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Archives In Brief 63 - The Surveyor General's cartographic and related records

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The cartographic records of the Surveyor General provide some of the most detailed and comprehensive descriptions of the nature use, agricultural potential and occupancy of land in the colony. This AIB provides a brief overview of the history of the office and identifies the major sources. Other records may be identified in Archives Investigator. Records more than 30 years old are open to public access.

Online indexes

A collection of indexes, including indexes relating to land records and the Colonial Secretary's correspondence, 1788-1825 are available online. We are progressively adding new indexes to this collection.

How to use the Index to Crown plans, 1792-1886

Researchers should use the "SR Item number" when requesting the maps and plans in the reading room. Where this number does not appear, the item is not held by State Records. The index was compiled using two publications prepared by State Records staff. The two publications are available in the reading room:

  • Surveyor General: Select list of maps and plans, 1792-1886

This guide was compiled from a list prepared by the Lands Department proir to the transfer of those maps and plans to the Archives Office. The maps and plans described in the Select List are arranged within alphabetical divisions and listed by the catalogue number that appears in the Catalogue of maps and plans, 1792-1887.

  • Surveyor General: Select list of maps and plans, 1792-1886 Supplement

The Supplement describes those Surveyor General's maps and plans not included in the above publication. The two guides should be used together.


The first Surveyor General, Augustus Alt, held the office from 1788 until his retirement in 1802 when Charles Grimes succeeded him. Grimes however, left the colony in 1808 because of events connected with Governor Bligh's departure and the colony was without a Surveyor General until John Oxley was appointed in 1812. Oxley spent much of his time on exploration rather than survey work — a fact noted in Commissioner Bigge in his report in 1822. As a result of the report additional surveyors and draftsmen were appointed in an attempt to overcome the arrears of survey work in the Colony.

Major Thomas Mitchell was appointed Surveyor General in 1828 and, although there was also considerable internal re-organisation in the Survey Department, complaints about the efficiency of the Survey Department led to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the efficiency of the department and the progress of the general survey of the Colony. Mitchell himself died before the Commission reported in 1855. Little was done to implement the recommendations of the Commissioners apart from appointing District Surveyors to supervise the work of various licensed and salaried surveyors. In 1858 a Select Committee of Enquiry investigated the department and repeated most of the earlier criticisms.

In 1856 the Surveyor General's Department came under the ministerial control of the Secretary for Lands. In 1867 the clerical branches of the Lands Department and Survey Department were amalgamated and the Surveyor General's responsibilities were reduced.

In 1887, following upon the Report of a Board of Inquiry the office of Surveyor General was abolished and a number of branches were either abolished or absorbed into the Lands Department. From the time of the abolition of the office of Surveyor General to its restoration on 1 February 1911, the official head of the professional division of the Lands Department held the title of Chief Surveyor.

Cartographic records: the numbering system

From the earliest surveys of the Colony maps and plans produced by the Surveyor General's Department were arranged in alphabetical order and assigned a running number. Initially all maps and plans were assigned a different number even if the were of the same place or formed parts of a large plan.

The practice of assigning certain types of plans the same area or feature number (known as the 'small number') and distinguishing them by a plan number (the 'large number') originated in about 1829 or 1830 as the number of plans increased and assigning a separate number became too difficult to administrate.

The following example illustrates this system:

Catalogue number D. 1. 1327
This map shows the 'Rough design for laying out Deniliquin' and the catalogue number is D.1.1327.
* D stands for Deniliquin
* 1 is the 'large number' - indicates that this is the first in the series of plans catalogued under '1327'.
* 1327 is the 'small number' - the number assigned to the area of Deniliquin.

The Index to Crown plans, 1792-1886 lists plans number using this system. The Surveyor General's number has been included in the index.

A select list of sources

Cartographic Records

NRS 13859, Crown plans, 1792-1886
This series includes the earliest surveys of New South Wales including those of towns and villages, squatting districts, counties and parishes, roads, rivers, mountain ranges and maps of explorers' expeditions.
Individual maps and plans are described below in the Catalogue of maps and plans, 1792-1887, NRS 13870, [7/1272-75], COD 84-87. The maps and plans from this series held by State Records are listed in the online Index to Crown Plans, 1792-1886, and in the reading room. Copies of most of the maps and plans are available in the reading room.
* Search the index

Catalogues of Maps and Plans

NRS 13870, Catalogue of maps and plans, 1792-1887
COD 84-87
The catalogue lists the maps and plans alphabetically by subject. A large number of the maps and plans listed in the catalogue are still held by the Lands Department. Maps and plans held by State Records are listed in Archives Investigator.
* Search the index


NRS 13736, Letters received from surveyors, 1822-55
Reels 3051-3098
The letters received from surveyors, mostly relate to matters such as the survey description of farms, reserves, churches, schools, rivers and mountain ranges, or forwarding tracings and plans. There are also letters relating to employment of convicts in survey parties, and the granting of tickets of leave.
A list of the letters and major localities is available.
* Search the index

NRS 13768, Copies of letters sent to surveyors, 1832-63
Reels 2826-2835
These volumes contain copies of letters sent to surveyors. The subject matter includes: the measurement of land grants, the survey of rivers, mountain ranges etc., letters transmitting descriptions of lands and tracings in connection with surveys to be carried out, the laying out of towns, villages and roads.

NRS 13770, Copies of letters sent to salaried surveyors, 1864-81
Reels 2835-2836
These volumes contain copies and summaries of letters sent to salaried surveyors including some sent under 'blank cover'. The subject matter includes the following: instructions about the trigonometrical survey of the colony, allocation of work between surveyors, lists of printed instructions sent to surveyors, instructions to measure land, and the laying out of towns, villages and roads. For letters sent to licensed surveyors 1864-82 see NRS 13769.

Land Grants and Leases

The Surveyor General's Maps and plans often contain references to individuals occupying land. The following sources may provide additional information.

NRS 13836, Registers of land grants and leases, 1791-1924 *ARK

NRS 13837, Index to registers of grants Cumberland and elsewhere, 1792-1865 *ARK
Reel 2560, and COD 205

See Short Guide 8 for full details. See also Archives in Brief 22 and Archives in Brief 23.

Sketch Books

NRS 13886, Sketch books, 1828-90
Reels 2778-2782
These records consist of tracings and sketches (in many cases forwarded by surveyors as enclosures to letters) inserted into volumes in numbered folios. The tracings and sketches mostly relate to: sketches and tracings of towns and villages and of extensions and alterations proposed thereto, and of allotments sold or granted to various persons.
Other sketches and tracings are of land, the ownership of which was in dispute, or of encroachments on Crown lands, and of tracings of reserved roads through allotments, and of street alignments in towns. There are also tracings of land reserved for churches, schools, cemeteries and other public purposes. Among the sketches there are also included lithographs of private sub-divisions and some architectural plans and sketches. Sketches and tracings inserted in the sketch books were often the basis from which maps and plans were compiled.

NRS 13887, Index to sketch books, 1828-90
Copy of X750A on Reel 2778, COD206 and COD259

Surveyors' Field Books

NRS 13889, Surveyors' Field Books, 1794-1860
These are diaries of surveying expeditions, descriptions of natural features, and sketches of farms, town allotments and roads. Trigonometrical observations and triangulation surveys are also included. In some field books references to map and plan catalogue numbers have been added.

Additional Sources

Researchers should also consult Archives Investigator under the following headings:

* Colonial Secretary
* Lands
* Registrar General, and
* Railways.

Researchers should consult the Register of Access Directions to confirm the public availability of records. State Records' staff can advise you on the availability of records if they are not listed on the register.

*ARK signifies that a copy of the record or guide is part of the Archives Resources Kit and is held by the community access points.

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003.
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