History of Surveying in Australia

history of surveyors

queensland, surveying, surveyors,


We take a step back in time and look at what it was like to be a Surveyor in the early settlement of Queensland, Australia.

Did you know that the surveyors of Queensland endured some of the harshest conditions in the world, with tools that were extremely labour-intensive.

How to Become a Surveyor

During the 19th century, there were two main ways of entering the surveying profession. Young men could learn mapping and navigation skills either in the army/ navy or as an articled pupil to a private surveyor.

For Australian colonies, government departments were the chief employers of pupil surveyors. A young man would enter the department as a clerk and then progress through draftsman and then assistant surveyor.

In 1837, all candidates for assistant surveyor positions would appear before a Board for examination. Once passing, they would be given a licence and the credibility to practice surveying.  

To obtain a licence, a candidate had to fulfil certain conditions:

  • Be of full age of 21 and good character
  • Served under articles with a qualified surveyor for a few years, the majority of them spent in the field
  • Pass an examination on surveying type subjects.

History of Surveying – The Life 

Where They Slept

From the 1840s to the 1950s, the most common form of shelter was a tent. Usually, one tent to be allocated to the ‘boss’, if he had his wife and family in the camp, his tent and fittings became more elaborate.

The surveying team would set up a base camp near a water supply (e.g. waterhole, dam, bore, billabong) as close as possible to the survey location. The party would go out each day to survey the boundaries of the block.

When the distance from the main camp to the survey location became too far to walk or ride in a single day, the team would establish a ‘flying’ camp. Surveyors would sleep under a flimsy fly net and take minimal provisions.

What They Ate

The early Queensland surveyors were only able to purchase a limited supply of food from original settlers. Their groceries consisted of mainly meat, sugar, salt, flour, and tea.

However, purchasing food was not as simple as ducking to the local store. They received their supplies only once a year when roads were passable. Therefore buying long-life staples was a necessity.

Often, the men would have to resort to hunting wildlife for their food, including duck, turkey, pigeon, kangaroo, possum, bandicoot, echidna, goanna, snake, hare, rabbit, fish, eels and yabbies. 

How They Travelled

Vehicle allowance meant something very different for surveyors in the past. In the 1840s, they relied on horses for riding and oxen for pulling carriages. Believe it or not, it was someone’s full-time job to care for the horses by putting them out at night and placing a bell on the neck of one horse. He would then have to round them up in the morning, ready for the team.

During the 1920s, surveyors were converting to the use of motor vehicles. After World War II, the Army presence gave surveyors access to four-wheel-drive vehicles, giving them the ability to reach remote locations.

History of Surveyors – Work

Robert Dixon, Granville Stapylton and James Warner were the first surveyors to arrive in Moreton Bay in 1839. With a shortage of suitable workers, they were allocated convicts to act as their chainmen. Many of these convicts were found to be ‘insolent, sulky and stupid’, as Warner reported in 1840.

Dixon, Stapylton and Warner soon began to use local Aboriginal men to look after the horses and oxen. They also helped to carry out general survey work, including clearing lines and dragging the chain. The expertise of the Aboriginal people was essential for the survey to be successful.

By the 1900s, Queensland surveyors were sought after to work in British colonies with inhospitable climates such as Malaya, New Guinea and parts of Africa. The feeling was that Queensland’s surveyors were well trained and were used to the rigours of tropical climates. After World War I, the demand from around the world for Queensland surveyors continued as they had become renowned worldwide in their profession. They were employed in many different countries either to do survey work or to teach surveying skills.

History of Surveying – Process

The main intention of land surveys was to positively identify and mark as clearly and permanently as possible boundaries of the land to establish ownership.

All measurements taken during the day were recorded in a field notebook. Also recorded were the vegetation and soil type, allowing intending selectors to judge the kind of land they were selecting.

At night in the tent, the surveyor would calculate and plot the information from his field notebook.

Significant information was extracted, including:

  • dimensions (bearings and distances) and area
  • marks placed or found (pegs, survey posts, iron pins, reference trees, etc.)
  • accurate location (by traverse) of watercourses forming part of the boundary
  • description of country and area of improvements.

Plans of the survey were the basis for the issue of deeds and leases, the gazettal of reserves and the compilation of cadastral maps.

History of Surveying – Difficulties


Infection and disease associated with poor hygiene or living standards were common. There were many reports of people suffering from Sandy blight. Sandy blight was a chronic eye infection that, in some circumstances, lead to blindness.

Flora and Fauna

As an outdoor occupation, surveyors were subject to nature’s beasts. These ranged from crocodiles and snakes right through to leeches, ticks, scrub itch, flies, mosquitoes, and sand flies. These inhabited different parts of Queensland in different seasons. Flora in the form of prickly pear also made surveying difficult.


In the rainforests of tropical north Queensland, the surveyor and his men worked under challenging conditions. The rain (up to 762 centimetres annually) made it almost impossible to work during the wet season (November to March). Constant rain led to increased chances of the party catching fevers, impossible to relocate camp and flood areas unable to be surveyed.

Rationing of water

While Australia can suffer from flooding and excessive rainfall, Queensland is also no stranger to long periods of drought. The availability of water was a matter of life and death. It was not uncommon for early surveyors in Australia to rely on local Aboriginal people to guide them to water.

In times of extreme drought, surveyors had to postpone surveys in the affected areas for many years. They were unable to provide enough water for their horses which they relied upon heavily. If they did work in drought-affected regions, the men would ration water.

© The State of Queensland 1995–2021

History of mapping and surveying of land in Queensland.

^ Back to top