Sorry folks! The National Library websites will be unavailable Thursday 24 May between 7am to 8am due to scheduled maintenance.

The affected sites include National Library (He Tohu and Services to Schools), and digitalnz.org.

Skip to content

Surveying and the cadastre

In 1840 a Royal Charter authorised Hobson, the governor-designate, to divide the colony into districts, counties, hundreds, towns, townships and parishes.

The same year plans for Wellington were drawn up. Auckland, New Plymouth, and Wanganui followed in 1841, Nelson in 1842, Otago in 1848, and Canterbury in 1850. Apart from Auckland, these settlements were laid out by surveyors employed by or affiliated to the New Zealand Company.

In the 1850s, surveying activity started moving inland. Each province had its own survey department. Only the surveying and sale of crown and native lands was controlled by central government.

Most surveying was done by a process of triangulation. The position of a point was determined by measuring angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline. Triangles were then linked to form a network covering larger areas. It became evident that a common system of triangulation was needed, as unconnected surveys were giving rise to inconsistencies and errors.

The abolition of provincial government in 1876 led to the establishment of a Department of the Surveyor-General (later the Department of Lands and Survey). A national triangulation network (the Meridional Circuit System) was introduced in 1877. Within six years the triangulation was connected across Cook Strait.

A further geodetic triangulation project was initiated in 1909 which eventually resulted in a new improved datum (NZGD49) implemented in 1949.

GPS technology arrived in the 1980s, heralding a revolution in survey methods. Another new datum (NZGD2000) was needed - a new geocentric coordinate system compatible with global navigation satellite systems. Digitisation of the New Zealand cadastre (the register of property boundaries) was completed in 1996.

Cadastral print maps were produced by Government for many years. Today land records are all held electronically, and registration of land titles is managed online by Land Information New Zealand.

1842 Plan of New Plymouth

by Frederic Carrington (1808?–1901)
London: Smith, Elder, 1842
MapColl 832.295a/1842/1928
by Frederic Carrington (1808?–1901) London: Smith, Elder, 1842 MapColl 832.295a/1842/1928

Frederic Carrington arrived in Wellington in December 1840 aged thirty-two. He had been appointed Chief Surveyor for the Plymouth Company (a subsidiary of the New Zealand Company) and charged with selecting a site for settlement of immigrants from the West Country. There was some urgency as the first settlers’ ship had already left England. Carrington decided on the current Ngamotu site in late January 1841. The town plan he subsequently drew up listed 2267 sections over an area of 550 acres.

Carrington later served as the provincial superintendent of Taranaki province and has been described as the ‘father of New Plymouth’.

1915 Map of Wellington and environs

by Arthur Haylock (1860–1948)<br />Wellington: Lands & Survey, 1915<br />MapColl r832.4799bje/1915/2880
by Arthur Haylock (1860–1948)
Wellington: Lands & Survey, 1915, MapColl r832.4799bje/1915/2880

This impressive map of Wellington provides a snapshot of the city as it was a hundred years ago. It was drawn by Arthur Haylock, born in Akaroa, son of Charles Haylock who arrived in New Zealand on the Monarch in 1850. Arthur, who was 10 years old when he arrived, became a government draughtsman, having been a cadet in the Land Office at Timaru. He joined the Timaru Rocket Brigade and made a hobby of recording wrecks. His paintings and photographs of wrecks were presented to the Timaru Historical society. After his time at Timaru he was transferred to Christchurch and later Wellington.

Elsdon Best (1856–1931) provided the annotations giving Māori place names and other historical information. Best was an ethnologist at the Dominion Museum and an early authority on Māori history.

Best travelled to Hawaii and California, undertaking timber work and ranching, returning to New Zealand in 1886 and became an officer with Lands and Survey, in the Urewera country.

He became a foundation member of Polynesian Society in 1891.

He lived in the bush in his later years, learning the history of the land from local Māori all over the North Island. With assistance from Te Matorohanga, Best traced the voyages of discovery through Cook Strait by Kupe, Tōī, Whatonga, Tāra and Tautoki.

Elsdon Best published The Land of Tāra, and they who settled it, the Story of the Occupation of Te Whanga-nui-a Tāra (the great harbour of Tāra), or Port Nicholson, by the Maories, and this was reprinted in 1919 from the Journal of the Polynesian Society of New Zealand. His most famous book is Tuhoe, the Children of the Mist, published in 1925.

He was awarded the Hector Medal of the New Zealand Institute in 1914.

Research by Shannon Seiuli

Unfolding the Map

Te Ahumairangi Ground Floor of the National Library, Wellington, until October 2017

The exhibition is open for viewing from 8.30am – 4.45pm Monday – Saturday.

Related Exhibition: What's in a name?

Tiakiwai Lower Ground Floor, Wellington, until October 2017

Aotearoa New Zealand has over 50,000 place names. Names that celebrate people, describe our landscape and acknowledge our diverse cultural roots.

They are a powerful record of our history and our encounters within Aotearoa New Zealand. This exhibition looks at how places are named, what some of those names refer to, and some quirky facts about place names.

Also open for viewing 8.30am – 4.45pm Monday - Saturday

Free Public Programmes

A full programme of talks and other events is being developed to accompany the exhibitions. 

Visit our events page to see details of events.

School Visits

We offer curriculum-based learning programmes for school groups of any year level. Although bookings are required, these programmes are free of charge.

Email kate.potter@dia.govt.nz to arrange a visit.