Frederick Tuckett was born at Frenchay, near Bristol, England, on 27 August 1807. He was the fifth and youngest son of Phillip Debell Tuckett, a woollen manufacturer, and his wife, Elizabeth Curtis. His parents were members of the Society of Friends and Frederick was educated at a Quaker school before being apprenticed to a tanner in 1824. In 1829 he went to the United States, where he travelled extensively. On his return to England in 1831 he studied civil engineering and was then employed in railway construction.
In April 1841 Tuckett was engaged by the New Zealand Company as principal civil engineer and surveyor to the intended settlement of Nelson. He sailed for New Zealand on the Will Watch with the advance party, reaching Wellington on 8 September 1841. After discussions with the governor, William Hobson, the party proceeded to Blind Bay (Tasman Bay), anchoring in the Astrolabe Roadstead on 9 October. Tuckett was almost immediately at loggerheads with Captain Arthur Wakefield, the settlement's leader, over the suitability of the land. Although it was apparent that there was insufficient arable land at the site selected, Whakatu, the survey of Nelson went ahead, in preparation for the settlers' arrival. Tuckett's high-handed manner soon alienated his assistant, Samuel Stephens, and his labourers protested against the long hours he would have them work.
The first immigrants to Nelson arrived in the Fifeshire on 1 February 1842. Sufficient land was available for suburban sections within reasonable distance of the town but Tuckett had to explore further afield for rural land. In March he went to Massacre Bay (Golden Bay), finding some 55,000 acres he considered suitable, as well as useful resources of coal and timber. In November Captain Wakefield dispatched J. S. Cotterell to explore the territory to the south-east of the settlement, and he returned with news of a vast area of suitable land in the Wairau Valley. Tuckett visited the district in February 1843, and survey parties set out in April.
While the company awaited Commissioner William Spain's judgement on the legitimacy of its claim to the land at Wairau, Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata resisted the survey, pulling up survey pegs, burning huts, starting cultivations, and evicting the surveyors. The decision to arrest Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata for arson led to a violent confrontation at Tuamarina on 17 June, in which Te Rangihaeata's wife and at least three others were killed. Tuckett, with his Quaker background, had refused to bear arms. He and the surveyor, J. W. Barnicoat, disregarded Captain Wakefield's advice, after firing had ceased, that surrender was the best policy, and withdrew. Wakefield was one of the 22 settlers killed, while Tuckett and 26 others were eventually able to make their way to safety. Tuckett reached Cloudy Bay that night and sailed to Wellington. Later in the month he returned to Nelson to act as resident agent in Arthur Wakefield's place.
Unnerved by these events, and never at ease with the Nelson labourers under his control, Tuckett found the task of agent an arduous and thankless one. His treatment of the inefficient and disaffected labour force led to a threatening confrontation in July, before William Fox took over as the company's agent in September. Seeing little chance of a speedy conclusion to the company's land claims in the Wairau, and disinclined, as a pacifist, to remain in a warlike environment, Tuckett made plans to return to Britain and resigned in February 1844.
Tuckett, however, was unexpectedly offered a further appointment with the New Zealand Company, as principal surveyor and agent to choose a site for the projected New Edinburgh settlement. He accepted on condition that he should have a completely free hand in selecting the site in the South Island. He chartered Captain Thomas Wing's schooner, Deborah, and left Nelson on 31 March, taking J. W. Barnicoat and W. E. Davison as his assistants. J. J. Symonds, the government representative who was to oversee Tuckett's selection and purchase, embarked at Wellington. The expedition first called at Port Cooper (Lyttelton), which the company expected Tuckett to confirm as the site, but he rejected it, considering the harbour too exposed and agricultural land inaccessible and inferior. At Waikouaiti Tuckett and Symonds fell out. Symonds understood that his instructions forbade him to allow any survey to proceed until title had been transferred to the company, but Tuckett insisted that a survey of the bay go ahead. Symonds returned to Wellington forthwith.
Tuckett proceeded south by land, meeting the Deborah on 26 April at Deborah Bay in Otago Harbour. He explored the harbour and its environs, which impressed him as more suitable than any site he had yet seen. Determined to investigate all possibilities, he continued overland to the mouth of the Matau (Clutha) River, finding coal at Kaitangata en route. Rejoining the Deborah, he sailed further south, and landed the missionary J. F. H. Wohlers at Ruapuke Island on 17 May. After explorations and surveys at the Oreti (New) and Jacobs rivers, and at Bluff and Stewart Island, in miserable weather, the Deborah headed north. Tuckett disembarked again at the Clutha and walked back to Otago Harbour, now convinced that here was the most auspicious site for New Edinburgh.
On 20 June 1844 local Maori signed an agreement to sell the land, and Tuckett and his assistants began their survey. On 31 July the deed of purchase to the Otago block was signed at Koputai (Port Chalmers). All activity was suspended, however, when the New Zealand Company collapsed, and Tuckett asked to be released. He left Otago on 22 December and returned to Nelson, intending to leave shortly for England. However, he spent most of 1845 travelling in Australia, returning to Nelson in April 1846 to wind up his affairs. He left New Zealand on the Star of China on 14 December 1846. His choice of the site of New Edinburgh was vindicated by the success of the Dunedin settlement, which went ahead in 1848.
Despite his discomfort with the New Zealand Company's aims and methods, and particularly with its land policies, Tuckett made generous efforts towards the success of the Nelson colony, assisting individuals, particularly the German settlers, with loans, gifts of seeds and agricultural advice. He was a member of the committee which set up the first school in the settlement in 1842, and was active among the small body of Quakers there. Before his departure he gave the Nelson Lutheran congregation his house, and presented the Nelson School Society with a gift of books and the rental income from some of his property.
From England Tuckett corresponded with settlers and assisted others to emigrate. He kept up a voluminous exchange with the isolated Wohlers on Ruapuke Island, sending him gifts of equipment; they had lively and argumentative discussions about Wohlers's missionary methods. He involved himself with the Aborigines Protection Society and other humanitarian causes, and maintained his interest in New Zealand exploration through his membership of the Royal Geographical Society. He never ceased to criticise what he saw as 'the robbery of the Colonists & of the Natives by the New Zealand Company'. He settled in London but spent much time in travel abroad. Tuckett never married, and died in London on 16 April 1876.