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THOMSON, John Turnbull, (1821 - 1884)

John Turnbull THOMSON (1821 - 1884) surveyor and civil engineer, was born in Northumberland in 1821 (said to be 10 August 1821), the son of Alexander Thomson and his wife Janet Turnbull. He was educated in Berwickshire, Scotland, completed a mathematics degree in Aberdeen and then studied engineering in the same office as Sir William Armstrong. In 1838 he travelled to the Straits Settlement where he spent the next 15 years mainly as Singapore government surveyor and engineer. He was involved in surveying, including marine surveying, and the construction of roads and bridges, but his greatest work was the design and construction of the Horsburgh lighthouse on the Pedra Branca rock. However this latter work on site so affected his health that he was invalided back to England in 1853.

In search of a more temperate climate he travelled to New Zealand arriving in Auckland in February 1856 where he was appointed Chief Surveyor of Otago Province, a position he took up in May. His first task was to establish the site and layout of Invercargill (including a wide main street and ample reserves). During 1857 and part of 1858 he carried out a mammoth survey of the whole of the province leading to the publication of map of Otago in 1860. Also during 1857 he was appointed civil engineer in the province and reported on the Dunedin water supply. He completed a further report on the Dunedin water supply in 1869 (when the town population was less than 2000 residents). This was to change dramatically two years later in May 1861 when gold was discovered in Gabriel’s Gully, Central Otago. By 1864 the population in Dunedin had risen to more than 20,000 people, and Thomson chaired a sanitary commission to improve conditions in Dunedin.

In 1859 he prepared a scheme for the development of Otago harbour, and a comprehensive highway report for the province. However progress on development was slow, partly because of poor weather but mainly as a result of labour shortage with so many men heading for the Central Otago goldfields. In fact access to these goldfields became an important task of his in 1861 and he established a route which although longer had better ground conditions and required less metalling. He also reported the need for a lighthouse at Taiaroa Head and ordered the optical equipment (which Balfour, q.v. was to bring out with him).

He was involved in other road and bridge construction work throughout the province. His bridges included the first bridge over the Clutha at Cromwell, bridges over the Roaring Meg and Gentle Annie streams, and the Taieri river at Henley (1862). Later he designed bridges across the Taieri at Outram (1864), the Oreti river at Wallacetown (1865), Mataura river at Mataura (1868), Clutha river at Balclutha and two masonary arch bridges over the north (1874) and south (1869) branches of the Waianakarua river. The northern bridge on State Highway 1, still in use, was recently sensitively widened (2004) to retain its graceful stone arch form.

The provinces were abolished in 1876 and Thomson’s fine work as a surveyor was recognised by his appointment as country’s first Surveyor-General heading the newly formed Survey Department. In taking up this appointment he moved to Wellington where he held that post until his retirement on 31 October 1879.

He married Jane Williamson on 7 October 1858 and they had nine daughters. On his retirement he and his family moved back to Invercargill in Southland where they lived in a house he had designed. Apart from his work as surveyor and engineer he was also an competent painter, helped to found both the Otago and the Southland Institutes, and was a prolific author, most notably his translation from the Malay language of the autobiography of ‘Abn Allah ibn ‘Abd al-Kadir, his former teacher of Malay.

He died there on 16 October 1884. An early death of a man who had contributed so much to the development of Otago and Southland.


  • Hall-Jones, John, Volume 1, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. (2000);
  • Furkert, Frederick W, (Ed. W L Newnham) Early New Zealand Engineers (1953);
  • Thornton, Geoffrey G, Bridging the Gap - Early bridges in New Zealand 1830 - 1939. (2001)

Author: Rob Aspden

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