Highlands History | Meehan, the man with the maps

In 1818 a government expedition led by James Meehan conducted the NSW colony’s first survey of land to the south of Cowpastures. 

IN TRIBUTE: A statue of James Meehan was erected in Sydney in 2010 to honour his efforts to survey lands south of Cowpastures. Photo: courtesy Kim Archibald.

IN TRIBUTE: A statue of James Meehan was erected in Sydney in 2010 to honour his efforts to survey lands south of Cowpastures. Photo: courtesy Kim Archibald.

From Picton, after surveying the Bargo Brush and Wingecarribee district, the party trekked into unexplored land around the upper Shoalhaven River. After the survey, Governor Macquarie encouraged settlement in the areas, which began in the 1820s.

As this month marks the 200th anniversary of the survey, which opened up the Southern Highlands and Tablelands, an overview of the historic venture is presented here. 

Prior to 1818, some inland exploration to the Wingecarribee River and beyond had been undertaken. In 1798 a group led by John Wilson had trekked through the area, reaching as far as Towrang, near present-day Goulburn. In 1814 Hamilton Hume, aged 17, explored on foot from Appin to the Wingecarribee with his brother John and an Aboriginal friend. When they returned home and told of the rich, grassy lands in the highland country there was great interest. Dr Charles Throsby and John Oxley had cattle moved into the area. Throsby, a former ship’s surgeon, had already undertaken explorations from Appin to the Illawarra. In 1817 he explored the Wingecarribee district with Hamilton Hume, and was rewarded by Macquarie for the discovery of this area’s fertile lands. 

James Meehan, the Deputy Surveyor, was instructed by Macquarie to conduct a survey of the Bargo, Wingecarribee and upper Shoalhaven districts. He was also to seek a route to the coast, suitable for an envisaged inland vehicular road between Sydney and Jervis Bay. 

The survey expedition commenced on March 6, 1818. Macquarie provided wagons and sufficient equipment and provisions for a party of 12 for five weeks. Dr Throsby and Hamilton Hume were appointed as second and third in command. To undertake the surveying, Meehan used a perambulator (wheeled measuring instrument) and a prismatic compass. He recorded observations in field books and noted the route in his journal, as did Throsby in his journals and letters. 

Born in 1774, James Meehan became a schoolteacher and surveyor in King's County, Ireland. He was convicted for activities as a member of the outlawed Society of United Irishmen, prior to the failed 1798 revolution, and transported to NSW. He arrived in February 1800, and was assigned as a servant to Surveyor General Charles Grimes.

Meehan was instrumental in mapping large areas of the colony. He accompanied Grimes and Francis Barrallier in exploring the Hunter River, King Island and Port Phillip. When Grimes took leave from 1803, Meehan was the colony’s only qualified surveyor. He measured farm grants and explored part of the Shoalhaven and Derwent Rivers. In 1805 he surveyed between Prospect and Cowpastures and marked out John Macarthur’s Camden Park property. In 1806 Meehan received an absolute pardon and in 1810 was granted 1140 acres by Macquarie at Ingleburn, which he named Macquarie Field. 

Meehan was due to be appointed Surveyor General in 1812 but explorer John Oxley, who tirelessly petitioned the British Government, was chosen instead of the Irish ex-convict. Meehan, however, was made Deputy Surveyor of Lands by Macquarie and subsequently measured farms in NSW and Van Diemen's Land. He accompanied Macquarie on most tours of inspection and made significant contributions to the mapping of the colony. He laid out and measured Sydney, Parramatta, Bathurst and Port Macquarie, and surveyed Hobart Town as well as numerous townships in NSW.

Meehan retired to his property in 1822, dying there in 1826. Macquarie said of him that “no man has suffered so much privation and fatigue in the service of this Colony”. 

In 2010 Meehan was belatedly honoured with a statue erected on the Loftus Street facade of Sydney’s iconic Lands Department building. A photo of the statue appears on http://kimboarch.blogspot.com.au which notes that he is holding a field book, plan and compass. A shamrock is on the satchel at his feet, and behind him a blazed tree and waratahs. As there were no portraits, the stonemason used a photo of Meehan’s son Thomas, hoping he looked like his father.

Locally, Meehan is not as well remembered as Throsby or Hume but deserves recognition for opening up vast areas of farming land.

  • Berrima District Historical & Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton. Part 1 of a 3-part series. To be continued.


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