John Rochfort was one of the great surveyor-engineers who explored, mapped and opened up the young colony of New Zealand for European settlement. He was born on 21 May 1832 in London, England, to Sarah Button and her husband, Frank Rochfort, a silversmith. He was trained by the renowned Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who discouraged pupils by charging the enormous premium of £1,000 and asking each to give 'sufficient reason to suppose that he will succeed in the profession'. John Rochfort must have owed a lot to his mentor for his professional attitudes and zest for the unknown. Certainly he was well prepared to journey abroad.
In 1852, at the age of 19, he arrived in New Zealand with his brother James. He was initially employed by the government, surveying in the Wellington area; he then went with Robert Park and Douglas McLean to Rangitikei to survey native reserves. Discontented with 'the bad pay of a stingy government', Rochfort knocked around the Victorian goldfields before returning to England in 1853. The next year the family emigrated to New Zealand and took up farming and sawmilling in the Motueka district. However, in the depressed times of 1858, the venture ceased to prosper.
John resumed surveying, his work for the Nelson provincial government taking him on daring explorations into the headwaters of the Hurunui, Taramakau and Buller rivers. His discoveries of gold in the Buller and coal in the Denniston area led to Julius Haast and James Burnett making a detailed mineralogical survey of the locality, in the course of which Haast named the highest peak Mt Rochfort.
In 1865, as district surveyor for the Canterbury provincial government, Rochfort in company with Captain F. D. Gibson examined the port potential of all the West Coast rivers down to Bruce Bay. In the same year he laid out the town of Greymouth and received a New Zealand Exhibition bronze medal for his explorations of the West Coast. He became involved with a soap works at Heathcote during the 1860s. In 1869 he re-entered general government service and from 1870 to 1871 laid out the line of the Remutaka railway. In 1872 he worked briefly as surveyor in charge of plotting and computing for the Canterbury government, but soon rejoined the general government service and surveyed the Buller Gorge railway. From 1874 to 1876 he was engineer to the Timaru and Gladstone Board of Works and became an authorised surveyor in 1878.
In 1883 Rochfort commenced an engineering reconnaissance of the North Island main trunk railway. In spite of strong opposition from Maori, who forced back his party at gunpoint three times, held Rochfort prisoner at Papatupu (near Ohakune) for three days, and would not divulge Maori names for topographical features, the work was completed by 1887. His later years were spent in the Waikato region, surveying sections for the Native Land Court.
The record betokens a restless spirit, although there is no suggestion that John Rochfort had a difficult personality. His stamina and stoicism were remarkable. He nearly died of starvation and exposure when, as a 20-year-old, he was among the earliest Europeans to cross the North Island from Rangitikei to Hawke's Bay via the Ruahine Range. He made light of the matter: 'My tinder had become so damp, from exposure, that I could not even get a light for my pipe. I had now walked about forty-five miles without food, and there was no prospect of getting any till the following day.' While searching for gold in Australia, he 'was seized with diarrhoea, and when the disorder had continued eight days I made up my mind to go down to Melbourne. An ulcer also came upon the bottom of my foot, and in this condition I walked a hundred miles in the next three days.'
John's first marriage to Mary Elizabeth Hackett on 23 July 1863 at Nelson was tragically brief; his spouse died of inflammation of the lungs on 9 September 1864. On 16 May 1867 in Nelson he married Amelia Susan Lewis, daughter of fellow surveyor Henry Lewis. The couple were to have five daughters and two sons. The marriage brought links with the major explorers of Canterbury; Amelia's sister Eleanor had earlier married Arthur Dudley Dobson, whose sister Mary was already married to Rochfort's fellow explorer Haast.
John Rochfort died of heart disease aged 60 on 8 March 1893 at Kihikihi, while still working. Amelia Rochfort lived to be 97; she died at Richmond on 17 December 1942.
Perhaps Rochfort's greatest talent lay in his unerring instinct for the lie of the country, a sense which took the youth across the Ruahine Range and enabled the man to prospect the line for the North Island main trunk through the uncharted interior. The route he proposed was subject to fierce criticism – there were inquiries and commissions as late as 1900 – but finally it was accepted that there was no other general route superior to that reconnoitred by Rochfort. More than a century later the railway still followed the line John Rochfort had selected.
The records say much of the man but the essence of Rochfort is to be found in the remarkable little book he wrote at 21, The adventures of a surveyor in New Zealand and the Australian gold diggings. It is a rollicking tale from a high-spirited young man who gave two bottles of grog to a ferryman to drop the doctrinaire missionary, William Colenso, in the sea, where 'he lay at full length like a half-tide rock'; and who described a furious landlady demanding recompense from him for 'three wine glasses, an arm-chair, and a wash-hand basin, all of which were killed or wounded in the last night's engagement'. Small wonder that the solemn surveyor gazing from a late photograph retains the hint of a twinkle in his eye.