Sir Thomas  Mitchell

Date Updated 20/02/2011 12:20 PM

Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1792 - 1855), by unknown artist, courtesy of State Library of New South Wales. GPO 1 - 20166. .

Sir Thomas Mitchell's  influence on Hartley.

Thomas Mitchell association with Hartley came about when he became the Assistant Surveyor General. In 1828  John Oxley dies and Mitchell  became  the Surveyor-General.

THOMAS LIVINGSTONE  MITCHELL,  was born on 15 June 1792 at Grangemouth, Scotland, the son of John Mitchell and his wife Janet, née Wilson. Though poor he was sufficiently educated to read widely in several languages and be proficient in several sciences.

Mitchell in 1827 with Murray's support became assistant surveyor-general of New South Wales with the right to succeed John Oxley and  in 1829 became responsible for the survey of roads and bridges.

He spent time in the Vale of Clyywd working on a plan for a new road.  James Collits had been rewarded with land at Canowdra for finding a new  pass down off the rim of the Mountains and Lockyer was in the process of building the new road.  Mitchell, complained that his road was superior, that James Collits "was an illiterate fool' (compared with his capabilities) and stopped the work on Lockyer's and started on the Pass of Mt Victoria.


In 1827, when Mitchell and his family arrived in Sydney, the Survey Department was in an unsatisfactory condition. Surveying instruments were scarce and some surveyors were incompetent; their technical problems were rarely appreciated by the public or the government; moreover successive surveys of small areas were made without attempt to relate them to a general survey, so small errors accumulated till they became serious. Thus title deeds and the collection of quitrents were delayed and doubts and disputes arose about boundaries. Mitchell in 1828 started on the necessary but seemingly impossible task of making a general survey. Tent poles were used to measure a base line, and hill-tops, denuded of all trees save one, as trigonometrical points.

In 1828, on Oxley's death, Mitchell became surveyor-general, and in 1829 became responsible for the survey of roads and bridges. In 1830 he assumed sole responsibility for the Survey Department when the commissioners of survey were abolished in accordance with his wishes as expressed in a private letter to R. W. Hay at the Colonial Office. Mitchell frequently used such private communications direct to the source of power, a fact of great importance, especially in 1828-30 when his old patron, Sir George Murray, was the secretary of state for the colonies.

By the end of 1830 Mitchell had made considerable changes in the roads from Sydney to Parramatta and to Liverpool; he had plotted a new road southwards through Berrima as far as Goulburn and had discovered and constructed a new western descent from the Blue Mountains towards Bathurst. These roads were substantially the same as those used today.

This successful road building led to a serious conflict with Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling who feared that Mitchell's improvements might in time have to be superseded. Mitchell resented this implied criticism of his technical competence and, rightly confident that no better route existed, persisted against the governor's orders in building a new road down Mount Victoria. Darling retaliated by attempting to remove the Department of Roads and Bridges from Mitchell's authority. Mitchell officially, and unofficially through Hay, claimed authority, independent of the governor, directly from the Crown.

 In a dispatch of 28 March 1831 Darling stated bluntly that Mitchell should not be continued in the office of surveyor-general. His fear was that unless Mitchell were punished there would be 'an immediate end to all subordination and to the Government itself'. Meanwhile Murray had retired from the Colonial Office and his successor had determined on Darling's recall, so Mitchell, if not triumphant, at least survived.

When Darling left the colony Mitchell at once persuaded the acting governor to send him exploring between the Castlereagh and Gwydir Rivers to test reports of the existence of a large river flowing to the north-west. During the 1830s the spread of squatting and the large number of free immigrants needing land greatly accentuated the problems of the Survey Department.

On 15 June 1833, alarmed by the backwardness of the survey, Stanley wrote to Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke demanding that Mitchell provide an explanation. None was forthcoming till 5 May 1834 when Bourke transmitted from Mitchell a map of the colony divided into nineteen counties with a description of their boundaries, together with a memorandum emphasizing the necessity of a general survey before local surveys could effectively be made. On 10 October 1834 Bourke sent another more elaborate and very intemperate defence by Mitchell which was accepted by Stanley's successor, Glenelg, as satisfactory but with the pious hope that Mitchell would show no more insubordination. As on all his expeditions, Mitchell systematically surveyed as he travelled. After seven months his error, so he claimed, was only a mile and three-quarters (2.8 km). As a controversialist and thirster after glory, Mitchell was sometimes strangely blind to the truth; but he was a painstaking and competent surveyor, and his claim may be believed.

On 19 May 1837 Mitchell left Sydney on eighteen months leave. He secured permission to publish an account of his explorations which appeared in 1838 entitled Three Expeditions Into the Interior of Eastern Australia … and he began a long correspondence with the Colonial Office to obtain a knighthood. Lingering doubts about Mitchell's behaviour near Mount Dispersion delayed this honour till 1839 when he was also distinguished by Oxford University's award of an honorary doctorate of civil law. In July 1838 Mitchell obtained a further twelve months leave for he was still working on the plans of the Peninsular battles. These were finished at the end of 1840 and, as published by James Wyld, are beautiful examples of Mitchell's skill as a draftsman. In March 1840 Mitchell requested a further six months leave, was granted three and ordered to leave England by 18 June. He nevertheless was arrested, narrowly missed being imprisoned for debt in London on 8 August and did not reach Australia till 1841.

The depression of the early 1840s had disastrous effects on the Survey Department. Its budget in 1842 was £26,000, but in 1844 only £12,000. Some of its members were at once transferred elsewhere. Others became licensed surveyors who received a third of their previous salary, but also the right to private practice; they were to be paid extra, according to a rather low scale of fees, for any government surveying they performed.

This reduction in the department left it quite inadequate to undertake the survey of leases under the 1847 Order-in-Council and to meet the demand for land in the 1850s after the discovery of gold. There were too few surveyors and the licensed surveyors, in particular, were difficult to discipline and naturally preferred the higher emoluments obtainable from private practice.

In April 1844 Mitchell was elected to the Legislative Council at a by-election in Port Phillip. He had promised to support the separation of that district from New South Wales. Governor Sir George Gipps keenly felt the anomaly of a government officer sitting in the legislature and being free, and in Mitchell's case likely, to vote against government measures. Gipps ruled that 'the member for Port Phillip may act as he pleases, but the Surveyor General of New South Wales must obey and support the Government'. Mitchell had difficulty in separating his two roles and in August prudently resigned his seat.

On 27 March 1847 Mitchell left Sydney on another twelve months leave, and early in 1848 made the usual attempts to obtain more, but secured only another month. He nevertheless took more and arrived back in Sydney about July 1848. He had had time to prepare his Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia … (London, 1848). In 1850 Mitchell published The Australian Geography, designed for the use of schools in New South Wales; a second edition appeared in 1851. This work must have been one of the first to place Australia at the centre of the world, but its pedagogic technique now seems greatly antiquated.

The bitterest strife of the Gipps period had been over the land claims of the squatters.

Gov Fitroy  withheld his advice on the squatting question until he had seen the country for himself. He set off on 9 November 1846 on the first of many journeys into the country districts, with his wife and son, his cousin, Lieutenant-Colonel G. C. Mundy, and the colonial secretary, Edward Deas Thomson. FitzRoy crossed the Blue Mountains and went as far as Carcoar and Molong, driving his own four-in-hand much of the way. He was away from Sydney for thirty-three days and visited many wealthy pastoralists, admiring their stock and properties and hunting as opportunity offered. Those squatters who feared that he might overestimate the soil and underestimate their difficulties need not have worried. He had offered no advice to the Colonial Office when Grey made his concessions in 1847.

From 1848 to 1852 there was much correspondence between Mitchell, the governor and the colonial secretary in which Mitchell attempted to assert his independence of the local administration while Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy sought to ensure his subordination. Mitchell no longer enjoyed such powerful friends in high places. In 1851 FitzRoy recommended Mitchell's dismissal, but Colonial Secretary Grey ruled in 1852 that Mitchell would be dismissed only if guilty of further insubordination.

 Following an inaccurate public statement by Stuart Donaldson, Mitchell on 27 September 1851 fought a duel with him, one of the last in Australia. Each fired three shots; it was reported that one went through Donaldson's hat and another within an inch of Mitchell's throat.

In January 1855 an anonymous pamphlet was published in Sydney entitled To Bourke's Statue this Appropriate Effusion of Unprofitable Brass is Unceremoniously Dedicated, by Ichneumon, Anxious to Instruct his Grandmothers in the Inductive Science of Sucking Eggs. There followed about thirty pages of satirical, scandalous and at times very witty doggerel attacking several prominent citizens. Mitchell was widely suspected of being the author and was urged by Sir Charles Nicholson and others to make a formal denial. He did so and may be believed, for he was one of those attacked and never otherwise displayed such a capacity for devastating self-criticism. There is a plausible family tradition that his eldest son, Livingstone, was responsible.

On becoming governor, Sir William Denison began an inquiry into Mitchell's work. Aware of his past record of determined insubordination he probably decided to be rid of him. On 4 July 1855 a Royal Commission, which included the Victorian surveyor-general and the professor of mathematics at Sydney University, was appointed to inquire into the Survey Department.

Not only Mitchell believed that its real purpose was to secure his dismissal. Before its report was published Mitchell contracted a chill while surveying the line of road in the difficult country between Belligen and Braidwood. He developed pneumonia and died at his home in Sydney on 5 October 1855. He was survived by his widow, but of his twelve children at least five predeceased him, two of them while employed in his own department.

The report of the Royal Commission severely condemned the methods and results of Mitchell's surveying and the administration of his department but is not a fair summary of his life's work. The criticism of his surveying technique is largely a priori and neglects both the substantial accuracy achieved, the inadequate and often primitive means at his disposal and the magnitude of the tasks he was required to perform.

 Mitchell was, however, a poor administrator. He had too many other interests and ambitions and was too often and too long away from his department either in England or exploring the interior. He had also a fatal inability to delegate responsibility to his subordinates with whom his relations were often very bad, and thus, despite enormous labours, he never got ahead of accumulating business.

There was also insufficient supervision of surveyors in the field and consequently opportunities for the lazy and dishonest. But Mitchell was not responsible for the shortage of surveyors, the unrealistically large amount of work expected of them and, in particular, the division of the department into salaried and licensed surveyors which itself was a guarantee of inefficiency.

By 1855 the condition of the Survey Department was becoming a public scandal as its delays were preventing an increasing number of people from purchasing the land they wanted. Mitchell himself, however, was rarely blamed, and to the end retained great popularity.

This was no doubt due in part to his well-known and repeated conflicts with governors; in part to his appreciation and fostering of those things peculiarly Australian, from an enlightened preference for convicts in his exploring parties to the retention of Aboriginal place names.

Probably more important was his well-known belief, from as early as 1833 when he vainly resisted the acquisitions of the Australian Agricultural Co., that land should be readily available to small settlers and not monopolized by large landowners or squatters. Mitchell so pressed his views that after 1847 some squatters were hesitant to exercise their pre-emptive rights lest the land they selected immediately be declared government reserves.

So the Tory surveyor-general (he had preferred to be fined rather than serve with emancipist jurors) who perhaps more than any other individual was responsible for delaying closer settlement, was distrusted by conservative squatters and admired by frustrated and radical settlers.

Select Bibliography

Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 13-26; G. E. T. Audley, The Public Surveys of New South Wales (Syd, 1866); J. H. L. Cumpston, Thomas Mitchell (Melb, 1954); Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1854, vol 2, p 1137, 1858-59, vol 2. p 41; B. V. Couch, The Administration of Thomas Mitchell 1826-37. A Study of the Man and his Contemporaries (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1963). More on the resources

Author: D. W. A. Baker

Print Publication Details: D. W. A. Baker, 'Mitchell, Sir Thomas Livingstone (1792 - 1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, Melbourne University Press, 1967, pp 238-242.



Edmund LOCKYER. He arrived in Sydney in the Royal Charlotte in April 1825 with a detachment of the 57th; with him were his wife and ten children.

He entered the army as an ensign in the 19th Regiment in June 1803, was promoted lieutenant early in 1805 and acquired a captaincy in August.

In 1827 Lockyer sold his commission, having decided to settle in the colony. He was granted 2560 acres (1036 ha), which he named Lockyersleigh, in the Marulan district, and built a house, Ermington, on an estate near Ryde. By 1837 he had added 3635 acres (1471 ha) to Lockyersleigh by purchase, and by 1853 the estate totalled 11,810 acres (4779 ha). In 1838 he leased and stocked Cavan, a run on the Murrumbidgee and Goodradigbee Rivers

1838 he leased and stocked Cavan, a run on the Murrumbidgee and Goodradigbee Rivers. Iron was found on Lockyersleigh and a beginning was made with mining, but the work was abandoned for lack of labour in the gold rush. However, the spade which was used to cut the first turf for the Sydney Railway Co. in July 1850 was made from Lockyer's iron.

Although a proficient artist and a devoted parent, Lockyer was easily imposed upon and dabbled in too many things to be a good farmer. In 1830 Lockyersleigh was said to be in great need of improvement and stocked with 'very miserable, coarse sheep' bred from 'old culls'. However, Lockyer was assisted by the occupancy of a variety of public appointments. When he retired from the army be had been appointed police magistrate at Parramatta. In 1828 Darling appointed him principal surveyor of roads and bridges at a salary of £600; but the secretary of state in May ordered that this office be abolished and the duties performed by assistants of the surveyor-general.

Thereupon in December 1829 Lockyer became police magistrate at Parramatta again and from February to December 1830 superintendent of police there. In 1842 he was a member of the association formed to gain permission to import coolies from India. In 1852 he was appointed serjeant-at-arms to the Legislative Council and in 1856 usher of the black rod.

As his occupation included

As secretary of state for war and the colonies from September 1841 until his resignation in December 1845 on the question of the repeal of the corn laws, he elaborated and organized the 'probation' system of convict administration in Van Diemen's Land. Autocratic and conservative, he frequently disregarded James Stephen's recommendations or acted without consultation, and was vehemently opposed to any increase in colonial expenditure
Stanwell Park
is an icon of Australian history. It was the home of Sir Thomas Mitchell the explorer
  Mitchell died in Sydney in October 1855. A newspaper of the day commented:

"For a period of twenty-eight years Sir Thomas Mitchell had served the Colony, much of that service having been exceedingly arduous and difficult. Among the early explorers of Australia his name will occupy an honoured place in the estimation of posterity."


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This site has been prepared as part of research in regard to the history of  Ambermere Rose Inn, Gt. Western Highway, Little Hartley NSW 2790\

Ambermere Rose Inn