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NSW South Coast Surveyor


For just over two and a half years (17 Aug 1826 - 25 March 1829) Thomas Florance was an Assistant Surveyor in the Surveyor General's Department of the colony of NSW. During this period John Oxley was Surveyor General until his death in May 1828 when Thomas Mitchell took over. One of Florance's assignments was a triangulation survey of the South Coast (Jervis Bay to Moruya). This was begun in December of 1927 and completed in April, May and June of the following year. A result of the survey is that Florance is responsible for many place names on the South Coast. However, Florance has another link with the South Coast; after resigning his position in the Surveyor General's department he obtained a land grant north of Milton and settled there for a while. Not surprisingly Florance is very much part of the history of the South Coast.

Quite a lot can be learnt about Florance, not only about his work as surveyor, but also his life story and his nature as a person. As a result of his employment in a government department, bureaucracy has ensured that today there are a considerable number of letters, reports, field books and maps available for perusal. These are held by NSW State Records and are referenced here where possible. However, the information below has also been derived from a variety of other sources (see the Bibliography). These sources don't agree on all details (for example, his date of birth, parents, and age at marriage and death), and occasionally make assumptions.

Probably the best biography of Thomas Florance is that by Dowd (see Bibliography) but it does not tell us much about his survey of the South Coast. Pleaden (see Bibliography) has much more to say about the South Coast survey but the best information on that topic comes from the information held in the NSW State Records. The information below is not intended to be another detailed biography, nor does it seek to concentrate at length on the details of the South Coast survey. Instead the intention is to present an overview with some of the less well known but interesting details relating to Thomas Florance.

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Thomas Florance - his life

Thomas Florance was born in Sussex, England about 1783. Sometime before 1805 he went to Canada and was a land surveyor over a period of 7 years (ref 1). For two and a half years he served with the British forces in the War of 1812 (ref 2) as a military engineer. The war was fought between the United States and Britain and lasted until January 1815. On land the main fighting was along the Canadian border. There is no evidence from his official letters that Florance had any formal training as a surveyor. Rather, he learnt from experience; he tells us (ref 3)

I served three years... ...to obtain a knowledge of my profession... ... in the "Bush" and on the lakes by efficient surveyors...

After the war, because he didn't enjoy the Canadian climate, Florance returned to England to emigrate to Australia. He arrived in Sydney on the Duke of Wellington on the 9th November 1817. He applied to Governor Macquarie for a position as a surveyor and for a land grant. Macquarie gave him a grant of 110 acres at Clarence Plains (about 14 km from Hobart and now known as Rokeby) in Van Diemen's Land (as Tasmania was then called). Florance arrived in Hobart on 16 May 1818.

Not a great deal is known of Florance's time in Tasmania. One source (Pretyman in the Australian Dictionary of Biography) tells us that some months after arriving he was instructed by Lieutenant-General Sorell to undertake a survey of the West Coast; that he was appointed a member of the Lieutenant-Governor's Court in 1919; that for a while he had the right to ferry vehicles and animals between Hobart and Kangaroo Pt; and that he became a boat builder. A vessel he was building was seized as payment of a debt in May 1822, but in December 1823 he launched the Liberty, 40 tons, from his property.

Florance remained in Tasmania (Van Dieman's Land) until October 1825 when he returned to Sydney and commenced private practice. Florance appears to have been the first professional private (non-government) surveyor in NSW; certainly he was the first to advertise in a newspaper (ref 4). Florance was self employed as a surveyor until 17 Aug 1826 when he entered the Surveyor Generals Department. His position was Assistant Surveyor with a starting salary of £65 p.a. (ref 3). He remained in the Department until his resignation on 25 March 1829. As a surveyor Florance worked in Sydney, the Illawarra, the Manning River, and in the Williams River area near Newcastle; he also surveyed the coastline from Broken Bay to Lake Macquarie, and from Jervis Bay to Moruya. This latter survey is discussed in the section below.

On resignation Florance again set up in private practice in Sydney and married Elizabeth Kendall on May 14 1829 in St James Church (Sydney). Elizabeth was the second child of the Reverend Thomas Kendall who obtained the first land grant in the Ulladulla area. It is not known how Florance got to know the Kendall family. In recognition of his service as a government surveyor Florance was awarded a land grant of 1280 acres which he selected adjacent to and south of that of his father-in-law on Narrawallee Creek. As a result he and his wife were among the first settlers in the Ulladulla area. They named the property Curribie and their first child, Mary Jane, was born there on 7 April 1830 - probably the first white birth in the area. She was baptised by her grandfather the Rev Kendall about a month later (2 May).

The Florance grant was not finalised and does not show up in early land maps. This may be because Macquarie had previously awarded him a grant in Tasmania. But in addition Florance, in the later portion of his employment, was not popular with Surveyor General Mitchell; in part because (rumour has it that) he leaked information to Kendall about the large quantities of cedar in the Narrawallee Creek area. However, there does not seem to be any direct evidence for this. Furthermore, Alexander Berry had previously gone up Narrawallee Creek in 1822 and may have noted the presence of cedar. Another land grant initially promised as a wedding present by Governor Darling to his wife, Elizabeth, became a subject of dispute with authorities. Eventually (25 July 1834) Governor Bourke finalised a grant of 640 acres on the Rawdon River (County of Gloucester). By this time the Florances had decided to move to New Zealand and left NSW on the Columbine on 15 October 1834. Elizabeth's grant was leased.

Florance remained in New Zealand until his death (28 March 1867) aged 84 (possibly 82). State Records has two letters written by Florance to Surveyor General Mitchell during this time; one (ref 5) asking for a certificate to prove that he had been employed as a surveyor in the Dept, the other asking for a pension. The evidence he obtained as a result of his first letter was used to support an application for employment in the NZ Surveyor General's Dept. His application was not successful. We also learn that Florance had a skin complaint (he called it "noli mi tangere" - don't touch me) and that he had 8 children. His second letter (ref 6) written about a year and a half later included 3 medical certificates from which we learn that his skin complaint was associated with lupus. We also learn that he then had 9 children. His request for a pension was unsuccessful. Elizabeth Florance gave birth to a total of 12 children but not all survived to adulthood.

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South Coast Survey

It took Thomas Florance two trips to complete his survey of the South Coast. As stated in the introduction the first was in December 1827 - when he covered the region from Jervis Bay to Lake Conjola. The second was in April, May and June of the following year. Florance did not come back to Sydney to enjoy Xmas or celebrate New Year! In a letter to Oxley written in Sydney on the 29th of December 1827 (ref 7) he says:-

This day I arrived here with the boat and party not having completed the survey of the coast "from Jervis Bay to the small creek south of Batemans Bay" through the inadequacy of the boat for such service and the insufficient number of men to form two parties; one to take care of and picket the boat in my absence, the other to carry arms and provisions on the shore in making the survey.

The boat referred to by Florance was the "Wasp" - a small sailing vessel owned or rented by the government and used for the coastal surveys undertaken by Florance in late1827 and 1828. From Parsons (ref 8) we learn that the "Wasp" was about 13 ton, built by William Ikin in 1826/27 at Liverpool on the Georges River. It was probably designed for transport along the Georges or Parramatta Rivers, perhaps into Sydney harbour but not out into the Tasman Sea.

As the quote above indicates the survey measurements were made on land but the "Wasp" was necessary to move the party from one area to another and of course to bring the party from and back to Sydney. Florance's team did not consist of personnel from the Surveyor General's department. To undertake the survey he had to rely on men selected from the convict barracks in Sydney (ref 9). In addition there were two seamen responsible for the "Wasp"; they were free men not convicts. Another surveyor (Abbott by name) from the Surveyor Generals Department did accompany Florance but apparently did not perform the duties allocated (by the Department) to him (ref 10).

Florance survey of the South Coast included the various inlets and lakes as well as the actual coastline. He also took samples of soils and rocks, and reported on what he saw - creeks, timber, possible harbours, etc, - and the potential for settlement. He undertook two traverses each of about 10 miles into the interior. One WSW from St Georges Basin, the other WSW from Lake Conjola entrance. In his report (ref 11) Florance was very enthusiastic about the possibilities of settlement in the second case (the Narrawallee/Croobyar flats) but much less so in the first area (around St Georges Basin).

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South Coast Place Names

It is interesting to consider which place names on the South Coast were given by Thomas Florance. Unfortunately in his letters, reports and field books he does not provide any explanation for his choice of names. In connection with the name St Georges Basin Florance provides no evidence that he reached or sighted the Basin in December '27 yet in one of his early (19 May) letters/reports from the second visit (ref 11) he gives his address as "Sussex Haven, at the entrance to St Georges Basin". This gives the impression that the recipient, Oxley (and probably also Mitchell) was familiar with the names. Sussex Haven is now known as Sussex Inlet. Florance began his survey of St Georges Basin on the 5th of May. Familiar names such as Sepulchre Island, Garden Island and Pelican Point come from this survey.

We should remember that Florance was a surveyor not an explorer. St Georges Basin had been sighted by Evans (1812) and Throsby (1818), and had become known as Berrewerry. Later, in 1822, the Basin had been visited, via Sussex Inlet, by the group headed by Alexander Berry and Lieutenant Robert Johnson (the group also contained Hamilton Hume). Did they name the Basin? Berry's group also inspected the Clyde River, climbed Pigeon House, went up Narrawallee Creek and entered Lake Conjola. Furthermore, in his report Berry indicates that he had contact with "natives". Could these contacts have provided some of the Aboriginal place names of the South Coast? Presumably Florance would have become acquainted with the findings of the Berry/Johnson expedition.

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In many instances Florance used phonetically derived Aboriginal names - this was departmental policy. Most of these we can readily recognise today - for example, Bherwherree, Cundjorung, Bhurril, Woollahderrah (Ulladulla), Nurrahwherree (Narrawallee), Merroo and others. His spelling was not always consistent. And in a number of cases Florance provided Aboriginal names as alternatives; for example, Bherwherree or St Georges Basin, Cudmirrah or Swan Lake, Woollahderrah or Wasp Harbour. While there was no Aboriginal in his party Florance did come prepared to meet Aboriginal people. In one of his letters (ref 12) he tells us

We succeeded in passing friendly with the blacks in every plan, through presents of tobacco, pipes, fish hooks, kangaroos, tea, sugar, shirts, trousers, etc.

On the other hand Florance and party carried weapons in case of trouble. On a previous survey near the Manning River Florance had been obliged to shoot two Aboriginals to protect himself and his party. He was acquitted at the subsequent official inquiry.

Because Florance recorded in his field books names such as Sussex Haven, St Georges Basin, and the above Aboriginal names, the result was that they were put into the map that was created after the survey. A copy of a portion (ref 13) of this map (showing St Georges Basin) is presented here.

If you want to examine this in more detail use the link here to look at the same map with better resolution. Note that the file size has been increased and will thus take longer to download. Unfortunately the original is not in good condition; several folds are evident, one edge is torn, and some areas are smudged.

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More About Florance

There is considerable evidence that Florance was not an easy man to deal with and seemed to have had an unfortunate knack of not getting on with his colleagues and superiors. These ranged from Governor Darling and Surveyor Generals Oxley and Mitchell to Assistant Surveyor John Abbott.

For most of his term of employment Florance was paid a salary of £100 p.a. This was only half that of his contemporaries who were surveyors with much less experience. For some reason the Department did not value his experience and abilities. It is not known why this situation existed but it certainly upset Florance. Perhaps it was because he did not have the appropriate training? There are several letters held by State Records in which Florance asks for a salary equivalent to his colleagues.

In general Florance was not afraid to state his case, give his opinion, and to plainly indicate his personal actions and decisions. For example, he reported on the unseaworthy state of the "Wasp" and the repairs that he had to make (ref 14) after the boat was nearly wrecked. He also suggested the repeated use of the same (suitable) convicts for surveying parties (ref 9).

Florance was a very practical and capable man. For example, his leadership saved the boat and he had the experience to make repairs to it when necessary; and on the Manning River survey he personally shod the horse and took the drastic action to save the party. His surveying was careful and accurate. As was the practice of the time Florance used an actual chain for measurements of distance. This we are told (ref 10) was accurately measured three times during the South Coast survey. He notes elsewhere that his chain measured 67 feet but at some stage 3/4 inch was lost (presumably one link).

Thomas Florance is remembered by the name "Florance Head" given to the prominent headland in the south east corner of Little Forest Plateau above Milton. His boat the "Wasp" is not forgotten either; just south of Durras is Wasp Head and Wasp Island.

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Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol 1 (1788-1850) A-H , Florance
Dowd, BT Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society Vol 58, Part 2
Florance S (author/ publisher) The Chichester Connection 1997 {ISBN 0 646 31335 5}
Kendall M (author/ publisher) Kissin Cousins 1989 {ISBN 0 7316 0617 5}
Pleaden R F Coastal Explorers 2000 Milton/Ulladulla Historical Society {ISBN 0 9598629 5 1}
McAndrew A (author/publisher) The Narrawallee Story Retold 1995 {ISBN 0 646 18648 5}


  1. State Records NSW: Surveyors Letters: Thomas Florance; [2/1536.2] p85
  2. Ibid p56
  3. Ibid p14
  4. Monitor newspaper, Sydney, 23 June 1826
  5. State Records NSW: Surveyors Letters: Thomas Florance; [2/1536.2] p130
  6. Ibid p132
  7. Ibid p51
  8. Parsons R (author/publisher) Australian Shipowners and Their Fleets, Book 5 1979 {ISBN 0 909418 14 4}
  9. State Records NSW: Surveyors Letters: Thomas Florance; [2/1536.2] p52
  10. Ibid p78
  11. Ibid p64
  12. Ibid p81
  13. State Records NSW: Surveyor General maps: Florance; [1712 part 2]
  14. State Records NSW: Surveyors Letters: Thomas Florance; [2/1536.2] p73


Assistance from Lindsay Allen of State Records is gratefully acknowledged. So also is information from Ronald Parsons of the Australasian Maritime Historical Society

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