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THOMAS, Joseph, (1803 -?), Surveyor and Civil Engineer

Jospeh Thomas

Artist unknown: Capt[ain] Thomas Canterbury surveyor, 1840-1860. Reference: C-016-008. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Permission must be obtained from the Alexander Turnbull Library for the re-use of this image

Little is known of the early years of Joseph Thomas. He is believed to have been born in Worcester, England in 1803. Follow initial service as an ensign in the 101st Regiment he entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst as a "Gentleman Cadet" in 1819. He was commissioned in the 87th Regiment of Foot in November 1822 and was posted to India. During eight years there he was believed to have served as aide-de-camp to Sir John Malcolm the Governor of the Bombay presidency. About 1830 he was transferred to the 19th Regiment of Foot and served in the West Indies. In 1833 he left the Army with the rank of Lieutenant.

He spent the next five years travelling through North and South America working as a surveyor and mining engineer. A collection of his drawings from this period was published in 1839.

He arrived in Port Nicholson (Wellington) probably in March 1840 on the Adelaide. He had purchased six land orders from the New Zealand Company but the land was not available. He then secured the lease to a Paremata whale fishery and took over the business. In May 1841 he accepted a position in the survey corps of William Mein Smith. He then headed the Wanganui surveys and after 12 months was recalled to undertake surveys in the Porirua District. In March 1843 he was made redundant by the new principal surveyor Samuel Brees. Thomas then made an overland exploration to Hawke Bay with information from this journey assisting John Rochfort in his 1851 journey from the Rangitikei via Pohangina and Ruataniwha.

In 1845 Thomas was then engaged in survey work in Otago as a contract engineer between Molyneux and Tokomairiro and completed the work early 1847 and returned to England either later that year or early 1848.

At the time of his arrival back in England, preparations were underway for the Canterbury Association’s New Zealand settlement. With his references from the New Zealand Company he was appointed in May 1848 as surveyor for the new settlement. Thomas then returned to New Zealand arriving in November 1848 and begun exploring Port Cooper (now Lyttelton) against the preferences of Governor Grey and Bishop Selwyn. His recommendations prevailed and in July 1849 the survey started with Christchurch being selected as the principal town as Lyttelton would require expensive reclamation of land if it was to be the principal town.. The Association required the surveys to be conducted according to a "novel plan" so that settlers could have a relatively free choice of rural land on arrival. By January 1850 230,000 acres had been triangulated and contractors appointed to fill in the typographical detail. The three first town sites were laid off-Christchurch, Lyttelton and Sumner and the sites for the next three identified.

Having supervised the surveying of the settlement he moved to the next stage-the public works and construction of the principal town. With a budget of £20,000 he was thorough in his approach. With imported materials and with labour such as Maori road gangs recruited from the North Island he began the construction of roads, barracks, storehouses, cottages and a jetty. He planned further work including a route over the Port Hills but the accumulated cost exceeded what he had been funded and Thomas was forced to slow work in early 1850. Shortly after, the Association’s chief resident agent J R Godley arrived. Godley promptly halted all work and recommencement did not occur until late 1850 consequently much was unfinished when the first four settler ships arrived in December 1850.

Thomas had previously assumed he was to be the Association’s head in the colony. The arrival of Godley was clearly unwelcome and as criticism of the state and cost of preparation fell on him the relationship between the two was strained. Differences in temperament did not help. Godley gave Thomas 12 months notice but as the relationship deteriorated Godley dismissed Thomas in January 1851.

Following dismissal he travelled to Wellington and applied for land licences but returned to England in April 1852. His intention on returning was to appeal his case to the association’s governing committee. This was unsuccessful and 12 months later, now married he went to New South Wales and worked for a mining company. His later years remain unknown with varying reports as to date and location of his death.

Christchurch and its environs owe much to his work as surveyor and engineer although others often receive the credit for his achievement.

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