Thomas Noel Brodrick (known as Noel) was born to Mary Anne Potts and her husband, Thomas Brodrick, a stock and share broker, at Islington, London, England, on 25 December 1855. He came to New Zealand with his family on the Nimroud in 1860. After settling in Auckland the Brodrick family moved to Invercargill in 1864. Brodrick was educated privately and, after first trying commerce as a career, was appointed a survey cadet by J. H. Baker, inspector of surveys for Southland.
Qualifying as a licensed surveyor in 1877, Brodrick became an assistant to Baker, who was appointed chief surveyor of Canterbury in the new post-provincial Survey Department. Brodrick's first field work in Canterbury was the redefinition of old grants and titles on Banks Peninsula. At Akaroa on 30 March 1881 he married Helen Aylmer, with whom he had four children. Until 1887 Brodrick continued to carry out settlement surveys on the Canterbury Plains and topographical work in the Southern Alps.
In 1888 Brodrick was appointed district surveyor and transferred to Timaru. His work over the next five years provided an enduring legacy for future generations of New Zealand climbers. Initially he was responsible for surveying the mountain boundaries of many pastoral runs, whose Crown land leases were expiring at that time. This necessitated a comprehensive topographical survey and triangulation of most of the eastern side of the alps, from the Rangitata River in the north to the Hunter River in the south. Brodrick was able to calculate accurately the heights of most of the major peaks using methods developed by the British in India, although the precision was also an outcome of his painstaking attention to detail. He named a peak at the head of the Tasman Glacier Mt Aylmer after his wife's family, and a small tributary of the Mueller Glacier after his elder daughter Metelille.
During this period Brodrick made a pioneering study of the great glaciers to determine their flow characteristics. This study gained the attention of European glacier experts. In 1890, with a survey cadet and a dog for company, Brodrick made a difficult first crossing of a pass, subsequently named after him, over the main divide between Lake Ohau and Lake Paringa. Brodrick's name is also given to a peak on the main divide of the alps.
Between 1889 and 1903 he undertook roading and settlement surveys in the Canterbury land district. As district surveyor he supervised the upgrading of the Hermitage road, the construction of tracks and bridges to facilitate access to the glaciers, and the erection of the Ball and Malte Brun huts on Tasman Glacier. For a time the Malte Brun hut was called Brodrick's hut. All this work helped promote the Mt Cook region as a tourist attraction.
In 1904 Brodrick took charge of the purchase and subdivision of Flaxbourne estate in Marlborough under the Liberal government's land settlement legislation. He soon became convinced of the inefficiency of compulsory purchase procedures, since the owners of Flaxbourne disputed the value of the property and asserted their right to retain areas in protracted legal hearings. Later he was to be a firm supporter of W. F. Massey's policy whereby Crown leaseholders were able to freehold their properties after a period of occupation.
In July 1906 Brodrick was promoted and transferred to Gisborne as land officer for Poverty Bay and district surveyor. His duties included membership of the Tairawhiti District Maori Land Board. He quickly rose through the administrative ranks, being appointed successively commissioner of Crown lands and chief surveyor for the land districts of Hawke's Bay (1909), Canterbury (1910) and Wellington (1912). In 1915 he was appointed under-secretary of the Lands and Survey Department, despite his misgivings that Prime Minister and Minister of Lands W. F. Massey would block his appointment in favour of H. M. Skeet, an Aucklander.
On his promotion Brodrick immediately became embroiled in the wartime National government's plans to provide land for the settlement of First World War discharged soldiers. This proved his greatest professional challenge. With Massey absent overseas for long periods during the war, it fell on Brodrick's shoulders to prepare for the soldiers' return. However, planning and execution of the settlement scheme was beset with problems. Brodrick had to operate with a reduced staff at the very time when the duties of his department were being significantly increased. Because there was a shortage of viable Crown land reserves, Brodrick was forced by public pressure to obtain land for the settlement scheme on the fickle open market. Opposed to the compulsory purchase of land, he was obliged to follow a conservative land-buying policy, much to the annoyance of the returning soldiers and the land-owning fraternity. His efforts to provide the nation's reward to its defenders have not been remembered fondly in New Zealand folklore, nor by professional historians.
Although he had been vigorous in his younger days, Brodrick's health declined under the pressure of soldier settlement administration difficulties, and also family worries. His two sons served in the New Zealand forces during the war and both were wounded. In 1919 Brodrick was diagnosed as having diabetes, an affliction which plagued him for the remainder of his life and contributed to his death. Health problems did not, however, stop him from enjoying long walks, a solace during the stressful days of his tenure as under-secretary. His morning walk to work from his residence in Kelburn to the Government Buildings was sometimes taken in the company of Massey.
Apart from his head office duties, Brodrick served on the State Advances Board, the Air Board, the Workers' Dwellings Board, the Surveyors' Board and the Board of Land Purchase Commissioners. In this last capacity he travelled around the country inspecting properties offered to the Crown for soldier settlement. For a period in 1920 he also carried the responsibilities of surveyor general. Although he had wished to retire in 1919, Brodrick's loyalty to the department restrained him until early 1922. In recognition of his long service and particularly of his work on the settlement of soldiers, he was made an OBE in 1919 and Companion of the Imperial Service Order in 1920.
Brodrick was one of the original 28 members of the New Zealand Alpine Club, founded in 1891, and he maintained close links with the club throughout his life. His practical knowledge would have made him a valuable climbing partner, although he expressed no desire to participate in recreational climbing. In 1892 Brodrick, with other well-known surveyors, became a founder member of the Polynesian Society. He subsequently contributed to a discussion in the society's journal on Maori canoe construction techniques.
Brodrick was a competent and kindly man who won the respect of all those who came in contact with him. He took much delight in the country through which he travelled on official duties, although as was the case for most of his generation his pleasure was animated by the potential he saw for development. He was hard-working and enjoyed the rewards of high office, including the company of the political élite. Brodrick liked having his family around him and during his time in Wellington his home was always open to friends and colleagues passing through the capital. In retirement both he and his wife suffered periods of ill health. They went to live in Christchurch, but spent considerable time at Hanmer Springs for the sake of Helen's health. She died there on 5 January 1930. Thomas Noel Brodrick died on 12 July 1931 at Martinborough after collapsing at his son's farm at Tuturumuri. He was buried at Bromley cemetery, Christchurch.