Skip to content
  • 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission
  • Shop

Matthew Higgins with introduction by David Arnold, 12 April 2013

DAVID ARNOLD: Ladies and gentlemen, we will make a start. My name is David Arnold and I am the head of learning services and community outreach here at the National Museum of Australia. It’s wonderful to see the Visions Theatre pretty well full, and I wonder whether that has anything to do with our speaker this lunchtime.

I thought I might start off with a quick question for you. Put your hand up if you know Matthew Higgins or you like Matthew Higgins or you really wanted to be here because it was Matthew Higgins. And how many of those people are on his email address list? I think that’s a really good indication of something about Matt that is really endearing and important. That is, he is a contributor in so many ways to our life not just around Canberra and the surrounds but around Australia in terms of environmental interest and historical interest.

I was thinking of words to describe Matt, and one of the words I have come up is the word ‘prolific’. He’s a prolific writer, film-maker, enthusiast, communicator - all sorts of things that he does in a prolific way. That’s one of the reasons we are so fond of him and endeared to him.

He was a fantastic staff member here at the Museum for many years. We were sad to see him go a couple of years ago. He has also worked, and many of you will know this, at the War Memorial and the Australian Heritage Commission. He works for the National Library still on oral histories. He is still doing all this work.

He unashamedly asked me to mention that his book [Rugged Beyond Imagination: Stories from an Australian mountain region] was nominated for the ACT book of the year in 2010. How many of you have a copy of this already? - fantastic. There are plenty of books in the shop for those of you who didn’t put your hand up. On a serious note, it’s a fantastic book but also in this book there is direct information and material on the theme of Matt’s talk today looking at these three remarkable men and the work they did surveying Canberra and its surrounds 100 years ago now. There is direct material in this book that is great to read about as a follow-up to the lecture that Matt is about to deliver to us.

Thanks very much, Matt. It’s wonderful to have you back. You are a consummate story-teller. We look forward to you telling us more about three men and the work that they did. Thanks very much. Welcome Matt Higgins.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much, Dave. I took Dave and his partner Sima on a bushwalk just the other week. It was lucky to get him onside and even luckier that I didn’t get them lost. It was a lovely day at the Yankee Hat rock arts site in our wonderful Namadgi National Park.

It is fantastic to see so many people here today, because I am actually giving this talk three times during our centenary year. I thought maybe the border is just not people’s cup of tea and, if I split the audience three ways, Visions is a big venue. If you only have 12 people, it’s very embarrassing. But not only did we have all of you booked, we also had a waiting list. Perhaps the vacant chairs are due to the parking problem at the moment. It’s all those Civic office workers who take up the car park, despite the big red sign. However, you coming here is really nice.

This is a great time to be telling a key early Canberra story, which is also a national story. It is wonderful to have the opportunity of the centenary year and also the excellent Glorious Days exhibition down below in the temporary exhibition gallery. If you haven’t had a look at it yet, make sure you do while it’s on. It’s a wonderful show. As a former senior curator here, I am well aware of all the hard work that staff at all levels and across all sections of this place make for shows like that.

My interest in the border really started in the 1990s when I became aware that there were surviving original survey marks from the original survey out along the ranges and I thought these must be sites of incredible heritage significance to early Canberra, the very birth of the territory. But hardly anyone outside the survey community seemed to know that they were there.

Through the good fortune of being awarded some federal and then ACT government heritage funding I was able to undertaking a twofold project. Firstly, to undertake an archival research project looking at why the border is where it is, who the surveyors were, how they surveyed the border, what their experiences were.

Then the second half of the project was to go out and walk a nominated section of the border to try to find as many of the original survey marks as possible so that they might be conserved and their heritage value estimated and so that the public might know this early Canberra story.

It’s been very gratifying since then to see the story of the border seeping out through government agencies and the community. Not long after the project was finished, many of the survey marks were placed on the ACT government’s interim heritage places register. There have been interpretive signs put up along the border in various parts. There have been community bushwalks.

In 2010 there was a community photographic competition related to the border, and that year also up on the top of Mt Coree there was an official event marking the centenary of the beginning of the border survey, which was attended by the ACT chief Minister Jon Stanhope and the New South Wales governor Dame Marie Bashir. A whole range of people and agencies were involved in all of those things.

It’s great to have seen that story develop.

The fact that you are here today shows that the border story is not a dead story; it’s a living story that’s with us; and hopefully people will continue showing interest in it. They are all the good things.

On the negative side of the ledger there was the 2003 bushfire and, amongst the destruction caused by that fire, numbers of the more flammable survey marks, the timber posts, many of the hand engraved reference trees were destroyed, sadly. But there are other examples still on the ranges, and towards the end of the show I will show you some of those on the screen.

To give you a chance to participate and to make sure that you are all listening, I am going to give you a quick quiz about the ACT border with three quick questions.

Firstly, can someone tell me how long the ACT border is, say to the nearest 20 kilometres? Would someone like to make a bid or a guess? We have a few surveyors here - there’s a few beards in the audience so I reckon they are surveyors. Quick guess – come on someone? 300, 900. Have I got an advance on 900? 1,000. My good friend Ron Jarman up in the top corner is very close, 300. Yes, 306. That’s not a very meaningful figure. So if you were to somehow wrestle with this very convoluted shape of the territory border and bend it into a straight line, it would take you from Canberra to Sydney. It would be just beyond the CBD, probably to the Corso at Manly. I looked it up on Google maps actually. So 306 kilometres is the distance. That gives you an idea of the length surveyed during those five years from 1910 to 1915.

The second question: What is the highest point on the ACT border? Mt Bimberi. What’s the height of Bimberi? 1,908 - pretty close. I go with 1,911. It is shown as 1,913 on some maps as well. Maybe we should go with 1,913 seeing as that is the centenary year. Anyway, it’s only just over 300 metres lower than Kosciuszko, so it’s a big peak in Australian terms.

Third, what is the lowest point on the ACT border? Murrumbidgee. The border crosses the Murrumbidgee twice. Which one of those is going to be the lower? Downstream - yes, we are firing now. Where the Murrumbidgee exits the territory up a bit north of Uriarra Crossing the elevation there is about 430 metres. So between the highest point and the lowest point you have got about 1,500 metres of elevation, 1,500 metres of surveying heaven or surveying hell depending on the experience, and perhaps our three surveyors and their teams experienced both.

So let’s start the story. Federation, a new entity comes into being - the Commonwealth of Australia - the colonies become states and section 125 of the Constitution says, ‘We will have a national capital, and it will be somewhere in New South Wales beyond a minimum distance from Sydney, and it will be in a federal territory.’ So the federal politicians set about finding a site and they go through this assessment process.

In 1904, they decide on Dalgety and the legislation is passed. But feisty New South Wales premier Joseph Carruthers won’t hand over the land because he believes the Feds want more than what the Constitution says. So they go back to the drawing board and look through more sites.

Four years later, they decide on Yass-Canberra, and that looks good. It looks like it’s going to work but it’s a pretty nebulous sort of area. So you need someone experienced to go into that area and decide: where is the city going to be within Yass-Canberra and where is the territorial border going to run?

The person given that job is a very experienced senior New South Wales surveyor by the name of Charles Robert Scrivener. [image shown] He’s in the front row, the bearded chap second from the right, very serious looking man but he had a lot of responsibilities, didn’t he? He very expeditiously set about finding the site for the city. We all know where that is and what a wonderful choice it was.

Then he set about thinking: where should the border run? In doing that, he was guided by one really overriding principle - water. The federal authorities wanted the territory to contain the water catchment for the new city. They did not want to have endless battles with New South Wales about pollution upstream. There had been enough of that inter-colonial rivalry during the nineteenth century, so it was water which was at the forefront of Scrivener’s thinking in deciding where the territory should run.

What he came up with initially was a horseshoe- shaped territory. Just ignore the central part of this map [image shown] and look at the part within the bold line. The western or left-hand part of that horseshoe is the Cotter River. The Cotter River is obviously a great source of water, but Scrivener want also wanted the Molonglo Queanbeyan system because he wasn’t 100 per cent confident that the Cotter had enough water. There was also thought of hydro-power for the city. Even though the name of Walter Griffin hadn’t been heard on the limestone plains at this stage, it was known there would be ornamental water features in the new capital. So he wanted to control the river that they would on, and that’s the Molonglo.

Scrivener was a member of an advisory board making this decision. His fellows on the board were: Percy Owen, the director of works in the territory; David Miller from the Department of Home Affairs who would be the administrator of the territory; and the New South Wales government architect Walter Liberty Vernon - they agreed with Scrivener. It went off to Alfred Deakin, the Prime Minister, who said ‘Yes, that looks good.’ So a letter went to New South Wales Premier Charles Wade. He had succeeded Carruthers.

Wade is a bit more conciliatory. He wants it to work. He says, ‘Yes, you can have the Cotter. That is just rubbishy mountain country.’ Hardly anyone lived there, you see. How values have changed! But he didn’t want to lose the Upper Queanbeyan because quite a few people lived up there on grazing properties and He didn’t want to lose the town of Queanbeyan. So he said, ‘Look, I will give you the Cotter and the Lower Molonglo below the railway line, but I won’t give you the Upper Queanbeyan. You can have water rights in that’ - and that certainly came in handy when we came to build Googong Dam in the 1970s – ‘But to make up for that area, because I know you are after 900 square miles or so, I will give you the centre part on our map which is the watersheds of the combined Paddys, Naas and Gudgenby Rivers.’

That came back to the federal government. They looked at it, and of course compromise is everything in politics. This was a good compromise, and so that’s how the territory came into being.

When I have to describe what the territory looks like to people, it’s such a strange shape. It’s sort of like a mutant ear, perhaps with a cigarette stuck behind it pointing out towards Bungendore. But it’s water that explains that shape because the bulk of our border follows watersheds.

However, how this happened is just amazing. Despite all this emphasis on water, part of the vital Cotter catchment was cut off so we need to answer this Cotter catchment conundrum - how did that happen? [map shown] You will see that straight line section up here, that’s about 30 kilometres from Mt Coree to One Tree Hill behind Hall. It’s that part of the border which cuts off a Cotter River tributary - Coree Creek.

Over the years a story has arisen to try to explain how this happened. All the rest of the border had been surveyed, but the government was running out of money so the government said to the surveyors, ‘Just run a straight line, she’ll be right.’ It sounds great but it’s false because, rather than being the last part of the border surveyed, that straight line was the very first.

What I think happened was there was no way that Scrivener had the resources to go out and physically walk the whole border. He was dependent on maps at the time, particularly parish maps, and they had a number of inaccuracies because there hadn’t been the resources and people on the ground to survey it accurately. If you look at the parish of Uriarra map, you will see Coree Creek flowing from the very summit of Mt Coree and in which case yes, a straight line would have incorporated it. But the creek doesn’t come from there at all; it starts to the north-east.

What happened was that, in 1926, 11 years after the completion of the border survey, a surveyor by the name of Astley Pulver was sent in to see what had been cut off. The following year, 1927, the Commonwealth simply acquired that parcel of land so that catchment values could be maintained. They didn’t change the border, because that would require rewriting the legislation because the border is physically described in those 1909 acts. So they simply acquired that land, and I think that arrangement lasted probably until the 1990s when Brindabella National Park was declared by New South Wales in that area and catchment values hopefully would be maintained. So that’s the answer to our Cotter catchment conundrum.

So let’s now go to the border survey. It’s June 1910, and Charles Scrivener sends young Percy Sheaffe up to the top of Mt Coree. Sheaffe was the good-looking young chap next to Scrivener in that photograph on the right-hand end [image shown]. Sheaffe is a Queenslander. How he felt about being sent up into the Brindabellas at the beginning of winter is anyone’s guess. But Scrivener wasn’t asking him to do something he himself would not have done, for Scrivener had surveyed in the snow back when they were looking at Dalgety, up the Snowy River there.

Sheaffe heads up and begins the survey in June from Coree and he makes this trip down to the Murrumbidgee within a couple of months. But the hardest part of his work was actually at the very beginning, right up the top of Coree, because there are quite substantial cliffs. Sheaffe’s own description of the work here was:

In places the country encountered was so rough that the party carrying out the survey had to crawl on all fours, measure over precipices, and descend in one mile about 1500 feet.

Of course, they had measure distance physically. They didn’t have electronic distance measures like we have had for a few decades. They didn’t have the old Gunter’s chain, the 100-link chain. That was obsolete, but they still had these measuring wires or bands that they had to run across the landscape. Imagine doing that up there. However, he didn’t even have the weather on his side, because as Scrivener recorded:

This work is proceeding under very unfavourable conditions since, though no great amount of rain has fallen, there are frequent showery days with occasional falls of snow.

I am sure that Percy Sheaffe might have wished he was back in Queensland at certain times but I don’t think he complained either, because this part of the job really stuck with him right through the rest of his life. He was very proud of it.

He gets down to the Murrumbidgee, the lowest point on the border, and continues on. He makes it through to One Tree Hill by February 1911, so that 30-kilometre section is completed. His measurement of the distance was later compared with a measurement from trigonometrical stations. He was found to be accurate to within 0.8 of a centimetre for every 1.6 kilometres, or a third of an inch for every mile, which is an incredible level of accuracy. I think it works out to a difference of about 16 centimetres over 30 kilometres - remarkable and dedication.

He starts to make his way along what is the northern catchment watershed of the Molonglo. As he is going along there, he starts to meet trig stations which had been built back in the 1870s by a chap called Edward H Taylor and his piling party. They were called piling parties because they piled the stones together for the cairns that made the trigs. Of course, that was part of the expansion, the trigonometrical network, all being part of being able to survey land and to measure distance accurately across the landscape, especially in the wake of the free selection legislation the increasing pressure on the survey department.

Along that ridge we still have the surviving cairn of one of those trigs, Gooroo trig. The actual veins and mast have gone, but the cairn is still there. So that is 1870s, still there today, a significant heritage site in the territory.

Just to the right on the horizon, you see that big rounded peak, that is Coree. That is where Sheaffe had started, and that’s how far he had got to by this stage.

As he is passing through this lower country, he is passing through existing portions of land. He has to be very accurate, because part of that land is going to be in New South Wales and part in the territory. But as he goes, he finds that almost every portion boundary is inaccurate. He described the situation in these terms. His work was greatly slowed down by:

… the poor class of survey work effected by the [NSW] Lands Department years ago.

So what that meant was that he had to resurvey almost every portion he went through. So it was quite a slow job and something that hadn’t been anticipated before.

Here is a picture of Percy and his team [image shown]. He’s on the right with the theodolite. This is actually taken in town. In the parliamentary triangle there is a famous photo of King O’Malley driving a peg into the ground. Well, this is that scene, just after the driving of the peg in 1913 in the parliamentary triangle. That gives an idea of what a survey party looked like at the time. It also shows you that the border surveyors weren’t out on the border all the time. They had a lot of work to do. They were into town, out, back and forth. There is Percy on the right with his team.

He makes his way around to the railway line. As I said, the railway just this side of Queanbeyan would be part of the border. And passing down through to Queanbeyan. Of course, the most dramatic part of that landscape is the Molonglo Gorge with its distinctive mix of cypress and eucalyptus vegetation. It is quite a steep valley - not exactly a gorge in world terms but a steep valley.

As he was going along the railway you can bet that the loco drivers who came by on the regular runs would have got used to seeing this survey party working along beside them. It would have been quite dramatic to see those steam locos going through and the steam and the smoke coming up.

In 1913 Percy married. Earlier in his career he had worked out at Hillston in western New South Wales and got to know a young lady by the name of Katie McKellar. He they married in 1913, and Katie came to live with Percy in a tent, because they are living in tents on the border as they are going around. That’s how their early married life started. In amongst the tents of the labourers and the chain men and the cook, not much privacy for a married couple.

On top of that, who should keep visiting but Percy’s mother. That’s the woman on the left, Isabel [image shown]. This is a wonderful photo of the tent – it’s not very clear but look at the gramophone and there’s a tablecloth. I have seen other pictures of the camp. There is a silver cruet set, which is still in the family’s possession. So they did have comforts out in the bush.

The surveyors also had these flying camps which were much rougher, but this is a base camp with Percy’s mother Isabel and his wife Katie. There is also vegetation wound up the tent poles there. So is it Arbour Day, Wattle Day or Christmas? I am not sure. That’s another interesting little decorative feature of this great photo.

So Sheaffe starts to work further down the railway line. But look what’s happening out in the west, a second survey party has got under way under Harry Mouat. It was Scrivener’s plan always to have only one party do the border so they could develop the expertise in that specific task and get it done. But the government was getting a bit antsy because of these delays in having to resurvey, et cetera, and they were putting pressure on Scrivener. So Scrivener appointed a second team under Harry Mouat, and we will hear about Mouat’s experiences and adventures shortly.

The border follows the railway for about 52 kilometres from where Sheaffe first got onto it down towards Williamsdale. You would think that surveying a border along a railway would be pretty straightforward. Well, no it wasn’t, because Sheaffe found that there were discrepancies in the lands that had been acquired for the railway back in 1884. So he had to make repeated trips up to Sydney to talk with the railways officials, surveyor generals department and land titles. This was another thing he had to cope with and deal with within the context of the survey.

Here’s a page from one of the early annual reports from the Department of Lands and Surveys showing some of the equipment used [image shown], the Troughton and Simms theodolites on the top and the Bamberg theodolite in the bottom left-hand corner. I don’t know specifically which instruments were used on the border, but this at least gives an indication of the types of theodolites that they had. I have already talked about the measuring wires that they used.

There is a plane table there, second from the left on the bottom, so just an indication of the sort of equipment. It must have been pretty hardy sort of equipment too. A theodolite is a delicate instrument. If you are carrying them through the bush on a pack horse, they would have to pack them pretty well not to be wiped out on the side of a snowgum or something.

So the work goes on. By mid-1914 Sheaffe has left the railway, gone across the Murrumbidgee where it enters the territory, and he’s up on watershed again, the divide between the Murrumbidgee and Naas Rivers. That little section between the railway and that divide is interesting where it crosses the Murrumbidgee, because the border actually follows the bank of the ‘Bidgee’ for a little bit, but all the rest of that little section follows portion boundaries rather than cutting through them.

The point where the border crosses the river is at Angle Crossing. Of course, Angle Crossing has been in the news lately because that is actually where Actew has built its new pipeline to take water from the Murrumbidgee through to Googong Dam. Here we have the border story where water is so central, and yet again water is still with us in this time, especially after the last decade of drought where we all became so aware of the importance of water in the territory.

Sheaffe starts to work down that range known as the Clear Range between the Murrumbidgee and the Naas River. Here is a chart of that very area. This is part of the FC18 series of charts. This series of charts was compiled as soon as the border survey had been done. There are about 13 of them that cover the whole territory based on the surveyors’ field books, with a very high standard of cartography and with very nice topographic shading there. You can see on the left the intersection of Naas Creek and the Gudgenby River, but the most important thing is the line of the border running down the centre here [image shown].

It had been agreed that the agreed border between New South Wales and the territory would be that as physically marked by the surveyors working under Scrivener’s direction so they were putting marks in at each point. On these watershed parts of the border it meant that, on the range they were following, wherever it changed direction they would have to put in a mark, so wherever the bearing changed. Depending on the land form it could be 50 metres between marks or it could be a couple of hundred metres.

You can see those marks that are there [image shown]. They each had an alphanumeric reference number, all of them, and they are shown in the field books. I think the most common visitor to Sheaffe as he was working would have been the local cockies, because here they are losing half their land inside the territory. Well, they didn’t actually lose it.

A lot of people think that all the land of the territory was resumed immediately. Well, it wasn’t. It was resumed as the government needed it. But nonetheless they would be subjected to a different administration, different rates, et cetera, until it would be eventually resumed. So you can imagine these farmers coming up to Sheaffe and asking him, ‘Which part of my land am I going to lose to the federals?’

The job is well under way by early 1915: Sheaffe is getting down towards Mt Clear, and Mouat has got past Mt Kelly.

This is Acton House which stood right on this site, the old Acton property [image shown]. Scrivener and his wife had originally lived in tents near the river, but by now they were living in Acton House. This was a place of resort for the surveyors at the time because, as I said, the border surveyors were coming into town from time to time. If they were here on a weekend, that was great because the Scriveners had tennis parties here at Acton House. So it was a place where they could relax and socialise because there wasn’t much else to do. There were the other homesteads. In 1911 Duntroon had been established, so there was some socialising out there, but the Scriveners were the centre of the early survey community.

In early 1915 Charles Scrivener retired and Percy Sheaffe was recalled back into Acton to take on higher duties as district surveyor. So he leaves our survey story at this point. This is a picture of Percy Sheaffe and Katie [image shown], many years later obviously, in their senior years at their house in Forrest. Sheaffe remained on the survey staff until 1948 when he retired as the territory’s chief surveyor. The Canberra Times wrote at that time:

The job of which Mr Sheaffe is most proud is the survey of the territorial boundary.

It really stuck with him, especially those early experiences on Coree. In fact his daughter Jean, who is 94 years old - I was talking to her the other day. She still drives. I think she has the same gumption that her father had. She has told me how she would bring boyfriends home, and Percy would grab them and regale them for hours about the border. Maybe that is why Jean never married. She never got a chance.

Percy surveyed well over half of the border. He is remembered today in Sheaffe Street in Holder, Sheaffe House at the Canberra Boys Grammar School, and various survey points like Sheaffe trig on Isaacs Ridge. That is Percy Sheaffe who made a major contribution to early Canberra.

He is replaced on the border by Frederick Marshall Johnston - Freddie Johnston obviously in later life shown here [image shown] - was about 30 when he came onto the border in 1915, a west Australian. His father had been surveyor-general of Western Australia. He was a pretty stylish sort of guy. He had worked on the trans-Australia railway survey before coming to the territory.

In 1915 he went on to the border. He was to survey 20-odd kilometres of the border. He eventually in his career became the Commonwealth surveyor-general and first director of national mapping, so a very high-level guy. He is not commemorated in Canberra as far as I know, but there is a geodetic survey station in northern South Australia named after him.

The point where he takes over from Sheaffe is just near Mt Clear. I hope you are getting the impression that we really do have some fantastic country around us. What we have here in the ACT is just fantastic. That is an excellent example down around Mt Clear. Of course, it was such rugged country, especially at that time.

The surveyors used horses to get around, horse-drawn vehicles where they could get them onto the range, pack horses and moving on foot. Freddie Johnston thought he could go one better and he bought a Model T Ford. There is a Model T Ford down in the Glorious Days exhibition. It’s not Freddie’s one though; it’s a luxury version. Freddie wrote a very entertaining memoir called Knights and Theodolites.

He says in that how, when he went to get his drivers’ licence in Queanbeyan in 1915, the policemen who rode with him had never been in a car before and was absolutely terrified. Have things changed in Queanbeyan, by the way? We know it’s true because there’s the car. What a wonderful photograph.

[image shown] That is at his survey camp on the southern border near Westerman’s Homestead. In handwriting on the back of that print at the National Archives says ‘near Westerman’s homestead’. It looks like the Model T has its own garage with that tent just behind it. But I am also interested by the tent next door where that flue coming out and the smoke. I would say that’s the cook’s tent, most probably.

Freddie Johnston had all sorts of interesting interactions with the locals down that way. He wrote about one of the grazier’s wives who had come along smoking a clay pipe. She would sit in the car and repeatedly toot the horn because it was such a novelty. I would love to know who that was.

One of the graziers themselves came up to him one day and started quizzing Freddie suspiciously, ‘Why aren’t you married, lad?’ Unmarried at that age. So Freddie said evasively, ‘Oh, girls are too particular.’ With that the grazer looked him in the eye and said, ‘You want to come around my way, mate. My gals ain’t too particular.’ Freddie wrote in his memoir, ‘I did not call.’ The word ‘not’ is italicised. I just love that.

But Freddie the following year in 1916 with the First World War joined the first AIF, the Survey Corps, went off to England and married a woman from Chelsea, and they had couple of kids back in Australia.

The job is completed in autumn 1915, with Johnston moving north west from Wrights Hill and Mouat heading south east from Sentry Box they join up. This five-year job, a national survey project in its way along with the other state border surveys, is completed.

Here is a scene at Johnston’s camp [image shown]. That is Harry Mouat on the left, then Freddie Johnston, field assistants Reg Kelly and Kenneth Stretch. The woman in the foreground is Iris Mouat, Harry Mouat’s wife, who accompanied him for part of the survey and also stayed out at rural homesteads while Harry was up on the ranges.

Again we know from Freddie’s memoir that they had a special celebratory dessert that night. Johnston’s cook, a chap named Sid, instead of making spotted dog, which I think was like a plum pudding or something like that, got oranges, cut them in half, hollowed them out and filled them with jelly. That was how they celebrated the completion of this major task.

If they wanted to imbibe a drop or two, they couldn’t have because King O’Malley had introduced prohibition four years earlier. But seeing as they were on the border, all they had to do was take a step sideways and they were in New South Wales. Maybe the surveyors wouldn’t have indulged, but I am sure those labourers would have hightailed it to the pub at old Adaminaby and brought back a bottle of rum or two.

On a more serious note, it is true to say that the survey of the ACT border was a far less contentious border than some of the other state border surveys in Australia’s history. We can go into that in further detail perhaps during the questions.

We have heard about Sheaffe and Johnston. What about Harry Mouat? Harry was New Zealand born. He married Iris about a year before coming on to the border. He was aged 33 in 1913 when he started.

He is remembered today in Mouat Street, Lyneham. I am sure everyone is familiar with Mouat Street Lyneham, a short street but a major one.

He surveyed about 92 kilometres of the border. He was known amongst his colleages as happy Harry because he so rarely smiled, but a good leader of men. He, too, had a notable survey career but died under rather tragic circumstances in Sydney in the 1950s.

Harry sets out from the same point as Sheaffe had done, Mt Coree, but he was heading south not north east and he was heading into the wilds of the Brindabellas and the Upper Cotter. That area was described by Australia’s acting Commonwealth geologist Griffith Taylor in these words:

… the upper valley of the Cotter is so rugged and far from all settlement that only one or two people have traversed it, and the map simply indicates it by a broken line in a perfectly blank strip of territory!

That is a slight overstatement. Indigenous Australians have been traversing it for 20,000-odd years and there were settlers in the Cotter - but not many. So the gist of what he is saying is true, especially officially. What Harry is heading into is terra incognita. So he sets off in October 1913.

This is the parish of Cotter map 1912 [image shown]. There are very few known survey points. There is the Bimberi trig up here and Morgan down here. There are a couple of surveyed blocks in the valley but all along the ridge lines, including the border, it says ‘approximate position of range’. They just didn’t know because there had been too little surveying on the ground. This funny little corner down the bottom which sticks out towards Mt Morgan, that is shown on early maps of the ACT but it doesn’t actually exist because the range doesn’t run that way - it runs more south-easterly as Mouat discovered when he was there on foot. So south-easterly from Bimberi and Murray through to Mt Scabby. That is one way in which the border survey corrected the earlier impressions of the country.

[image shown] What did I say about magnificent country? This is in our back yard, for goodness sake. Are we not fortunate to have this? It’s wonderful. That’s why I go bushwalking and want to tell these stories to bring them to people. It doesn’t matter whether you go there yourself or not. It’s just great to know that it’s there. This is on Mt Aggie and a photo of my late friend Bert Bennett. The interesting point is that, as Mouat went along, he was picking up local names for these places and putting them on the map. So Mt Aggie named after Agnes Franklin of the Brindabella Franklin family.

This is about Christmas Eve 1913 [image shown]. Just after Christmas and into 1914, he gets onto the top of Mt Franklin. Here’s a wonderful photo of Franklin family members on the trig, and of course they are all related to Miles Franklin. She’s in a neighbouring homestead down at Brindabella. That’s Thomas Franklin in the foreground. Halfway up the cairn on the left, in that brilliant long dress and riding crop, that’s Aggie [that is Agnes]. How she got up the cairn in that long dress, I don’t know, but it’s a wonderful shot. It was a real habit of people to write their signatures on trig veins, and that is what the chap at the top is doing. So those early trig veins are wonderful historical resources, where they still exist.

About a month later, Mouat is on top of Mt Ginini. This is one of my winter photos [image shown] - of course he’s there in summer. You can see Mt Coree, his starting point, way off in the background back there - Devils Peak and Mt Coree – so you can see how far he has come. That strip down neighbouring Mt Franklin, that’s actually a ski run that was cut by the Canberra Alpine Club in the 1930s -1940s period. This is a view across to Mt Gingera on the Brindabellas from Tidbinbilla [image shown].

You can see the ruggedness of the country and also it’s heavily timbered. One of the major jobs of the labourers in these survey parties was to clear lines of sight for the surveyor’s theodolite. There were about six people in the survey team: the surveyor, a field assistant, a chainman, a couple of labourers and a cook. It’s really interesting realising how stratified these parties were. In terms of salary, Scrivener earned about 900 a year; Sheaffe, 450; Mouat and Johnston, about 330; a chainman half that much; and a cook still less. Obviously you are going to have that gradation in any organization, but this stratification is seen elsewhere in pictures of them. The surveyors are always in coat and tie in the field; the labourers are in labouring clothes, as we saw earlier. In terms of address, whenever Scrivener wrote to his surveyors, he would say ‘Mr Surveyor Sheaffe’, ‘Mr Surveyor Johnston’ or ‘Mr Surveyor Mouat’. But if it was the labourers, he would just say ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’ - a very interesting social side coming out there.

Here is a page from one of Mouat’s fieldbooks, Rolling Ground Gap south of Gingera [image shown]. This is to give you an idea of all the interests that are in these books. We see the border line along here. We see the sorts of marks being described. So timber post, the reference tree out here and the sort of marks they are putting on - the Commonwealth survey mark which is a state arrow with a bar under it - and all the bearings and distances. He shows his camp, April 1914, and historical features like bridal tracks, where they come from and to, a reference to water down this creek, so that someone coming along after them knows where water is and the track going off to Cooleman. There is all sorts of interest in these as historical documents.

Shortly after May 1914, Mouat gets snowed in on the range and he can’t continue the survey. Somehow he gets a message to Scrivener back in Acton, ‘Can I come home, Sir?’ Scrivener says, ‘No, you can come down from the range, but I want you to stay out there and survey the Upper Cotter, because although work on the Cotter dam has begun we are still looking for a gravitational dam site where water could be brought down by gravity.’ So Mouat spends the frosty winter of 1914 tramping the Upper Cotter. He would have known this place [image shown], the Oldfields hut up in there is long gone, a wonderful slab and shingle building. And even today there is a place that is remembered by locals as Mouat’s camp in the valley. One of the dam sites that Mouat did find is surprisingly close to where Corin Dam was built in the 1960s. With the retreat of the snow and the coming of the next summer, he’s up on Mt Bimberi, our highest peak. This is a photo of JHL Cumpston and his boys doing a bush walk there in 1931 [image shown]. Cumpston was the head of the Department of Health, had a very strong interest in the Cotter as our water source, did lots of walks. [image shown] That is the original 1870s trig that they are putting their names on, no doubt. So Mouat passed here in early 1915.

[image shown] That is the view today - or at least before the bushfires - from the top of Bimberi with Corin in the distance and it’s the Brindabella Range running along on the left. You would think that surveying along a range would be pretty straightforward, but the Brindabellas are a very rounded range. It would be very easy to get side-tracked and go down one of those subsidiary spurs and having to come back so I am sure that Mouat would have been reconnoitring ahead all the time. I am sure that local knowledge would have been important to them. In the same way he picked up these local names, he had local bushmen with him. We know that one of the Lutons from Shannons Flat was one of his labourers, and they would have been helping him find his way along the range to make sure he didn’t go down the wrong spur.

One name that he didn’t pick up is Mt Scabby, way down the southern end, right at the source of the Cotter actually. That name didn’t come onto maps until the 1920s. For some reason that was bypassed, nomenclature-wise. The next big peak he got to was Mt Kelly. There’s that triangular bite in the southern part of the border where the border suddenly runs northward again and then south. So that is Mt Kelly.

The interesting point here is how it got its name. [image shown] You can see the top of the peak up here and how he’s written ‘Named by me “Mt Kelly”’. He nevertheless wrote ‘named by me’ because when he was incorporating local names he just put it in. But the story behind this is that his field assistant was Reg Kelly. I was able to contact Kelly’s surviving daughter, who is a Catholic nun, Sister Kate Kelly. She told me the story that her father had actually collapsed on a mountain with Mouat, Mouat thought he was going to die and he named a peak after him. Fortunately he did survive and so does the name. Hence the reference to Kelly.

Again, you can see the descriptions of the timber and the rocks et cetera and the sorts of marks that are being put in. But this is also of interest: ‘mile posts omitted May 1915 due to snow’. So that’s two years in a row when there were substantial may snowfalls. We don’t get substantial May snowfalls these days. You will have the odd fall in April or May where the resorts say, ‘It’s going to be a great season,’ but they’re actually fairly light. For snow to be this heavy to stop these guys working - for the environmental historians here, surveyors’ field books can be a really interesting source.

The border ridge runs south-east from Kelly. [image shown] Here is a view there during our fieldwork in 1996. Some of the places where Mouat put marks are in very difficult places. One is on a very high boulder that you have to clamber up. Another one you have to jump across a chasm. It makes you wonder whether there were thoughts of mutiny amongst the team. But the fact that that didn’t occur indicates, I guess, that Mouat was a good leader of men.

The next major peak, and really the last major peak on that part of the border, is Sentry Box Mountain, a wonderful place, named after that huge boulder in the distance, Sentry Box Rock. This is a name which was known of officially for a long time. It is shown certainly on the 1871 county of Cowley map. [image shown] There I am with one of Mouat’s marks, the line of stones, the lock spit and the actual mark is in the centre. You can see my trusty compass, and the importance of that compass will be revealed shortly.

Sentry Box is a pretty timeless sort of place. Yes, bushfires come and go. Luckily the 2003 fire didn’t burn very severely there. About the only significant change has been the colour of my hair, which is rather significant - too much time out in the snow. That is my excuse.

[image shown] This is at the end of Sentry Box. That cliff in the foreground, Mouat described that in his fieldbook as a ‘precipitous sidling’. Isn’t that a wonderful term - precipitous sidling? These guys were cultured. He didn’t just write ‘bloody cliff’. They would have been relieved to find that the border ridge actually doesn’t go down there. They didn’t have to go straight down that precipitous sidling. It goes around to the right and then runs out along the Bobeyan Divide, which is this timbered ridge here. [image shown] So that’s the border: New South Wales over here; ACT here; and the point where Mouat and Johnston met somewhere around in here. I have actually found that last mark that Mouat put in and thought about how he would have felt at that point.

In the final section of the talk, let’s briefly look at the fieldwork that I did. I walked half the border. I didn’t all of it because with heritage grants there is a strong onus on you to do things out of your own pocket – an in kind contribution - and it wasn’t possible to do the whole thing, so I did half. I did about half of that with friends and colleagues, and the other half on my own.

The methodology - well GPS then wasn’t like GPS now. ACT survey staff came out for a day with GPS and it wasn’t all that helpful. I did have a limited amount of funding to employ a surveyor, and a friend of mine John Stevens joined me. I was his chainman – theodolite, electronic distance measurer, ranging pole. We did three or four days, very accurate but very slow and obviously too expensive. So the bulk of the work I knew would have to be done with compass and pacing. So I went through all the fieldbooks, converted the bearings to magnetics so that I could use a compass, converted their imperial measurements from links to metres so I could pace it.

What were some of the marks that were found? Here is a lovely example of one of Mouat’s 8-inch square timber post with ‘CT’ [image shown]. What would ‘CT’ stand for? If we think ‘capital territory’ but actually ‘Commonwealth territory’. Sadly, this mark was destroyed in the 2003 bushfires but there are other examples on the border.

[Series of images shown] A 3-inch downpipe filled with concrete - this is just south of Franklin on the peak I call the skiers Little Ginini. You wouldn’t think that is 100 years old, but it is.

A 1-inch pipe filled with concrete down near Mt Kelly. You can see the very substantial lock spit or rock spit, the line of stones reflecting the change of bearing. You can stand over that with your compass, and they are very accurately placed.

A concrete cylinder - these are referred to simply as a concrete cylinder. There is no mention of the rusty tin can that Mouat obviously used as the formwork, and I guess they were empty food tins from their kit. That is how they were put in.

Railway spike, again with stones from the lock spit around it, and a nail set into concrete.

Surveyors make carvings in trees nearby called reference trees. They refer to the mark so that a later surveyor coming along can see where it is. This is a lovely example north-west of Sentry Box with the Commonwealth survey arrow, the arrow and bar, and then the ‘CT’. On the right is John Stevens, my surveying friend and on the left Ian McLeod. I don’t know whether Ian is here today but he spent a lot of time with me in the field and made a great contribution to the project, as did Russell Wenholz, an ACT surveyor now retired, and others.

This is a wonderful tree on Bimberi. This one faces the weather, faces the south-west, so a century of blizzards that have worked at it, but you can still see the arrow and the ‘CT’. It’s a work of nature as much as a work of man.

One of Mouat’s mile trees, so the M18 - lovely carving. They had a stencil in their kit and pencils and a mallet and chisel and that is how they did these. Sadly, this tree, which was an excellent one and really close to the Franklin Road so easy to take people to, it was destroyed in the [2003] fire.

Mouat’s 50-mile cairn down near Yaouk Gap.

Sheaffe’s 94-mile tree. Of course he is going in another direction so his measurement of miles is different from Mouat’s. That’s a lovely blaze. It’s huge. it’s over a metre high. It’s still there, I understand, because the fires didn’t get over there.

And Johnston’s 112-mile tree. I have taken lots of bushwalkers here, including staff from the Museum. It is a great example, but sadly last year it collapsed so it has now gone.

One of Johnston’s ordinary reference trees. Each of the marks had an alpha numeric number, as I said, and in Johnston’s case he actually included that in the carving. So that is E42. He went that step further. Sadly, this tree collapsed about a year after I found it.

All of these reference trees will be gone in time. Trees die; they burn; they rot. There is a case to be made for taking one of these trees, with the National Museum or the Canberra Museum and Gallery acquiring it, so they can be conserved in the future.

This shows the chameleon-like quality of some of these marks. There are actually two marks here, one of them possibly dating from the 1880s because of earlier surveys that had been done on the pre-border area because it was then a boundary between parishes et cetera.

Some of the impacts on marks: human interference is one. This is a mark down near Scabby. You can see the lock spit, and the concrete cylinder has been taken out and put next to it by someone.

I have read in bushwalkers’ reports where people have written, ‘We found an Aboriginal stone arrangement, but there was a rusty can in it so we threw the can away.’ That is really sad because it misunderstands what an Aboriginal stone arrangement is on the one hand and what these survey marks are on the other.

The bulldozing of the Brindabellas fire break in the 1950s wiped out huge numbers of marks. Of course you could understand the reasons for doing it - that was a bad fire time - but nonetheless that break from the base of Coree through to Franklin did take out a lot of marks.

And then January 2003, this is the view from Mt Ainslie at about 2.15 pm on that terrible day, 18 January. Large numbers of the timber marks and reference trees were destroyed. Since that time, the ACT Survey Office has commissioned survey parties to go out and re-instate marks that were lost both during the fire and the bulldozing of the fire break. So that’s great they’re there, because these marks do legally define the border on the ground. But of course those new marks don’t have the heritage significance of the old ones which have that direct significance with the survey.

This brings me to the end of the presentation. Thank you for listening. I hope that this has been a meaningful experience for you. I hope it has led to your interest in the border and has explained why we are what we are, the shape, and who the people were. I hope you have enjoyed our virtual tour around the border through some magnificent country. So thanks very much. [applause]

I am happy to take a few questions if you wish. We are recording so if you don’t mind waiting for the mike.

QUESTION: Matt, following the surveyors came the engineers, as you know. My Dad was one of those back in the 1930s, worked on the old Cotter dam and in fact all the dams. I was wondering whether you might at some stage do a book on some of these old engineers and particularly the dam workers. I have come across a number of them. They are now getting into their 90s, so we are running out of time on that issue.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Yes, thank you. My book Rugged Beyond Imagination has a section on the dams. Obviously it doesn’t mention your father or large numbers of names, but it does represent a summary history of those dams in the Cotter Valley. I did do an oral history and archival project called ‘Dams of the Cotter’ back in the 1990s which is held in various libraries. There is the engineering institution’s history. I know that Keith Baker is working on a new volume on engineering in the ACT as a centennial project. I could put you in contact with Keith because I think that would be a good idea. So if you want to see me at the end then I can get your email address if you would like to do that.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for a very interesting presentation. I noted that you used a lot of pictures from when you have been out doing bushwalking. This presentation has inspired me to want to go out and do some bushwalking in the area that I haven’t as yet done. I was wondering if you could perhaps suggest what group or who is best to make contact with in order to experience some of the bushwalking that would take me out to some of those points.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: The National Parks Association, which is really the community group that campaigned for Namadgi Park, have regular walks every week. There is also the Canberra Bushwalkers Club. There is a member of the Canberra bushwalkers by the name of John Evans who has really gone border marker crazy - he’s a fantastic guy - and soon he will have covered the whole border and photographed every surviving mark. If you contact either of those two organisations. There are occasional ranger guided walks as well. I used to lead quite a lot of walks for groups, including the National Trust. I tend to not do that so much these days. There is plenty of opportunity.

QUESTION: Thank you for an interesting presentation. In your introduction you started mentioning the history of Dalgety and then moving on to the Yass-Canberra district. I understand that Scrivener was very loath to have Yass-Canberra as a federal territory because of the risk of water pollution down in the Mildura area. Are you able to elaborate on that?

MATTHEW HIGGINS: As far as pollution coming into the territory, because it could be confined, if you like, pollution into the territory wasn’t so much of a problem. I don’t know what he felt about things downstream but he was a bit dubious about the Cotter having enough water and I think he particularly wanted the Queanbeyan system in it because of that.

There is going to be a presentation about Scrivener on Tuesday at the National Conference of the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute where I am repeating this talk. There is a heritage and history workshop on next Tuesday, and one of the other presenters will be talking about Scrivener. If you contact that organisation, that event is at the National Convention Centre. That’s the best reference I can give you.

QUESTION: 1913 was the year that Canberra was declared as the capital -

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Well it was named that year. The territory came into being in 1911.

QUESTION: Yet they started surveying in 1910.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: You had to pass the legislation. So those Acts were passed into 1909, and it was written into the acts that they would become active as of 1 January 1911. So yes, work was going on before you could say the territory became an entity.

QUESTION: So there was still the debate with the Dalgety site at that stage?

MATTHEW HIGGINS: No, I think that was put to bed. Once Carruthers said that he wouldn’t hand over the land, that’s why they went back to the drawing board. Once they decided on Yass-Canberra, then they were committed to Yass-Canberra, especially once Wade had agreed to the shape that we talked about earlier.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Way back in the 1970s I was involved with the trig surveys here in Canberra. We had to put beacons on top of Mt Bimberi and on Mt Clear, and as a matter of comparison we used to helicopters to put those two beacons on - not like poor old Mouat and Sheaffe who had to walk up them - and that was quite a logistical problem at the time. And also in the 1970s I was the president of the local institution at the time and we had a lot of Scrivener’s old gear which I presented to the National Library. I have also visited Scrivener’s house down in Mt Irvine. His house was a hexagonal, I think, and they told me that he had a room in the middle and on all the walls he had lift-up frames, so he would pass things out and people would pass them into him. He was a very organised man.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you for that comment.

QUESTION: That material from Scrivener was also held by the Mt Wilson Historical Society for many years and they mounted quite an impressive static display, which is now owned I believe by Bathurst. Part of my interest in Scrivener comes from association with Mt Irvine, but it was also most impressive to note that Scrivener, as well as the tasks he performed with his team here in Canberra, made extremely comprehensive and authoritative surveys of the entire Ryde and I believe Parramatta and/or Willoughby shires or municipalities in Sydney as part of his professional contribution - quite an amazing man.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you. He was a New South Wales surveyor of considerable experience so he had moved across the state, and that’s why he was chosen - a very good choice, I might say. Yes, he did retire to the Blue Mountains - Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine.

Shall we leave it there? Don’t forget: exit via the bookshop. Thank you very much for coming today. [applause]

Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

Return to Top