant consent of Sir George Grey and Bishop Selwyn, superintended the survey and mapping of 2 ½ million acres, named the towns, sites, and streets for Christchurch, Sumner, and Lyttelton, and issued squatters' licences to the Deans Brothers and Rhodes. With £20,000 to spend, he was determined to prepare thoroughly; he imported timber, carpenters, Maori road gangs, built wooden barracks, agents' and customs houses, and a jetty. He planned engineering works and laid out the Sumner Road, but ran out of money before its completion and contracted debts in expectation of the association's land sales in England. But he had halted all works on 14 March 1850. When J. R. Godley arrived a month later, he needlessly closed the works, too, and reprimanded Thomas for extravagance. When Godley was confirmed as agent, a position which Thomas had been half promised, he resigned and returned to England. His subsequent career is obscure.
Thomas possessed tremendous resolution and drive, but was also hasty, capricious, and quick to make enemies, as he did of Godley, Torlesse, and Cass. Godley accused him of exceeding instructions; Torlesse wrote bitterly of contrariness and insults; Cass, however, eventually finished the works Thomas had planned and begun. Thomas could see the great importance of pastoralism in Canterbury, which Godley and the association refused to do, and he won the battles over Canterbury's site and place names. Many of the first settlers expected conditions to be much better when they arrived, but that they were not was no fault of the chief surveyor, who was basically hampered because the association's scheme of land sales had failed. Thomas's job was difficult and he received no thanks and was soon forgotten, but with all his faults he gave Canterbury a better start than that which any previous Wakefield settlement had enjoyed.
by Edmund Bohan, M.A., School Teacher and Professional Singer (overseas).
- Letters from Early New Zealand, 1850-53, Godley, C. (1951)
- John Robert Godley of Canterbury, Carrington, C. E. (1950)
- The Torlesse Papers, Maling, P. B. (ed.) (1958)
- A History of Canterbury, Vol. I, Hight, J. A., and Straubel, C. R. (1957)
- Press (Christchurch) 16 Dec 1909, 12 Dec 1925.