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ROCHFORT, John, (1832 - 1893)

John Rochfort

John Rochfort, ca 1870s. ID: 1/2-018022-F Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

John Rochfort, engineer and surveyor, was born in Bayswater, London on 21 May 1832 the eldest of the eight or nine children of Frank Rochfort, a silversmith, and his wife Sarah Button.

Although Rochfort trained as an engineer under the guidance of Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel the greater part of his working life in New Zealand was occupied by engineering survey in which he established a significant reputation.

Accompanied by his brother James, an architect, he set sail from Gravesend for New Zealand at the age of 19 in 1851 on the Marmora. They had arrived at Lyttelton and then made their way to Wellington where employment could not be immediately obtained. A diversion to Wanganui for an interest in land proved unfruitful and they returned to Wellington where Rochfort gained employment on Government surveys in the area. Surveys in the Rangitikei district for purchase of Maori land followed.

Dissatisfied with the remuneration Rochfort followed his brother James to Australia to try his luck on the Victorian goldfields. But before he could leave New Zealand he had to recover his survey instruments which he had sent on to Ahuriri (Napier). This involved an overland journey on foot of about 8 days, some without food (a forerunner of later New Zealand surveying expeditions) demonstating his ability to endure hardship. He sailed to Australia on the barque Napoleon in mid - 1852.

The goldfields proved unrewarding. His father had died so he returned to England on the barque Emigrant arriving in September 1853. During his time in England he published a small book - The Adventures of a Surveyor in New Zealand and the Australian Gold Diggings.

In 1854 he returned to New Zealand with his mother, three brothers and two sisters. Rochfort managed the family farm and sawmill "Knowle Wood" in the Riwaka valley and became a competent Maori scholar. When the local economy deteriorated Rochfort returned to his profession. He also became his brother James’ mentor in engineering and surveying when architectural work proved difficult to obtain.

Rochfort was employed by the Nelson Provincial Council from 1857 until 1863. During this time he laid out a townsite in the Marlborough Sounds (Mahakipawa) and made a major survey expedition to determine the Canterbury/Nelson provincial boundary, prospecting that region for land use. He made discoveries of gold and coal and reported on mineral resources in North West Nelson. He married Mary Elizabeth Hackett in July 1863 at Nelson. This marriage was short lived as Mary died in September of the following year.

From late 1863 until October 1869 Rochfort carried out major surveys for the Canterbury Provincial Service. These included surveying the coast of South Westland, examining the river mouths south to the Mahitahi as potential ports, and laying out the town of Greymouth. He received the New Zealand Exhibition Bronze Medal for his explorations of that coast. In May 1867 of this period he remarried to Amelia Susan Lewis amd had two daughters and a son.

Over the period from 1869 - 1873 in the General Government Service Rochfort established the surveys necessary for the Rimutaka railway and the Buller Gorge railway.

From 1874 to 1876 he was engineer to the Timaru and Gladstone Board of Works. During this time he built the Fairlie branch railway, the landing facilities at Timaru, and several important bridges.

In 1882 Rochfort commenced the engineering reconnaisance of the North Island Main Trunk Railway from Marton to Te Awamutu, a work which he completed in 1887. Although alternative alignments were proposed the railway was built on the alignment established by Rochfort sometimes in the face of opposition from some King Country Maori.

Until he died of a heart condition on the 8th March 1893 Rochfort undertook further surveys in Westland and mining investigations in Nelson and South Auckland. He was buried in Kihikihi where he had established a northern base during the Main Trunk survey.

Sources & Authorities

  • F W Furkert, W L Newnham Ed (1953) Early New Zealand Engineers;
  • John Pollard, Essay R27 Vol. 2 The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Vol 2 (1993);
  • J Noonan (1975) By Design;
  • W N Cameron (1992) Rimutaka Railway;
  • Janet Holm (2005) Caught Mapping - The Life and Times of New Zealand’s Early Surveyors.

Author: Robert E Offer

This essay appears in the Biographic Dictionary of Civil Engineers, Vol 2. (ICE, London)