Some of the early survey work of  

Thomas Alexander Vance (1882 – 1959)


by Paul Wise, July 2015



TA Vance in August 1914 (detail from nla.pic-vn3534298-v)


Thomas Alexander Vance served in the then Australian Survey Corps from July 1915 to November 1942. During this distinguished 27-year career, Vance served in the Australian Imperial Force and was the officer commanding the Australian Survey Corps from 1936 to 1940. From January 1941 until June 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Vance was the inaugural Director of Military Survey. When Vance commenced his military surveying career he was already 32 years of age. Much has since been written about that career and its achievements. This article, however, addresses lesser publicised aspects of Vance’s personal life and his outstanding early career as a civilian surveyor.


Thomas Alexander Vance was born on 17 November 1882 at Malmsbury, Victoria. He was the son of Thomas Alexander Vance and Alice Maude Vance (nee Ellis). Vance qualified as a Licensed Surveyor and Civil Engineer in Perth in September 1905. Earlier, Vance had gained extensive experience from 1900 to 1905 while articled to Inspecting Surveyor GW Ellis of the Mines Department in Western Australia. During that period Vance undertook land (cadastral), mining and trigonometrical surveys in all areas of Western Australia except the North-West and Kimberley districts.


During 1906 and 1907, Vance was employed as an Assistant Engineer by the Western Australian Mines and Water Supply Department, based in Coolgardie. There he undertook extensive surveys in the Eastern and Murchison Goldfields and was involved in the Eastern Goldfields water supply pipeline to Kalgoorlie.


Licensed Field Surveyor in Papua

In the early 20th century until World War 1, the island of New Guinea had three main political divisions. The Dutch had claimed the western part from the 141 degrees East meridian since 1828. Germany had claimed the north-eastern part in 1884, and in the same year the United Kingdom claimed direct responsibility for the south-eastern part which it initially called British New Guinea. The British involvement followed an attempt by the State of Queensland to annex that area in 1883. By 1906, Britain had transferred all administrative responsibility for British New Guinea as the Territory of Papua to the Commonwealth of Australia.


From early 1908 to July 1909, Vance worked in Papua as a licensed (field) surveyor. This was a Papuan public service appointment arranged through the then Australian Department of External Affairs. While in Papua, Vance’s activities included engineering work related to a railway survey between Port Moresby and Bootless Inlet about 5 miles (8 kilometres) to the south-east. On 28 September 1909 after he had returned from Papua, Vance was registered as a surveyor by the Surveyors Board of Queensland. The Queensland Government Gazettes of October 1909 and January 1910 also recorded Vance’s registration.


Surveying in the New Hebrides

Between 1910 and 1912, Vance worked as a surveyor in the New Hebrides (it became the Republic of Vanuatu in 1980). Here Vance undertook numerous observations for latitude using a five inch transit theodolite. In 1906, the governments of France and the United Kingdom had agreed to administer the New Hebrides islands jointly. These governments then established a unique form of colonial administration that was called the British-French Condominium. Vance’s survey work was to support forthcoming British land claims within the Condominium that were to be heard by an International Joint Court.


As one outcome of his latitude observations, Vance reported to the Australian Department of External Affairs errors on Admiralty charts in the positions of Lenakel and Weasisi on the Island of Tanna that may pose a hazard to shipping. Vance’s report resulted in correspondence on the matter between Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and the British Admiralty.


Commonwealth administrative environment circa 1910

After returning to Australia from the New Hebrides by April 1912, Vance lived for a time at Malmsbury. On 28 January 1913 he was registered as a licensed surveyor by the Surveyor’s Board of Victoria. Soon afterwards, Vance was appointed as a surveyor in the then Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs under Minister, King O’Malley. Charles Robert Scrivener was the then Director of Commonwealth Lands and Survey in the Lands and Survey Branch of the department; he had been appointed to the position in 1910. Scrivener was based in the then Federal Capital Territory (it was renamed the Australian Capital Territory in 1938).


While Canberra was still in its embryonic stages, the Commonwealth government’s administrative offices were located in Melbourne which was the seat of the federal parliament from 1901 until 1927. From around 1910, John Thomas Hill Goodwin (later Lieutenant-Colonel Goodwin MBE), was Chief Land and Property Officer in the Land and Property Office of the Department of Home Affairs, Melbourne. Goodwin had served as a pupil-surveyor and draughtsman with the Victorian Department of Lands and Surveys. He was also qualified as a Civil Engineer. From 1891 Goodwin mainly practised privately in Victoria. Entering the Department of Home Affairs in 1910, six years later he was promoted to Chief Surveyor and Estates Officer (subsequently Surveyor General and Director of Lands) on Scrivener’s retirement. However, immediately upon Scrivener’s retirement and prior to Goodwin’s permanent appointment, Percy Lempriere Sheaffe temporarily undertook the duties of the position.



June 1914 (nla.pic-vn3534314-v) (L-R) standing : John Maxwell-Moffat, A. Bagot, Ernest John Dowling, and seated : Charles Robert Scrivener (Director of Commonwealth Lands and Survey), his field surveyor in South Australia, Thomas Alexander Vance and South Australian Government Astronomer, George Frederick Dodwell.


The Federal Capital Territory came into existence on 1 July 1911, under the Seat of Governments Acts of Surrender and Acceptance. Prior to that, in October 1909, the Prime Minister and the Premier of New South Wales had agreed on the area that would be ceded by the New South Wales Government to the Commonwealth. The next stage in establishing the Australian national capital was the completion of a large number of necessary surveys. The Commonwealth Year Book for 1911 described these surveys as comprising contour, triangulation-geodetic, boundary demarcation (of government and private land), and engineering for water-supply, sewerage, roads, bridges, and railways. These surveys were to be carried out under the direction of Scrivener as the Commonwealth Director of Lands and Surveys. All of the necessary surveys for the new capital could not be conducted simultaneously so were carried out as resources and priorities permitted. To efficiently use available manpower, an arrangement with the Government of New South Wales saw the common boundaries, when determined by the Commonwealth Director of Lands and Surveys, accepted by both the Commonwealth and that State.


Some topographic peaks of the proposed Federal Capital Territory were originally occupied during the trigonometrical survey of New South Wales. Commenced in 1867, the initial task had been to find suitable sites for base lines which would provide and maintain scale for the survey. The measurement of a base line commenced in 1863 at Lake George (35 kilometres north-east of Canberra). The line was abandoned, however, when the lake later flooded. In 1870, a new site on the lakebed was selected and measuring commenced on 31 October. The New South Wales Year Book for 1912 contained a list of some 250 trigonometrical stations with heights in excess of 3,000 feet (around 1,000 metres). At that time there were 1,367 trigonometrical stations with heights ranging from less than 100 feet up to 7,305 feet (Mount Kosciusko). The height datum was high water spring tide at Fort Denison, Sydney Harbour. Among the stations listed, were the soon to be Federal Capital Territory border stations of Coree, Franklin, Bimberi, Gudgenby, Clear, Bald and Poppet. Listed stations internal to the Territory included Tennent, Boboyan, McKeahnie, Rob Roy, Booth, Tidbinbilla and Orroral. This earlier survey explained why in June 1910, when Scrivener sent surveyor Percy Lempriere Sheaffe to commence the Federal Capital Territory border demarcation survey at Mt Coree, the summit was already marked with a cairn.


In September 1911, a Bill was introduced into the Commonwealth Parliament to authorise the construction of the transcontinental railway line between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie; that Bill became law in December. In South Australia, an Act was passed enabling the Commonwealth to acquire lands for the railway in South Australia, not exceeding one-eighth of a mile (about 200 metres) wide on either side of the line, but no town lands were to be included at any time. In Western Australia, an Act was also passed by which all necessary lands were to be granted to the Commonwealth for railway purposes. A Railway Construction Branch within the Department of Home Affairs was created by the Federal Government, to oversee the work. Ceremonies at Port Augusta on 12 September 1912 and on 12 February 1913 at Kalgoorlie, signalled the commencement of construction from both ends of the proposed rail line. Henry Deane was initially Railway Engineer-in-Chief of the Railway Construction Branch, and on his resignation Norris Garrett Bell assumed the role.


The man-on-the ground whom today we would call the Project Manager was Captain FW Saunders. His title was Supervising Engineer of the Commonwealth of Australia, Railways Construction Branch, Department of Home Affairs, Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta Railway. Saunders was recorded as having reported to Bell, on the joining of the two railheads on 17 October 1917.


In his annual report of 30 June 1913, Charles Robert Scrivener, Commonwealth Director of Lands and Surveys stated :


...two survey parties have been employed upon the survey of private lands to be acquired in connection with the construction of the Transcontinental Railway between Port Augusta in South Australia, and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. Mr Surveyor Vance is in charge of the South Australian party and Mr Surveyor Rowe controls the Western Australian. On the completion of the survey of private lands these parties will mark the boundaries of the lands to be granted by the States of South and Western Australia, and advantage will be taken of the opportunity to make an accurate connection between these States; all field measurements will be made with wires of Invar, while latitude and meridian observations will be taken at short intervals with micrometer theodolites. If possible longitude will be determined later at Port Augusta by means of telegraphic signals between that place and Adelaide. At the Kalgoorlie end the initial point of the survey will be directly connected with one of the stations on the Western Australian triangulation, of which station the latitude and longitude can be determined with considerable accuracy.


In 1913, following the death of surveyor JH Rowe, Frederick Marshall Johnston took over the survey of the Western Australian section of the transcontinental line. That section ran some 450 miles east from Kalgoorlie to the South Australian border. In April 1915, Johnston took over the geodetic survey of the Federal Capital Territory from Vance. In September 1945 Johnston who was by then the Commonwealth Surveyor General also became the first Director of National Mapping.


In his June 1913 report, Scrivener also stated that :


…a sum of £1,000 was available during the year 1912-1913 for the above [geodetic] survey, but this was only sufficient to justify the ordering of a Repsold theodolite from Germany in preparation for work when a larger amount is set apart for this purpose. Continuity of the operations is a necessity in geodetic work, since surveyors who undertake it should have a better knowledge of mathematics than is necessary in ordinary survey work, and must be not only naturally adapted, but also specially trained, if the highest results are to be obtained. It is not every surveyor who will make a good observer when great precision is required, as in this case, and unless the work is well done it were better not to undertake it at all.


The Repsold firm was based in Hamburg and had been founded by Johann Georg Repsold (1770-1830). He was succeeded by his sons Georg (1804-1885) and Adolf (1806-1871). Repsold customers had included several astronomical observatories, among them Edinburgh, Pulkovo, Konigsberg, and Christiania (Oslo). The 10 inch Repsold theodolite was regarded as the best for geodetic work at the time. While rigidly constructed, it was smaller and lighter than other theodolites, with an accuracy of around 30 seconds of arc. Optimum centering and minimum wobble of the vertical axis of the Repsold, was achieved by using a relatively long conical axis. This design became known as the Repsold system.



August 1914 (nla.pic-vn3534310-v): Repsold 10 inch theodolite used by Vance for both trigonometric/geodetic work in Federal Capital Territory and for determining longitude at both Port Augusta and Bookaloo.


Scrivener also wrote that some work had already been carried out within the Federal Capital Territory using an 18 inch Bamberg theodolite. Although the results were satisfactory, he said the instrument was: not now rated very highly. The Bamberg theodolite had been purchased from the New South Wales Lands Department for £50 on 5 March 1912. Scrivener continued to explain in his report, that without a geodetic triangulation survey, the value of subsequent topographical and other work necessary for planning in the Federal Capital Territory would be very seriously impaired. He further observed that by using improved instruments and appliances highly accurate results could be obtained more easily and cost-effectively.


Vance at Port Augusta and Canberra, 1913-1915

The forgoing section outlined the administrative environment Vance entered on his recruitment to the Department of Home Affairs. He was first sent to Port Augusta to undertake surveys related to the acquisition of lands for the transcontinental railway. Goodwin wrote a number of letters of introduction for Vance. In a 28 April 1913 letter to Edwin Mitchell Smith, Surveyor General of South Australia, Goodwin introduced Vance and stated that: as Vance has been appointed surveyor to carry out the land surveys in connection with the Transcontinental railway in South Australia it will be necessary for him to obtain your land title certificate and I shall be glad if you will be good enough to render him any assistance you can. On the same day, Goodwin asked John Gardiner, Commonwealth Works Registrar in South Australia: to introduce Vance to the Surveyor General and any other state officials.


In a further letter on 29 April 1913 to Captain FW Saunders, Goodwin introduced Vance to Saunders as Saunders would be providing support to Vance as well as being a point of communication. Scrivener was responsible for overseeing Vance’s work and progress, although Vance’s costs and those of his men and the surveys were being charged to the Railways Construction Branch. Scrivener very clearly did not want his own small Lands and Survey budget impacted by these other costs. Vance therefore was to send monthly reports to Scrivener detailing daily work and costs and was to communicate mostly by telegram. The office of the Supervising Engineer was the focus for these communications.


Vance arrived at Port Augusta on 3 May 1913 and telegraphed this fact to Goodwin. General correspondence to Vance from then on was addressed, Mr Surveyor Vance, South Australian Section, Transcontinental Railway, Port Augusta, South Australia. Passing through Adelaide, Vance had called on the Surveyor General and had been acquainted with South Australian methods, and thereby received the South Australian registration as a surveyor so necessary for his performing cadastral surveys in that state.


At the beginning of May 1913, Vance commenced his monthly reports to Scrivener. Vance continued his railway related surveys until 28 February 1914, when he came home to Malmsbury. Just before returning home, February temperatures in the field in South Australia had been around 115°F (46°C).


By 12 March 1914, Vance was working in the Federal Capital Territory on the geodetic survey and the upgrading of the Territory’s trigonometrical network. This survey was not part of the border demarcation survey but a separate and necessary survey as described by Scrivener above. Vance’s work was mainly to upgrade, as required, trigonometrical stations inside the Territory. The major part of this work was the observation of horizontal and vertical angles, during times of best visibility, from the existing first order New South Wales stations which had been previously established by the New South Wales Lands Department. At all the trigonometrical stations from which Vance observed angles, the existing stone cairn was first dismantled so the ground mark could be occupied. To some extent this made any upgrading easier and generally resulted in a steel quadrupod beacon being located over the ground mark. In reporting Vance’s activities the names and spelling of the trigonometrical points are those as recorded by Vance. The table at Annex A summarises Vance’s work on the geodetic survey; note that some of the trigonometrical station names as recorded by Vance differ from the names used today.



Trigonometrical stations forming the geodetic network of the Federal Capital Territory in 1914-1915


During March 1914, a new beacon was established on Crace and observations for longitude were undertaken. At One Tree Hill the old cairn was dismantled and a new beacon installed. During poor weather conditions, Vance continued to finalise his South Australian railway surveys.


On 1 April 1914, Vance recorded: Attending Coroner’s Court Queanbeyan. The Queanbeyan Age of Friday, 3 April 1914, contained an article titled Fatal Sulky Accident: Dragged for Two Miles along a Road which detailed a fatal accident which happened to a local resident, Mr Patrick Sheedy. Vance heard the crash and took a leading role in finding Mr Sheedy and getting him to hospital.


Vance inspected the existing beacons on Taylor, Tuggeranong, Wanniassa, Forster, Neighbour, Strom (today Stromlo), Painter, Kurrajong, and Pemberton during April 1914. On Poppet and Painter new beacons were established and at Pemberton the centre pole was replaced. Horizontal and vertical angles were observed from Mugga over a seven-day period when visibility conditions were optimum. Vance also reported adjusting the department’s Repsold theodolite. It would appear that the Repsold ordered by Scrivener the previous financial year was now being put to its intended use.


During May 1914, Vance achieved a further seven days of observations at Mugga. New beacons were established at Tuggeranong, Neighbour, Strom and at Tharwa the existing centre pole was straightened. Moving to Tennent, the existing cairn was dismantled, followed by 3 days of observations to Stranger (also Barneys Hill), Gigerline, and Yarara after vegetation was cleared away. Observations from Tennent continued into June for another 2 days.


Earlier, on 20 January 1914, Goodwin had written to the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs asking for Minister O’Malley’s approval for the retention of Vance’s services for a further period of two months. This extra time would allow for a survey of a water catchment area at Lake Windabout, South Australia, and another further away. The copy of this letter on file has O’Malley’s signature, approving the request. Some of this work had already been completed but now Vance returned to finalise it. Vance left Canberra for Port Augusta on 9 June 1914 arriving Adelaide on 11 June, where he called to see the Government Astronomer, George Frederick Dodwell, and the Surveyor General. On 25 June he started cadastral work at Mintabie Well.


A determination of longitude, as Scrivener had pointed out above, was now required at the Port Augusta end of the railway. Unlike other survey observations such an observation needed accurate time. Without highly accurate clocks or chronometers, however, the only way to have access to accurate time was to use a telegraph connection to an Observatory chronograph. To ensure the necessary co-operation and co-ordination the authority of the Prime Minister had been obtained. A telegram from the then Premier of South Australia, Archibald Henry Peake, notified the Prime Minister on 6 July 1914 that: South Australia consents to Government Astronomer assisting Commonwealth surveyor in determining longitude at stations on Port Augusta–Kalgoorlie railway line [-] approval desired for co-operation of Postmaster General’s Department in transmission wireless signals also for detailing Telegraph operator for duty at or near Port Augusta Telegraph office during time occupied in transmitting signals on four nights commencing about July 20.



Goodwin’s letter to the Department of Home Affairs seeking Minister’s approval for retention of Vance’s services for a further two months with Minister O’Malley’s signature of approval.


Thus on 14 July 1914, Scrivener ordered Vance to Port Augusta. Vance was required to be there not later than Saturday eighteenth July [as clock] signals will be interchanged on night of twentieth July. Vance actually arrived on 16 July and set up his instruments and their protective tenting. From 16 to 18 July the necessary observations were taken to accurately define the local meridian. From 20 to 28 July, Vance recorded: At Port Augusta - Longitude Determination.


Vance left Port Augusta on 30 July 1914, and travelled up the line to Bookooloo (today Bookaloo). By 4 August he had completed 3 days of longitude determinations and by 10 August he and his instruments were at the Adelaide Observatory, where he determined his personal equation. The personal equation elicited any differences between Vance and his instruments and those of the more precise observatory instruments. These minute differences ultimately increased the accuracy of the determined longitude. As well as Adelaide, Vance also determined his personal equation at the Melbourne Observatory from 15 to 17 August and Sydney Observatory from 26 to 27 August. By 31 August, Vance was back in Scrivener’s office discussing future work on the geodetic survey.



Shortage of government camels was a work issue


More detail on these longitude and associated observations was reported by the South Australian Government Astronomer, George Frederick Dodwell, in his annual report of 1915. The South Australian newspaper, The Register, ran an article headed East-West Magnetic Survey on Friday, 9 July 1915. The article read :


In connection with the Commonwealth survey along the route of the Transcontinental Railway, which is now in course of completion between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie, an interesting piece of field work was carried out in July and August by co-operation between this [Adelaide] and the Melbourne and Sydney Observatories and the Commonwealth Department of Lands and Surveys. This was the determination by astronomical methods of the latitude and longitude of Port Augusta and Bookooloo [Bookaloo], two of the initial points on the survey. In addition to the usual exchange of longitude signals on the land line, wire less telegraphy was also used with successful results. Clock beats were transmitted from both Melbourne and Adelaide Observatories through the respective wireless stations, by the courtesy and co-operation of the Commonwealth Engineer for Radio Telegraphy, and were recorded at all three observatories and at the two field stations, the method of coincidences being used. At the field stations a portable wireless-receiving installation was used, with light sectional masts, each 36 feet high. The aerial was 90 yards in length. Time observations at the field stations were made by Mr. T. A. Vance, of the Commonwealth Survey, and by the Director of this Observatory [Dodwell], both using the almucantar method as adapted by Professor Cooke for use with a theodolite. Mr. Vance used an excellent 10 inch Repsold theodolite. Transits were recorded with the push button on a chronograph. Time observations were made by Messrs. Messent and Willsmore at the Adelaide Observatory with the transit circle telescope, and by Messrs. Merfield and Raymond at Melbourne and Sydney respectively. The services of a land line and wireless telegraph operator were available at both Port Augusta and Bookooloo, and personal and instrumental equation was determined afterwards by Mr. Vance at Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney. In addition to the latitude and longitude determinations, a set of magnetic observations was obtained at Port Augusta and Bookooloo by the director of this observatory, a Carnegie magnetometer and Barrow dip circle being used for this purpose.


In November 1920, a field party comprising George Dodwell, Clarence Maddern (Government Astronomer Assistant, South Australia), Harold Curlewis (Government Astronomer, Western Australia), Clive Hambidge and J. Crabb (South Australian Survey Department) and Warrant Officer Victor Bowen (in charge of the wireless apparatus lent by the Defence Department) proceeded to Deakin, Western Australia on the Trans-Australian Railway. This was the prelude to establishing the southern end of the South Australian border with Western Australia, using wireless time signals. No doubt Dodwell’s earlier 1914 experience with Vance, proved useful.



August 1914 (nla.pic-vn3534298-v) : observation tent and instruments at Bookooloo (today Bookaloo), on Stuart Highway about 50 miles (80 kilometres) north of Port Augusta. (L-R) : Vance with the 10 inch Repsold theodolite, then Dowling (seated) operating a portable wireless telegraph for time signal transmission/reception, next is a Carnegie magnetometer, and then Dodwell with a binocular observing telescope.



August 1914 (nla.pic-vn3534301-v) : Bookooloo campsite with its 36 foot (11 metre) high wireless telegraph mast. Standing (L-R) : John Maxwell-Moffat, George Frederick Dodwell and Ernest John Dowling.


In the first week of September 1914, Vance was back in the Federal Capital Territory area with his party at Tennent. For fifteen days, Vance observed horizontal and vertical angles from Tennent, as the weather permitted. On 21 September, he reported observing the horizontal angle between Ainslie and Poppet with a Helio (Heliograph) on Ainslie. He then similarly observed One Tree Hill to Ainslie with a Helio on One Tree Hill and then Coree to One Tree Hill with the Helio still on One Tree Hill, on 25 and 26 September. This work was followed on 28 and 29 September by observations to Franklin, Coree and Strom. At over 30 kilometres, these were some of the longest lines optically observed in the Territory.


During September 1914, Vance recorded that [Survey] Assistants Chaplin and Dowling have been engaged on the reduction of longitude observations taken at Port Augusta. When not required for other duties these two men were recorded as working on longitude reductions until these computations were completed.


The progress of the geodetic survey was severely impacted by weather in October 1914. Only 11 days of observing from Strom was possible, so work on the South Australian longitude observations was able to be progressed. Ten days of observations were then taken at Strom in early November 1914. Stations observed included Hardy, plus Duntroon, Blundell and Urayarra (Uriarra) which had to be cleared or upgraded beforehand. Eight days of observing were achieved at Poppet before moving back to Strom at the end of the month. The South Australian longitude observations were also finally completed.


On 30 November, Vance recorded: On Strom…putting up chronograph connections. Earlier, James Oddie, a wealthy Victorian businessman and philanthropist gifted to the Commonwealth a 9 inch Telescope which had been manufactured by Thomas Grubb around 1890. Grubb was an Irish optician and founder of the Grubb Telescope Company of Dublin. The dome built to house the Oddie telescope was the first Commonwealth building constructed in the newly established Territory, with the telescope being located therein in 1911. A telegraph office had opened in Queanbeyan on 19 August 1864 and the line was subsequently extended through Ginninderra to Yass. The Ginninderra Post Office was established early in 1859. In August 1887, the first private telephone was connected from there to the home of Edward Kendall Grace at Gungahlin, with Mr Grace having to also pay for all the necessary infrastructure! In 1914, the telephone exchange at the Ainslie Post Office was opened. It was then located on the Yass-Queanbeyan Road (roughly between Allambee Street, Reid and Limestone Avenue). As the observatory site on Strom was now connected to the telegraph, this nearby telegraphic line provided Vance with the convenient connection for his chronograph, thereby enabling his receiving and recording of time signals for his observations. Four days of observations were undertaken at Strom in early December 1914. On 9 December, Vance reported: also ran levels to stn. [station] mark and fixed position of [the Oddie] observatory.


Vance then spent a day observing from Pine Ridge before moving camp to Condor Creek at the foot of Mt Coree. On 16 December 1914, the cairn at Coree was dismantled and 4 days of observations were achieved around the Christmas break. It is notable that Vance’s reports from, and including December, are signed-off by Percy Lempriere Sheaffe as Scrivener had retired.


Vance returned from leave on 19 January 1915, but bushfire smoke limited observations from Coree to six days. A further two days observations were undertaken at Coree in February before the station was rebuilt. In is likely that from these observations it was discovered that part of the Cotter River catchment was outside the Federal Territory. By 12 February 1915, Vance had moved to Tidbinbilla where the cairn was dismantled and observations commenced. After 12 days of observing a new station mark and beacon were installed. The party then moved to Tennent where observations commenced on 11 March 1915. Completing work at Tennent on 14 March, the camp was moved to Bimberi. This mountain was the highest in the region at some 1,900 metres and was a difficult climb. Thus Vance’s men were sent to try and hire pack saddle. Vance then went on leave from 23 March until 7 April 1915, which included the Easter break. After he arrived back from leave, Vance commenced observing from Bimberi on 9 April 1915. Owing to cloud and haze, observations were incomplete after 5 days.


Sheaffe, then Acting Director of Commonwealth Lands and Survey, had written to Colonel David Miller, then Administrator, Federal Capital Territory on 15 April 1915. Sheaffe requested: that Mr Surveyor Johnston relieve Mr Surveyor Vance at the station the latter officer is now occupying (Mount Bimberi) and that remaining stations Clear and Cunningham be occupied as opportunity offers. The Engineer-in-Chief of Commonwealth Railways is anxious that Mr Surveyor Vance’s services be made available for him as early as possible.


Approval must have been given as on 16 April Goodwin advised the Commonwealth Railways, South Australia: have arranged Vance ready leave Melbourne for Port Augusta within fortnight. No other reliable surveyor available.


Vance recorded that: Mr Surveyor Johnston arrived at my camp on 18th to take over the work on which I was engaged. Vance and Johnston then undertook further observations from 19 to 22 April 1915, after which the cairn was rebuilt. In his 1962 book Knights and Theodolites: a Saga of Surveyors, Frederick Marshall Johnston wrote: Whilst I was in the locality, arrangements were made for me to take over the trigonometrical survey from surveyor T. Vance, who had once been on the Port Augusta end of the Trans-Continental Railway. Using a large Repsold theodolite, especially imported from Germany, I read the round of angles from Mount Clear and also from Mount Bimberi 6,274 feet (1,913 metres), the highest point in the Territory.


As mentioned above, Vance’s geodetic survey for the Federal Capital Territory was distinct from that of the New South Wales - Federal Capital Territory border demarcation survey. Both surveys were being undertaken at about the same time and both were being overseen by Scrivener. In June 1910, Scrivener had surveyor Percy Lempriere Sheaffe travel to Coree to commence the demarcation survey. Sheaffe took his survey in a clockwise direction. Progress was slow not because of the survey equipment of the day or the difficult terrain but the need for Sheaffe to travel back and forth to Sydney to re-establish early pastoral (cadastral) boundaries now found to be incorrectly determined. The need for accuracy was paramount, as land so determined by Sheaffe was to be transferred to the Commonwealth from New South Wales.


By October 1913, Scrivener sought to speed up the border survey and equipped a second party under Surveyor Harry Mouat. Mouat’s party commenced work at Coree and headed south along the Brindabella Range. Scrivener’s retirement saw Sheaffe take over from Scrivener as acting Director of Commonwealth Lands and Survey, around December 1914. Frederick Marshall Johnston thus replaced Sheaffe on the border survey in early 1915. Around April 1915, the border survey was completed, when Johnston and Mouat met at a point between Sentry Box Mountain and Wrights Hill. From Vance’s reports the border survey must have been completed a few days before 18 April 1915, when Vance recorded that Johnston came to his camp.

Vance’s last report on file recorded that he completed observations at Bimberi on 22 April 1915 and handed over his instruments etc to Mr Johnston. From 26 April until 3 May 1915 he was on leave. It is then known that Vance was appointed Lieutenant in charge of the then Australian Survey Corps operations in Western Australia on 13 July 1915. It is not clear, however, if Vance went to South Australia as planned before going to Western Australia, or if war-time demands saw him having to proceed to the west more expeditiously.


Vance between 1915 and 1959

Prior to joining the Australian Survey Corps Vance had served three years with the Goldfields Infantry; presumably during his Goldfields days prior to going to Papua in 1908. When appointed to the Corps on 13 July 1915 in Western Australia, Vance received the rank of Lieutenant. Vance was later second in command of the Corps under Captain John Lynch.


On 2 January 1918 Lieutenant Vance joined the Australian Imperial Force and embarked on HMAT Wiltshire A19 at Sydney on 2 February 1918 as Survey Corps reinforcements (Air Line Section, Pigeon Corps). After serving in England, Vance embarked on HT Devanha for return to Australia on 8 May 1919. He was discharged from the AIF on 16 July 1919.


After his AIF service, Vance rejoined the Australian Survey Corps. Later the then Major Vance was the officer commanding the Australian Survey Corps from March 1936 to December 1940. This command predated the position of Director of Military Survey. From January 1941 until June 1942, Lt-Col Vance was the inaugural Director of Military Survey. He is said to have resigned because he did not support a policy decision to have commissioned officers in the Australian Survey Corps who were not licensed surveyors. Lt-Col Vance was succeeded by then Major Lawrence FitzGerald who was Director of Military Survey from June 1942 to January 1960 and rose to the rank of Brigadier and was awarded the OBE in 1946.


Prior to joining the Australian Survey Corps, Thomas Alexander Vance had married Christina Elizabeth Neil (1889-1947). They had seven children: Helen, Elizabeth, Jean, Beatrice, Neil and Thomas (another son also Thomas Alexander died as a toddler circa 1914).


The Vance’s youngest child Thomas Alexander Vance, junior (1923-2008) served with distinction in the RAAF during World War II. On 28 March 1944 the then Flying Officer Vance was awarded the DFC for his outstanding ability as a fighter pilot. In 1946 he was discharged from 452 Squadron RAAF with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.


Colonel Thomas Alexander Vance died on 9 February 1959 and was buried at Yackandandah in north-east Victoria. Vance’s grave is marked with a family headstone and a memorial plaque bearing the badge of the Australian Survey Corps. The plaque states: Renowned for his precision as a geodetic surveyor, a pioneer in the use of aerial photography as an aid to mapping. A surveyor of the highest distinction. Placement of the memorial plaque was initiated by another former Director of Military Survey the late Colonel NRJ Hillier (1928-2013).




Thanks to Laurie McLean for assistance with Vance’s biographical details and indicating useful records held by National Archives Australia and Ken Green, Co-ordinator of The Pathfinders, Seniors Group of Surveyors, Institution of Surveyors NSW. The assistance of Rod Menzies, Kevin Wellspring, Frank Blanchfield, Ron Jarman, Bill Kitson, Kaye Nardella and John Ely is also appreciated.






Australian Bureau of Statistics (1911), 1901-1910 Year Book Australia, cat. no. 1301.0, ABS, Canberra, accessed November 2104 at :


Conference of Surveyors-General (1912), Conference of the Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys, the Surveyor-General and the Government Astronomer of New Zealand, and the Surveyors-General of the States of the Commonwealth of Australia : Melbourne, 20th to 25th May, 1912, Melbourne, Albert J. Mullett, Acting Government Printer, C.6832, available via this link.


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Annex A


Work undertaken by TA Vance during the geodetic survey of the Federal Capital Territory in 1914 and 1915





Erected beacon, observations for longitude

One Tree Hill

Removed old cairn, erected new beacon, observations, heliograph target




Inspected, target


Inspected, target


Inspected, erected new beacon, target


Inspected, target


Inspected, erected new beacon, target


Inspected, erected new beacon, observations incl. position fix


Erected new beacon, observations


Inspected, erected new beacon, target


Inspected, target


Inspected, erected new centre pole, target


Cleared, observations


Cleared, target


Inspected, straightened centre pole, target


Cleared, target


Cleared, target


Cleared, target


Heliograph target






New vanes, target


Cleared, target


Cleared, target



Pine Ridge



Removed old cairn, erected new beacon, observations


Observations by Vance and Johnston (#)


Observations by Johnston (*)


Observations by Johnston (*)

(#) Observations shared by Vance and Frederick Marshall Johnston who replaced Vance on the survey and then observed at these (*) stations.