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Robert Hoddle: Pioneer surveyor, 1794-1881.

Summary: This paper, by the great granddaughter of the surveyor Robert Hoddle, outlines Hoddle's Australian experiences and discusses some of the maps he produced.


In early colonial Australia, the role of the surveyor was central to the expansion of settlement, even to the extension of government itself. The conflicting demands for topographical and cadastral mapping placed huge stress on the surveyors of the period. To explore and map this new territory, its mountains, rivers and plains, was a prime aim. But from the 1820s on, pressure by the pastoralists to take up land in areas under government control--'limits of location' as it was called--soon widened into demand for land outside these limits. No would-be settler--no squatter seeking broad acres, no small farmer--could legally own or hold a lease of land until it had first been surveyed. The continuing need for surveyors in the world of today has recently been highlighted all too clearly in two major tragic events: first, the lack of topographical maps showing agreed boundaries between East and West Timor which exacerbated the Timor conflict; and, secondly, the effect of the Indian Ocean tsunami in wiping out cadastral markings, even endangering official land ownership records--on a massive scale.

Robert Hoddle, who arrived in Sydney in 1823, was one of the very earliest surveyors engaged in this work in Australia. He was born in London in 1794, 'a most remarkable year in the French Revolution', as he later noted in his diary. (1) From 1809 to 1812 he was a cadet Royal Military Surveyor and Draftsman in that Corps of the Royal Engineers, trained by Ordnance Survey, whose headquarters were the Drawing Room of the Tower of London where maps were drawn and stored. Mathematics, Hoddle wrote in his diary, took up two days of the week, 'four days drawing Military Plans &c', together with instruction in Astronomy, Mapping, Topographical Drawing and Surveying. He was fortunate in his drawing teacher, Robert Dawson, an artist in his own right, who must have seen and encouraged talent in his cadets. Dawson, too, 'taught Surveying in the field'. It is noteworthy that Robert Dawson also taught drawing to cadets in the Royal Military College at Woolwich, among whom was a certain George Everest, (2) later to become Surveyor General of India. In 1812 Robert Hoddle was posted to Plymouth, the great English base on the south coast, where he was largely engaged in copying maps of fortifications that were critical for the country's defence, notably of Plymouth itself, and of Gibraltar. These fine maps are now preserved in the Map Room of the Public Record Office, London.

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1817, England, deep in economic depression, reduced her armed forces to peacetime strength. Robert Hoddle was only one of the many placed on half pay who, unable to find civilian employment in England, emigrated to the colonies in search of a better life. (For Hoddle, who was not an Army officer, half pay amounted to two shillings and fivepence per day.)


In 1822, leaving his wife and small daughter to await his securing a permanent appointment (it was seven years before they rejoined him, out in New South Wales), Hoddle sailed for the Cape of Good Hope, where he was appointed Assistant Surveyor in the Royal Engineers. In four months he surveyed almost four hundred square miles, from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, for which he received warm commendation. But he was restless and dissatisfied: his salary, which he claimed was insufficient, barely covering his expenses; the harsh climate; difficulties with his survey teams who were drawn from none-too-willing soldiers of the British occupying army, and with provisions to be obtained from the often unc-ooperative Dutch (Boer) settlers; but, above all, his horror at the 'inhuman traffic' in slaves-he witnessed a public sale of slaves, watched with indifference by men and women: all these convinced him to turn elsewhere. He left South Africa at the end of April 1823.

Unfortunately, Hoddle's Stellenbosch map is now not to be found, either in the South African Archives or in the Public Record Office in London with the Hoddle collection of maps. It may have been taken to England with Royal Engineers documents, and, with many R.E. records, lost in the World War II blitz. The two official letters of introduction carried by Hoddle to New South Wales, together with Hoddle's own diary and one small signed watercolour that he entitled 'Stellenbosch' (which has only recently come to light in Melbourne), remain the only known records of his time in South Africa.

Robert Hoddle's ship William Penn made landfall at Hobart, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), in early July 1823. The ship's two weeks' stay enabled him to explore enough of this southernmost part of the colony to be very favourably impressed, and to write a detailed account in his diary of all he saw. (He was gratified to note green vegetables flourishing in the middle of winter.) He would have liked to have stayed, but Lieut. Governor Sorell had no authority to use his services. Hoddle had no choice but to re-embark for Sydney.

Arriving in Sydney on 31 July 1823, Robert Hoddle presented his credentials to the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane, and to Surveyor General John Oxley, and was duly appointed Assistant Surveyor. His first instructions were 'to finish the survey of the Town of Sydney', where the First Fleet under Governor Phillip had landed a mere thirty-five years earlier. Then, after surveying two branches of the Hawkesbury River, he made an exploratory survey of Archibald Bell's 'New Line of Road' through the northern Blue Mountains. Upon Mount Tomah, he noted, 'the soil is rich and the vegetation very luxuriant. The timber, Gums and Stringy Bark, is of large size, but upon Tomah, extraordinary.'

Hoddle found the Survey Department in 'a chaos of confusion'. Land grants dating from Governor Macquarie's day were still unsurveyed: boundaries of these 'old farms' were the cause of many a dispute. Taking the initiative, Hoddle wrote to Oxley, 'I shall endeavour to settle them without troubling you if possible.' Hoddle made the first of his many forays south, past Camden, crossing the Shoalhaven River into the County of St Vincent, the region now known as the Southern Highlands. In October 1824 he accompanied Oxley north to Moreton Bay, mapping the coast around Redcliffe, the site originally selected for the new penal settlement but relinquished in favour of a site on the magnificent, newly-discovered Brisbane River. Hoddle wrote that he considered the Aborigines he encountered in the northern region 'certainly superior to the savages of the south of New Holland', describing and making a rapid sketch of 'the place they met in, to corroboree and settle quarrels'. This is believed to be the first drawing by a white man of an Aboriginal 'bora ring'. Hoddle initially respected, and tried to understand their culture, his views hardening only later, in Port Phillip, when the Aborigines began to frequent the towns. On this voyage also, Robert Hoddle first met Allan Cunningham, the King's Botanist, who became a good friend.

Hoddle spent the year 1825 'in the interior', based at Bathurst on the Macquarie River, surveying Doby, Dabee, Capertee, and Mudgee on the Cudgegong, recording the mellifluous native names on his maps wherever they could be identified.

In 1827 he laid out the town of Liverpool on the Georges River; in 1830, Berrima on the Wingecarribee. For fourteen years, working from his various bases, Sydney, Bathurst and Goulburn, Hoddle measured, marked and mapped large areas of this vast, varied and difficult countryside, much of it still unexplored by white men.

Among Hoddle's surveys in the Sydney area was that of the levels for 'Busby's Bore', the tunnel by which water was to be brought from Lachlan's Swamps, now Centennial Park, into Sydney town. This project was to supplement the Tank Stream, Sydney's original water supply which was no longer sufficient for the growing town. In his diary of December 1826 Hoddle noted:
 Christmas Day [1826] I dined at Prospect
 [the home of William Lawson, a notable
 figure in early New South Wales history;
 Hoddle often stayed there on his way north,
 discussing affairs of the colony with his
 host.] Took my leave and returned to
 Sydney, to take Levels for the purpose of
 bringing water to the Town.

Maps by Robert Hoddle and engineer John Busby dealing with this project ('attributed to' Busby according to a note on them) are held in State Records New South Wales, and listed in its publication Surveyor General: List of Maps and Plans 1792-1886 and its Supplement. It seems that, after many delays, the tunnel project was eventually completed in 1836.

After the death of Oxley in 1828, the mapping of New South Wales gained huge impetus. The new Surveyor General, Major Thomas Livingston Mitchell, immediately instituted his trigonometrical survey of the colony. The story of the successful and heroic completion of the resulting map, Mitchell's Map of the Colony of New South Wales 1834 (Figure 1) which has been well told by Alan Andrews, (3) should be revered in Australian history as highly as any classic tale of exploration. Hoddle's surveying in the County of St Vincent represented his most important contribution to the making of the great Map. He worked in the rugged country around the Shoalhaven River with its many tributaries, as it flowed northwards from the southwest, then curved east to the coast. From the Shoalhaven Heads, St George's Basin and Sussex Inlet down to the Clyde River at Bateman's Bay and the Deua River at Moruya, where his maps recorded the huts of settlers already in occupation, his field books and the official correspondence, together with his diary, not to mention his paintings of the landscape (one highlights a bullock falling over the edge of a cliff into a deep ravine) reveal some of the difficulties of such a survey.


North of the Shoalhaven, south west of Sydney in the County of Camden, Hoddle was sent, in the middle of winter 1830, to survey a track that would enable produce to be brought from the rich 'Cow Pastures' to the coast at the Kiama 'boat harbour', thereby avoiding the long, slow, overland journey. Starting from the Wingecarribee Swamp, Bong Bong (near Berrima), with a team of twenty convicts, 'all but six the most idle and useless set of Men' cutting their way through the almost impenetrable rainforest, he surveyed high up along the rim of the great Illawarra escarpment, to find and make the descent to the coast at Kiama. Although 'Hoddle's Track' was too difficult for it ever to be used for its purpose, the area thus surveyed was included in his very large map, on a scale of two inches to one mile, entitled Survey of the Ranges from Wingeecarribee Swamp to Bujjon and Kiama, shewing also the Kangaroo River with its Branches and Ranges ... to Meryla, by Robert Hoddle, 1831. The original map is much darkened. Notable features that can be deciphered include the Kangaroo Valley and Kangaroo Ground, 'fine waterfall' (Fitzroy Falls) and in the south the Shoalhaven and Crookhaven estuaries.

During the early 1830s Hoddle was occupied in surveying the Limestone Plains in the County of Argyle, including the place he initially called 'Canberry' (now Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory). He mapped the rivers, creeks, and lakes that enabled squatters to settle on these much-sought-after open plains: the Murrumbidgee and Molonglo rivers, Lake George and Lake Bathurst, and he recorded these features in his paintings. One of his surveys (1835) marked the 5000 acres grant to explorer Captain Charles Sturt, selected at Ginninderra. The names of many well-known squatters and of their properties called 'sheep runs' still survive. An example is Hoddle's 'Yarrow Lumley', now 'Yarralumla', the official residence of Australia's Governor General.

The difficulties of survey work in the Australian bush in those early days can hardly be overestimated. Setting off for a month or more, Hoddle had his team of convicts, with his own horse, and pack-horses to carry supplies when the going was too rugged for the bullock teams and drays-the bullocks were forever straying, and the drays, carrying tents, survey equipment and provisions, always breaking down. Hoddle's diary shows he had a care for the animals in his charge. He did his best for his team too, often complaining to his Department that his men were short of 'slops'--clothes, especially boots: the quality supplied were suitable for town work but not for the rough conditions of the survey. His reports show he was continually at odds with the Survey Department back in Sydney which was totally insensitive to the difficulties its surveyors faced. He worked himself to his utmost, and expected his team to do the same. He was hard on them, but fair. On '23rd April [1825]', he wrote, 'I dragged the chain 10 1/4 miles; and on 25th April I drew it 9 miles, as an example to my men.' Surveying methods, using mainly chain and circumferentor, and Kater's compass, in comparison with today's, were primitive.

His survey party was never attacked by Aboriginal groups they encountered, possibly, I believe, because the Aborigines, mistakenly, did not see the small group as presenting the same threat to their land--their traditional hunting grounds--as did the squatters with their large mobs of sheep. Bushrangers were a different story, and their predations in the outlying areas were frequently of concern. In his diary Hoddle recounts an incident in which, dressed in rough bush attire and separated from his party, he was accosted by military police who took some convincing that he was not a bushranger!

In 1836, beset by health problems caused by the harsh conditions of the work, Hoddle applied for leave of absence and returned to Sydney. After a period working in the Hunter River district, Robert Hoddle was called upon (in lieu of Mitchell who was departing for London) in March 1837 to accompany the Governor Sir Richard Bourke south to the Port Phillip District, from where disturbing reports of lack of progress in the survey had reached Sydney. At the new little settlement on the Yarra Yarra River that Bourke named Melbourne, Hoddle was appointed Surveyor in Charge, with three assistants--and instructed to prepare land for sale.

A whole new District now lay open for the surveyors' attention. (4) Settlement had already begun. The Hentys in 1834 had set up their whaling station at Portland on the west coast; overlanders from the north, following in Major Mitchell's 1836 exploring track, and 'overstraiters' from Van Diemen's Land, flooded in to take possession of this fine, 'empty' pastoral land, Mitchell's 'Australia Felix.'

On Governor Bourke's instructions, Robert Hoddle laid out the central grid for Melbourne, situated within a Town Reserve of three miles by one mile, a generous belt of parkland for the young township. Appointed auctioneer for the occasion, Hoddle conducted the first auction of the Melbourne blocks, successfully, so that the second followed, and the third. From his original datum point on Batman's Hill, he extended the survey of suburban land and, with foresight, reserved the great boulevards out of Melbourne. Nearby areas were soon subdivided into 25-acre lots, were bought up by speculators and sub-divided again. Under constant pressure for surveyed land from settlers, the 'suburbs' and the counties surrounding Melbourne, Geelong and Portland were surveyed. In 1843 he surveyed Mount Macedon which Major Mitchell had climbed on his 1836 journey south (Figure 2).


The survey of the flood-prone Yarra River Hoddle considered an early priority. Not until late 1844, however, when, at the end of the depression years his staffing restrictions were eased, was he able personally to undertake the survey of the river right to its source. With its many sinuosities and steep cliffs, the Yarra survey ranked as one of his hardest surveys of all (Figure 3).


Unfortunately, Hoddle's Yarra River map has not been located. In the years before the Port Phillip District became the independent Colony of Victoria, Hoddle, as Surveyor in Charge at Port Phillip, was still responsible to the Surveyor General of New South Wales, and a copy of every map was sent to Sydney. This map, however, should have been returned to Melbourne after the separation of the Colonies. Happily, a letter survives from the usually irascible Sir Thomas Mitchell to Hoddle, warmly commending him for his fine map and his zeal and persistence in the completion of this important and difficult survey.

News of the discovery of gold in 1851, coinciding with the gaining of Separation of the new Colony of Victoria from New South Wales, caused a huge upheaval in Melbourne, with wholesale desertions of able-bodied men to the goldfields. The pace of life was changed forever. Demands for survey of roads to the goldfields and of land for the great influx of settlers were insatiable. Within two years Robert Hoddle, the first Surveyor General of Victoria, efficient, thorough and painstaking, known for his dedication to his calling and with an indefatigable ability to get the task accomplished in the most trying of circumstances--was fighting to retain his job. In an appeal to Lieut. Governor Charles La Trobe he wrote that 'my work was my chief recreation', but he was regarded as out-of-touch with the tenor of the times. It appears that pressure from developers and speculators, averse to Hoddle's planning of open spaces, wide roads and generous layout of allotments, prevailed. On 1 July 1853 Robert Hoddle was informed that the office of Surveyor General of Victoria was no longer his.

The 1853 Map of the Province of Victoria, Principally derived from the Surveys of Surveyor General Hoddle ... by John Arrowsmith, according to G. & J. Scurfield in concluding their history of The Hoddle Years, 'grossly exaggerated Hoddle's contribution in the field.' The Scurfields, however, go on to acknowledge that, during the period 1837 to 1853, an area comparable to the size of Great Britain became known. Surveying of the coastline, major mountain ranges, water resources, reserves, roads, many settlements, counties and parishes, topographical features, as well as of land for sale or lease, for large properties and small farms: the achievements of Hoddle and the other surveyors were incontestably great.

Hoddle's many field books, his lengthy list of maps, his voluminous official reports and letters, and his own personal diary which he kept all his life, (the years from 1837 on, the Melbourne years, are unaccountably missing) bear witness to the sheer volume of work he accomplished, and the vast distances he traversed in the course of his work. In addition, his watercolours of the unspoilt countryside, showing topography and vegetation, and people--his survey team, Aborigines, settlers and their huts, (and often the surveyor himself drawing the scene), as well as the many quickly-drawn sketches in his field books, in themselves represent a valuable social documentary record of the land before white settlement changed it for ever (Figures 4 & 5). (5) Port Stephens, north of Newcastle in New South Wales, plays a supporting role in the surveyor's story. Robert Hoddle's sister Susan and her husband, Lieut. William Caswell, also migrated to New South Wales, settling at Tanilba on Port Stephens. Both Susan and later her daughter Emily wrote letters home to England which fortunately have survived, to tell a story, heart-breaking yet inspiring, of their hard pioneering life, so different from their life back home in England.


Hoddle was not only gifted with respect to Surveying--and art, but he was, and had to be, a skilled manager and administrator, a diplomat and at all times politically astute. He took great pride in his work, and had the moral courage to stand up for his beliefs. His zeal and persistence, his devotion to his calling, permeated all his working days. He knew measurement to be the basis of civilised land use. 'The best way to know a country', he once advised an assistant, 'is to survey it'.


(1.) All quotations, unless otherwise acknowledged, are from Robert Hoddle's Diary, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, Hoddle MS Box 53.

(2.) J. R. Smith, Everest: the Man and the Mountain, Caithness, Scotland, Whittles Publishing (1999).

(3.) Alan E. J. Andrews, Major Mitchell's Map 1834: the Saga of the Survey of the Nineteen Counties, Hobart, Blubber Head Press (1992).

(4.) For a full account of the Port Phillip District survey see G. & J. Scurfield, The Hoddle Years, Surveying in Victoria 1836-1853, Canberra, The Institution of Surveyors (1995).

(5.) The Hoddle biography by the writer includes reproductions in colour of nineteen of his paintings. However, a group of previously unrecorded landscapes painted mainly in the 1830s and 1840s was auctioned in Melbourne in August 2004, after publication of the book. The bulk of these was purchased by three major libraries, the National Library of Australia, Canberra, the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, and the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne. These acquisitions substantially boosted the holdings in each library of Hoddle's paintings depicting landscapes in their respective areas.

Berres Hoddle Colville, retired librarian and great-granddaughter of Robert Hoddle, is the author of his biography entitled Robert Hoddle: Pioneer Surveyor 1794-1881, published in 2004 by Research Publications Pty Ltd, 27A Boronia Rd Vermont Vic. 3133. email:
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Author:Colville, Berres Hoddle
Publication:The Globe
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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