Alnwick, History Society

Bailiffgate Museum, Alnwick.
Bailiffgate Museum, Alnwick.

David Lockie’s talk on Bamburgh To Otago: A Family Journey was inspired by a recent visit to family in New Zealand.

Whilst there he discovered the remarkable story of John Turnbull Thomson, born in 1821 in Gloroum, Northumberland, a surveyor and engineer whose work shaped the whole infrastructure of Singapore and New Zealand.

John Thomson‘s education was at Wooler and the universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen, where he studied maths and engineering before the age of 16. He moved on to study at Peter Nicolson’s School of Engineering at Newcastle University.

Still only 20, in 1838 he travelled to Singapore to work for the East India Survey. By 1844 he was appointed main Government surveyor and engineer of Singapore, a post which he held for 15 years.

He was responsible for the design and construction of bridges, roads and hospitals, and also carried out marine and land surveys. His most impressive project was the Horsburgh Light House on Pedra Branca Rock, saving many lives.

Aged 34 and in poor health, he returned to England in 1853. After his recovery he travelled in Britain and Europe, pursuing his interest in engineering.

In 1856 John emigrated to New Zealand and was appointed chief surveyor of Otago Provence.

He was the original surveyor of the town of Invercargill, where streets such as Tweed Street and Tyne Street are named after places in his native Northumberland.

From 1856 until 1858 he surveyed large sections of South Island using a method of surveying called triangulation, which was found in later years to have been exceptionally accurate.

His interest in astrology led him to build an observatory, from which he was able to plot the transit of Venus in 1876.

As an amateur painter he painted many landscapes of New Zealand.

He was also a keen linguist and writer of scientific papers.

John married Jane Williamson in 1858 and they had nine daughters.

He retired to Invercargill and died in 1884.

He is recognised today in New Zealand as a figure of national importance, although virtually unknown here.

The next meeting of the Alnwick Branch of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society is on Tuesday, May 2, at 7.30pm, at Bailiffgate Museum, and is entitled Hitting a Brick Wall and How to get Round It.