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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.


STOKES, John Lort


Early hydrographer.

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

John Lort Stokes was born in 1812 at “Scotch-well”, near Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, the second son of Henry Stokes, whose father, John Rees, assumed the surname Stokes. His mother was Anne, daughter of George Phillips, M.D., and grand-daughter of John Lort, of Prickeston Pembrokeshire. Stokes first entered the Navy in 1824 as a first-class volunteer on the Prince Regent at Sheerness. Almost immediately he transferred to the Beagle, in which vessel he served through all ranks from midshipman to commander. During the next 18 years Beagle was exploring and surveying the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and charting the Straits of Magellan and the little known regions about Torres Strait, the Timor Sea, and Western Australia. On these voyages Stokes worked under FitzRoy and became the friend and companion of Charles Darwin. While exploring the Victoria River, on the north-west coast of Australia, Stokes received a severe spear wound and suffered from the effects of this until the end of his life.

In September 1843 Stokes returned to England. During the next two years he wrote Discoveries in Australia (two volumes, 1846) which covered the voyages of the Beagle between 1837 and 1843 - the period of his command. On 4 July 1846 he received his captaincy and, in October of the following year, was appointed to command HMS Acheron. For the next four years he surveyed the New Zealand coastline, charted Foveaux Strait accurately, and made major corrections on existing charts of the South Island. In this connection he reported that only the portions surveyed by Cook had been charted accurately. At this time Stokes and W. J. W. Hamilton explored much of the Murihiku Block. He was very fulsome in his praise of this area as a site for future settlement, but this opinion was challenged by Tuckett. While Stokes was exploring Foveaux Strait he reported to Sir George Grey of the desire of the local Maoris to sell to the Government certain areas of their land. The outcome of this was that, shortly after the Acheron left New Zealand, Mantell began negotiations to purchase the Murihiku Block.

When the Acheron was paid off in Sydney, Stokes returned to England. From 1860 to 1863 he surveyed the coast of Devonshire. In 1864 he was promoted to Rear Admiral, in 1877 to Vice-Admiral, and, six years later, to Admiral. He retired from the Navy in 1878 and lived at Scotch-well, where he was made County Magistrate.

Stokes was twice married. He died on 11 June 1885. As a hydrographer Stokes was noted for the accuracy of his surveys, and charts based upon his work have remained in use until comparatively recent years.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • Journal of the Royal Geographic Society, Vol. 21 (1851), “Survey of the Southern Part of the Middle Island of New Zealand”, Stokes, J. L.
  • Proceedings of the Royal Geographic Society, Vol. 7 (1885) (Obit)
  • The Times (London), 13 Jun 1885 (Obit).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.