Nature's Line George Goyder Surveyor, environmentalist, visionary

Nature's Line

George Goyder: Surveyor, environmentalist, visionary

Nature's Line
George Goyder
Surveyor, environmentalist, visionary

Janis Sheldrick


Nature's Line, a biography of George Goyder, (1826-1898) is the story of a remarkable and great Australian, a man ahead of his time, in regard to water management, understanding climate and vegetation. Janis Sheldrick has uncovered and extensively documented a man of spirit, self-confidence, determination, intelligence, honesty, boundless energy, resilience and vision who was surveyor general for 33 years and for some time the highest paid public servant in South Australia.

George Woodroffe Goyder introduced settlers to the idea of variability of both rainfall and climate and the limits to agricultural possibilities as a result of these. Within his lifetime Goyder’s name became a household word and he was often loved, criticised, admired, misunderstood, derided, scorned, respected and even hated. Goyder was born on 26 June 1826 in Liverpool, the third son of David and Sarah Goyder and baptised into the Church of England on 16 July 1826.

After a move to Glasgow by the Goyder family in 1834, George attended the local High School. Upon completion he was articled to a leading Glasgow engineering firm where he found out much about surveying and engineering instruments as well as drawing and designing. Further knowledge was gained in London and with being involved with some of the great engineering works of building bridges and railways.

At the age of 22 he left England for Australia where he arrived in Melbourne on 6 April 1849. At the beginning of 1851 he travelled overland to Adelaide and married Frances Mary Smith on 10 December. At the start of 1852 he became secretary of the Adelaide Exchange and in September of that year their first child Frances Ellen was born. Within 15 years there would be 12 children from 11 confinements.

On 12 January 1853 Goyder was appointed chief clerk in the Lands Office. Nine months later he was promoted to second assistant surveyor general. Two years later, in November 1855 he became first assistant surveyor general, then deputy surveyor general and Surveyor General in 1861 when he was also appointed JP, chief inspector of mines and valuator of runs.

Goyder kept detailed records of his work, discoveries, thoughts, plans and numerous other items. His 27 field notebooks, from 1857 until 1893, contain the records of all his journeys. The first notebook he inscribed with ‘Official Journal of the Deputy Surveyor General from 1 January 1857’.

From his notebooks we learn that one of his first jobs was the surveying of a road through the Pichi Richi Pass which was completed on 2 May 1857. From there he joined up with a survey party, led by J.M. Painter, on its way to Mount Serle and Umberatana. He also described the discovery of a large body of fresh water where previously explorers had reported nothing but salt and the horseshoe lake. This sparked a land rush which generated claims covering over a million hectares and allegations of corruption on his part which lasted for many years before being cleared.

His early notebooks contained essential records of measurements taken with various instruments and observations of the land, weather, temperature, water resources, rainfall and vegetation. They formed the basis of the reports he needed to write and would help him with his work in the office. He soon realised to report his discoveries very carefully as they were not always what they seemed to be. He had learnt many other practical skills as well and when Captain Arthur Henry Freeling resigned he applied successfully for his job. Finally South Australia had a surveyor general who knew the country, its climate and unreliable rainfall.

It is from here on that we see a man on a mission. His goal was settlement. He expected that the pattern of settlement would be structured in such a way as to promote fairness, the public good and an enriched quality of life for those settling. As Sheldrick has pointed out, he showed a constant concern for the situation of the rural poor, for the battlers and strugglers and the hard lives of their families. He wanted permanent settlement which required land to be treated with care.

Although Goyder is best known for his Line, Sheldrick has gone to great lengths to prove that that he also should be remembered for a great many other achievements. Goyder made a place for himself as head of an administrative empire covering land and natural resources, filling the role of the government’s environmental information service. He was responsible for laying out roads and stock routes but was also involved with the railways being chairman of a railways commission that determined the shape of the colony’s network.

He established forest reserves and plantations, also setting up the administrative apparatus of forestry. He was preoccupied with the issue of water, or the lack of it. He promoted and developed artesian boring and initiated the drainage of vast seasonal wetlands in the South-East to create productive land. He even founded South Australia’s own Colony, the Northern Territory where he selected and surveyed the site of Darwin. Ten years later, Charles Todd stated that the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line was largely due to Goyder.

As inspector of mines he visited the Wallaroo-Moonta area in 1861 and 1862 and became involved in a lengthy dispute over leases and land. In 1862 he made an inspection tour of the mines in the Northern Flinders, visiting 16 in all, including the Yudanamutana mine. He was convinced that they would remain unprofitable unless a tramway was constructed. He also visited the West Coast as far as Fowlers Bay and Cape Nuyts.

While away from the office, and home, often for extended times, his wife Frances had to cope on her own. In 1862 she gave birth to David John and in January 1863 she had twins, a girl who died at birth and a boy who died a month later. Another boy, Alexander Woodroffe was born in 1864. It was in early 1864 that Goyder set out for the revaluation of the first 18 pastoral properties in the north which eventually resulted in Goyder’s line.

Goyder drew his famous line in 1864 and made some adjustments in 1865. It was enshrined in law in 1872 and dispensed with by the government in 1874. It was not a line of rainfall or average rainfall but showed the seasonal reliability or variability of rainfall. It soon became an isohyet of average rainfall, a line of demarcation, a drought border, a vegetation line, a land-use border with agriculture in the inside country and pastoralism in the outside country. Goyder’s genius was to grasp that in arid inland this was the true gauge to the ecological situation. He understood these more than hundred years before science and El Nino confirmed it.

The idea of a line was not new. George Hawker wanted a line drawn as early as 1858 to show the good and the bad country. It was also suggested that the climate of any area was subject to certain laws, which were as jet not known or understood. In his notebooks Goyder used the heading drought line, which was what he had been sent to define.

In November 1866 Goyder’s ninth surviving child was born. During that year their cottage at Medindie was converted into a villa at a cost of £900, more than a year’s wage. In December 1867 Frances went back to England, accompanied by all her children, her sister and a male servant. Frances died in England from an overdose on 8 April 1870. Goyder heard about it from the newspapers on 3 June. His children did not return until January 1871. That same year Goyder married his wife’s sister, Ellen Smith. They were to have three children.

By the mid-1860s with most of the revaluing of the leases done and mining disputes settled, Goyder took on the South-East and its water problems for which he became officially responsible in January 1867. When wheat gained ascendancy Goyder persuaded the commissioner to abandon the small weekly land sales in favour of less frequent, but large sales at which more farmers could attend and have a chance of success.

Other improvements for which Goyder had worked resulted in the passing of the Scrub Land Act in 1867 and in 1869 the Strangways Act, which gave rise to credit selection. At the same time he wanted farmers to be successful and therefore have agriculture restricted to areas of reliable rainfall.

As if all this was not enough Goyder was also involved in plans for the surveying of a settlement in the Northern Territory and eventually was appointed to do just that in 1868. He would be paid a bonus of £3000, money he badly needed. Goyder was as keen to see the colony expand its territory north as he was to insure it retained its hold on the South-East.

Having planned the entire expedition and personally appointed most of the men, he arrived at his post in early 1869. The job of surveying nearly 750.000 acres was completed that year and he was back in Adelaide in November. He only stayed in Adelaide for a week before heading to the drainage works in the South-East. His concerns for, and role in, the development of water resources was acknowledged by Hodder in his History of South Australia, published in 1893.

In February 1871, only a month after his children had returned from England, Goyder left for England. Unfortunately the ship he travelled on went on the rocks in South Africa, with the loss of three crew, due to incompetence of her captain. Needless to say that Goyder went looking for fresh water as soon as they reached the beach.

His short-lived moment of glory came on 15 August 1872 when his line was enshrined in law with the passing of the Waste Lands Alienation Act. From that moment all land south of the line would be surveyed and offered for selection and sale. Not one voice of protest was raised in parliament.

Within two years it was contested and ridiculed, both inside and outside of parliament. With the government badly in need of extra cash and land-hungry farmers, the line was abolished on 6 November 1874. Within a few years vast areas beyond the line were transferred into wheat lands and by 1881 the population beyond the line had increased from 6000 to 21,000.

By 1882, when it had become obvious that rain did not follow the plough, and was as unreliable as ever, farmers started to surrender their sections. Some repurchased them at a lower price while others abandoned them altogether. Evidence of their failure to make a living from it can still be seen everywhere beyond the line. In 1882 Goyder made another trip. This time he visited both England and America to buy powerful machinery for the construction of dams and sinking wells. He used his time profitably by enriching his understanding of the latest technologies available. He was back in Adelaide in June 1882.

As Goyder is remembered by most of us for his concerns for agriculture and farmers, Janis Sheldrick has shown that he also greatly assisted the pastoralists. It may even come as a surprise that he was involved with the development of railways and the supply of town water. Forestry also occupied Goyder’s mind, time and efforts as did the destruction of rabbits.

Early concerns about the rapid deforestation, as a result of settlement, were shown by German migrants such as Schomburgk and Krichauff and George McEwin from Scotland. It was Goyder’s participation that eventually transformed vague concerns and proposals into specific programs for action and as early as 1870 thousands of trees were planted. At the same time Goyder kept up his fight against the proposition that rain follows the plough and trees. It was because of Goyder that on 19 December 1891 the Belair National Park was proclaimed.

In 1881 Goyder wrote The Past and Present Land Systems of South Australia. The next year he became founding patron of the Institute of Surveyors, with Todd as founding president. In 1889 his many contributions to South Australia were acknowledged when he was made a Companion of St Michael and St George.

The 1890s, which were his last years in office and of his life, were not his most enjoyable. Plagued by sickness and pestered by attacks from Premier C.C. Kingston and others for allegedly aiding pastoralists. Goyder finally handed in his resignation, which became effective on 30 June 1894. After his retirement he was presented with a gift from the pastoralists of thousand guineas in gratitude for his efforts in opening up the country.

Over the decades he was in the Lands Office, government after government benefited from his personal qualities as their leading public servant. They exploited his willingness to overwork himself. Goyder died at Warrakilla, which he had bought and redesigned in 1879, on 2 November 1898 and was buried at the Stirling cemetery.

Janis Sheldrick has done a marvellous job in sharing her research and highlighting for the first time the life of this extra ordinary man, who effectively was the government’s universal genius and manager of all Crown Lands. Goyder’s story also, she is convinced, prefigures and engages contemporary concerns about adapting human societies to environmental realities to climate and water, properly belongs not in the byways of regional history but to the history of Australia.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Nature's Line by Janis Sheldrick,
Jacketed HB, 475 pp, with extensive notes, time line, source list,
index and photographs, is available at $45.00, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


If you would like to find out more,
please go to HOME PAGE for more information.
Thank you for visiting Flinders Ranges Research,
We hope you enjoy your stay and find the information useful.
This site has been designed and is maintained by FRR.