Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Brad Patterson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Joseph Thomas is said to have been born in Worcester, England, in 1803. His parents' names are unknown; his father was a former Portsea barrack master. Thomas served as an ensign in the 101st Regiment in 1816. In 1819 he entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, as a 'Gentleman Cadet', and was commissioned in the 87th (the Prince of Wales's Own Irish) Regiment of Foot in November 1822. Shortly afterwards he was detached to India, where he was stationed for nearly eight years. He was reputedly aide-de-camp to Sir John Malcolm, the governor of the Bombay presidency, for a time. About 1830, having transferred to the 19th (1st Yorkshire, North Riding) Regiment of Foot, he served in the West Indies. In 1833 he left the army with the rank of lieutenant. For the next five years Thomas travelled in North and South America, finding employment as a surveyor and mining engineer. A collection of his American drawings was published on his return to England in 1839.
Thomas arrived at Port Nicholson (Wellington), New Zealand, in the Adelaide on 7 March 1840, having purchased six secondary land orders from the New Zealand Company. To his disappointment the land was unavailable. In partnership with Edward Daniell, Thomas secured the lease of Joseph Toms's Paremata whale fishery and assumed control of the business. In May 1841 he accepted a position in William Mein Smith's survey corps. Confident of Thomas's abilities, Smith appointed him to head the Whanganui surveys. After nearly 12 months Thomas was recalled to undertake exploration surveys in the Porirua district. In March 1843, with most of Smith's officers, he was made redundant by the new principal surveyor, Samuel Brees.
In mid 1844 Thomas was approached to undertake contract surveys for the New Zealand Company at Otago under the direction of Frederick Tuckett. A decision to postpone this work freed Thomas to travel and assess the East Coast and Ahuriri (Hawke's Bay) districts. In 1845 the appointment of his former Wellington associate, C. H. Kettle, to head the Otago surveys, revived Thomas's interest. Although there was no place for him on the salaried staff, he obtained contracts to survey the Taieri and Molyneux districts. Thomas completed the work in early 1847 and returned to England in late 1847 or early 1848.
Thomas's return coincided with preparations for the Canterbury Association's New Zealand settlement. An experienced surveyor was needed to select and survey a site, and make preparation for the receipt of immigrants. Thomas was appointed in May 1848, on the strength of his references from the New Zealand Company and his evidence to Lord Monteagle's committee on Irish colonisation in April 1848. Arriving in New Zealand on the Bernicia in late November, he soon began exploration of his preferred site at Port Cooper (Lyttelton) and by the middle of 1849 the reluctant consent of both Governor George Grey and Bishop G. A. Selwyn had been secured.
In the association's brief the surveys were to be conducted according to a 'novel plan': a master map of the association's block was to be prepared so that settlers could have a relatively free choice of rural land when they arrived. The first requirement was a general triangulation. By January 1850 this encompassed 230,000 acres; contractors were employed to fill in topographical detail. Meanwhile, three town sites – Christchurch, Lyttelton and Sumner – were laid off, and sites for three further towns were identified.
Thomas's attention turned to public works and construction at the principal town. He was determined to prepare thoroughly, importing materials and labour. Barracks, storehouses and cottages were built and construction began on a road over the Port Hills. By April 1850, despite advances from the association, expenditure exceeded income. Preparations slowed down and came to a halt with the arrival of the association's new chief resident agent, J. R. Godley, in April 1850. Godley, before temporarily removing to Wellington, suspended all works and did not order a recommencement until late in the year. Much remained unfinished when the first settlers arrived in December 1850.
The inevitable criticism of the site and preparations fell, unfairly, on the chief surveyor. It was not this, however, but Godley's return to the settlement which led to Thomas's departure. Thomas had accepted employment, assuming that he would be confirmed as the association's chief officer in the colony, so strain between the two men was always likely. Differences of temperament – Godley was supercilious and condescending, Thomas bluff, but quick tempered – precipitated disagreement. Within a week of Godley's return Thomas had given 12 months' notice. Thereafter relations rapidly deteriorated and Godley dismissed Thomas in January 1851.
Transferring to Wellington, Thomas at first applied for depasturing licences at Ahuriri and Wairarapa. However, on 6 April 1852 he embarked for England, with the intention of placing his case before the Canterbury Association's committee of management. This exercise proved fruitless, and after a stay of 12 months, during which he married, Thomas returned to the colonies. In late 1853 he accepted a position with a New South Wales mining company, and shortly thereafter disposed of his New Zealand assets. His later years are shrouded in mystery. One report says that he died in Wellington in the 1880s, another that he died at St Kilda or Brighton, Victoria, Australia, at an unknown date.
Contemporaries found Thomas testy and capricious, but this should not obscure his talent as a surveyor. For his efforts he received little thanks. Others finished and received credit for the works he had planned and begun.