Story: Modern mapping and surveying

Page 1. Government surveying and mapping, 1870–1900

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In 1870 New Zealand adopted the Torrens system of land titles, which made the state responsible for guaranteeing freehold land titles. As a result, the government became the country’s major provider of surveying and mapping services.

Department of the Surveyor-General

The Department of the Surveyor-General was established in 1876, after the provinces were dissolved. A report by Major H. S. Palmer in 1875 had found that few of the provinces had been adequately surveyed. It recommended that:

  • surveying should be centralised in one department
  • the government should set up a national triangulation programme (literally a network of triangles covering the country, in reference to which other points could be located)
  • a uniform map projection should be adopted
  • surveyors have to pass an examination before being recognised as qualified.

John Turnbull Thomson, formerly the provincial surveyor of Otago, was appointed surveyor general and the first head of the department. His main task was to implement a national triangulation system. New Zealand was divided into land districts, with boundaries that followed those of the former provinces. Each had a chief surveyor.

Meridional circuits

Palmer had recommended that the triangulation of the country be undertaken in three stages:

  • a primary order triangulation over the whole country
  • a secondary one, in areas where settlement was likely
  • a tertiary triangulation in areas already settled.

This would provide a national network of established points for property surveys.

Earning their pocket money

In the days before mechanical copying, surveyor W. J. Wheeler used his children to make sure the four copies of his surveying results were all correct. On his return from the field he would make the copies and dole them out to three of his children, keeping one for himself. The children took it in turn to read out the figures while the others checked – a job for which they received threepence each.

However, Thomson decided that a major and then secondary triangulation was too costly and time-consuming, as settlers were clamouring for their ownership of land to be established. He implemented a system of surveying that he had previously used in Otago. The country was divided into 28 meridional circuits – blocks of land, each with a primary station whose position had been carefully fixed by astronomical observations. Each circuit was then divided into districts approximately 12 miles (19 kilometres) square. A minor triangulation was gradually done in each district, providing fixed points from which blocks and sections could be accurately surveyed. Surveyors did the minor triangulation work as well as laying out towns and farm blocks. They also recorded the land’s topographical features.

Thomson’s system was comparatively cheap, rapid and accurate. By the 1880s a network of triangles extended from North Cape to Stewart Island. In 1890 S. Percy Smith (surveyor-general from 1889 to 1900) stated that triangulation was well advanced and that any discrepancies would not affect either property boundaries or general maps of the colony.

How to cite this page:

Melanie Lovell-Smith, 'Modern mapping and surveying - Government surveying and mapping, 1870–1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/modern-mapping-and-surveying/page-1 (accessed 5 July 2020)

Story by Melanie Lovell-Smith, published 24 Nov 2008, updated 17 Aug 2018