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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.


THOMSON, John Turnbull


Civil engineer.

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

J. T. Thomson was born on 10 August 1821, at Glorum, Northumberland, the third child of Alexander Thomson and his wife, Janet, née Turnbull. After his father was killed in a hunting accident in 1830, the boy went to live with his mother's people in Abbey St. Bathans, Berwickshire. He was educated at Wooler and Duns Academy, later spending some time attached to Marischal College, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh University before studying engineering at Peter Nicholson's School of Engineering at Newcastle-on-Tyne.

He arrived in the Malay Straits in 1838 and was employed by the East India Survey. In 1841 he was appointed Government Surveyor at Singapore and in 1844 became Superintendent of Roads and Works. He was responsible for the design and construction of a number of notable engineering works including bridges, roads, and hospitals. He conducted the allotment survey of Singapore, the topographical survey of the island of Singapore and its dependencies, and the marine survey of the Straits of Singapore and the east coasts of Johore and Penang. His outstanding achievement was the erection of the Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca Rock. In 1853 his health failed and he returned to England where he studied modern engineering techniques, and travelled widely through Britain and the Continent inspecting engineering works. Early in 1857 he emigrated to New Zealand and landed at Auckland with the intention of practising his profession, but decided to try sheep farming in the South Island. Such was the then limited knowledge of the hinterland that he was told by the Canterbury Survey Office that all suitable land was already occupied. On the eve of his return to England, however, he was engaged by Captain Cargill as Chief Surveyor for the province of Otago.

In May 1857 he arrived in Otago. He found the Survey Department badly administered and surveying lagging behind settlement. His Malayan experience had convinced him that systematic surveying was an essential prerequisite to the orderly settlement of new territories. He introduced the method of survey which was in use by the India Survey as a cheap, accurate, and speedy system suitable for the Otago situation. One of his first duties was to select and lay out the town of Invercargill. The interior of the country was unknown and he conducted a reconnaissance survey in 1857, exploring the Waiau, Aparima, Oreti, and Mataura Rivers to their sources. At the end of the year he explored the northern districts: he followed the Waitaki River to its source and discovered the Lindis Pass, which he traversed, and came upon the sources of the Clutha in Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. As a result, 7 million acres of new country were opened for settlement.

In 1858 he was appointed Provincial Engineer and formed the first metalled road in Dunedin. In the following year he laid down the main trunk road, via Blueskin northwards and through the Taieri southwards. His engineering work included the levelling of Bell Hill and the construction of the Taieri Bridge. But the discovery of gold in Tuapeka in 1861 resulted in the rapid development of settlement, for which the Survey Department was not prepared. Thomson reorganised to meet the new demands and in 1867 the Gold Fields Surveys were placed under the supervision of the Survey Department. Thomson decided to divide the area into four districts, and established survey offices at Lawrence, Queenstown, Clyde, and Hamiltons. By 1869 he reported that the progress of minor triangulation had made possible the correct recording of every land claim within the area. After the passing of the Otago Waste Lands Act of 1872, the offices of Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands and Commissioner to the Waste Lands Board were separated from that of Chief Surveyor and Thomson retained the two former offices.

Thomson erected an observatory at his home in 1869 to ascertain the longitude of the initial point of the provincial surveys by independent astronomical observations. In 1874 he was asked to advise the American and British expeditions which came to observe the transit of Venus and, on his recommendation, the American party made Queenstown its base, instead of Bluff as originally planned, with very successful results. The New Zealand Government asked the leader of the British party, Major Palmer, to undertake an examination of the state of the New Zealand surveys, and his report to Parliament revealed serious shortcomings. Thomson's direction of the Otago Surveys compared most favourably with that of the other provincial departments. On the abolition of the provinces, Thomson was appointed as the first Surveyor-General of the colony. He proceeded to coordinate and reform the various provincial departments and to introduce a uniform system of surveying. In 1877 he left his lieutenant, McKerrow, in charge and returned for a visit to England during which he lectured to various learned societies. In 1879 he retired to Glastonbury, Invercargill, where he was Mayor for a time and contested the Mataura seat unsuccessfully in 1881.

Thomson was an able administrator and a tremendous worker. Accurate and exacting in his standards of professional competence, he was equally exacting in his personal relations, and his cold reserved manner was intimidating. Humourless and austere, he was a demanding employer who expected loyal and industrious service but was scrupulous in recording the merits of his staff in his official reports. His integrity ensured that he carried out his professional duties with strict impartiality, avoiding issues which involved political considerations. He was a prolific writer and published many articles on professional subjects. Other publications included an English translation of a Malayan autobiography, reminiscences of Singapore, and philosophical reflections on moral and religious problems. A highly intelligent man, with a logical, analytical mind, he delighted in the methodical and systematic investigation of natural phenomena. He considered that natural laws governed the universe, including the relationships of man to his fellows and to God, and attempted to reconcile his Anglican faith with these laws.

He was a founder of the Otago and Southland Institutes, to which he contributed numerous papers on scientific subjects including ethnological studies. Through his knowledge of Hindustani and Malay, he became interested in comparative linguistics and developed a theory of racial diffusion based on philological evidence.

He was a keen amateur painter of landscapes, working mostly in oils; his paintings have little artistic merit but from a topographical viewpoint are of some interest today.

Thomson married Jane Williamson of Dunedin in 1876. He died at his home on 16 October 1884.

by Gloria Margaret Strathern, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S. formerly Librarian, Hocken Library, Dunedin.

  • Early New Zealand Engineers, Furkert, F. W. (1953)
  • History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
  • Dunedin Punch, 17 Nov 1866
  • John Turnbull Thomson, Hall-Jones, F. G. (1964).


Gloria Margaret Strathern, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S. formerly Librarian, Hocken Library, Dunedin.