Border survey history

The ACT/NSW border was surveyed from 1910 to 1915. Field books were used by surveyors to record the details of the survey and marking of the boundaries of land to be excised from New South Wales to create what was then referred to as the Federal Capital Territory. The field books, which have passed to the various sections of the Commonwealth and ACT Governments responsible for surveying in the ACT, are now held by the ACT Planning and Land Authority, as are the associated FC18 series of plans drawn from them.

Site selection

Various sites for the Federal Capital Territory (as the ACT was known until 1938) were considered during the years leading up to Federation in 1901. It was not until 1908 that the final site selection was made. The first Seat of Government Act nominated the Yass-Canberra region for the Federal Capital.

The task of identifying the best site for the capital city was given to Charles Robert Scrivener, at the time the Lands Department District Surveyor for Hay, NSW.

Scrivener (1855-1923) was born at Windsor, NSW. Working as a surveyor for the NSW Department of Lands at Wagga Wagga and Hay, he joined the Commonwealth and investigated potential sites for the federal capital at Dalgety and Yass-Canberra. Scrivener was awarded the Imperial Service Order on retirement in 1915. He died at Mount Irvine in the Blue Mountains.

Scrivener selected an area centred on the village of Canberry. The Federal Capital Advisory Board (of which he was a member) accepted his recommendations but could not adopt his boundary suggestions for the Territory. This was due to NSW's unwillingness to lose a major regional centre (Queanbeyan) and having to uproot and re-settle inhabitants from the Molonglo-Queanbeyan catchment areas. The catchments of the Naas and Gudgenby rivers were offered by NSW as substitutes.

The area that would be ceded by New South Wales to the Commonwealth was agreed by the Prime Minister and the Premier of New South Wales in October 1909.

The Federal Capital Territory came into existence with the passing of two complementary Seat of Government Acts in 1909 (Surrender by NSW and Acceptance by the Commonwealth), vesting the land in the Commonwealth on 1 January 1911.

Having selected the site for the new capital, surveys of the area had to be undertaken to provide more accurate information for the Commonwealth and, specifically, to provide the base topographic surveys required for the impending competition for the design of Canberra.

Scrivener's Lands and Surveys office prepared the contour map of the city area and undertook other surveys for water supply, roads, railways and land subdivisions.

The surveyors

The surveying and marking of the boundary between the Federal Territory and New South Wales began in June 1910. The first section of the border surveyed was the straight-line section from Coree Trig to One Tree Trig by Percy Sheaffe which was completed by October 1910. Due to the amount and pace of the work, Scrivener put Harry Mouat to work on the section running south from Mt Coree, and when Sheaffe went back to the office, his place was taken by Freddie Marshall Johnston.

Percy Lempriere Sheaffe (1883-1963) was born in Brisbane. He began his career in NSW and following a brief stint in Queensland, was appointed to the Commonwealth Public Service as a Senior Surveyor in 1910. He retired in 1948, after becoming Chief Surveyor and Property Officer. Upon retirement, he was made a life member of the Institution of Surveyors.

Harry Mouat (1880-1952) was born in Ravensbourne, near Dunedin in New Zealand. He worked there and in Tonga before starting in Canberra on 16 September 1913. Next to Percy Sheaffe, his was the greatest contribution for the border survey. Starting at Coree trig station, he surveyed southwards along the western side of the Cotter catchment, surveying and marking the border, meeting up with Freddie Johnston coming west along the Mt Clear Range. They met near the old Boboyan Road. Mouat also carried out a topographical survey of the Cotter River itself, to provide engineers with data for the planning and siting of the dam to provide Canberra's water supply.

Frederick Marshall Johnston (1885-1963) was born in Perth. Spending his early career in WA, he took up duty in Canberra on 15 January 1914. After World War I he became head of survey for the WA section of the Trans Australian Railway, a project he had worked on until it was halted due to WWI. From 1945 to 1949 he was Commonwealth Surveyor-General. He took over from Percy Sheaffe when the latter's duties were increased upon Scrivener's retirement. In 1965, he was commemorated by the Johnston Geodetic Station.

Survey marks

The surveying and marking of the border was completed in 1915. The marking of the boundary was of a very robust character. Besides 200mm X 200mm wooden posts at all angles and at each mile and half-mile on straight lines, concrete blocks or galvanised iron pipes were placed at frequent intervals, being indicated usually by cairns or earth mounds. Where possible, additional references from marked trees were given.

Read more about survey marks.

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