Dictionary of Sydney

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Meehan, James

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Meehan, James

James Meehan, a schoolteacher and surveyor from King's County (now County Offaly) in Ireland was transported to New South Wales for his activities as a member of the outlawed Society of United Irishmen, prior to the failed 1798 revolution. Soon after his arrival at Sydney Cove in February 1800 he was assigned to the Survey Department, where he soon showed himself to be – as Governor King put it – 'a Man of Abilities'. [1]

Surveyor of new lands

Most of Meehan's early work in the department involved the measurement of new land grants to the west and south-west of Sydney, but he also accompanied Surveyor-General Charles Grimes on an expedition to King Island and Port Phillip, becoming one of the first Europeans to stand on the future site of Melbourne. In October 1803 he was sent to Risdon Cove to conduct the first land surveys in Tasmania, and over the next four months he not only explored much of the country around the Derwent River but, on the arrival of Lieutenant-Governor David Collins in February 1804, pointed out an appropriate location for the settlement of Hobart Town. Later that year, and more than a decade and a half after Arthur Phillip first found his way into the Hawkesbury River, Meehan made a much-needed survey of the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury, as well as of the Colo and Macdonald Rivers, preparatory to the extension of settlement into those districts.

As a reward for his exceptional work, Meehan received an absolute pardon in 1806 and was free to return to Ireland. Yet he chose to remain in New South Wales with his new common-law wife Ruth Goodaire, recently arrived from England. When William Bligh took over as governor later that year, he soon came to recognise Meehan's knowledge and skills, and in 1807 had him conduct a complete survey of the town of Sydney. Meehan's celebrated plan, showing the layout of the streets, the location of government buildings and installations, and the positions and proprietors of the leasehold allotments, was published in October 1807.

Soon afterwards, Bligh was deposed in what is known as the Rum Rebellion, but Meehan retained the confidence of the rebel administrations that subsequently governed the colony for almost two years until the arrival of Governor Macquarie. After Grimes left for England in August 1808, Meehan became Acting Surveyor-General, a position in which he was confirmed by Macquarie, who granted him additional land adjoining his existing farm at Minto. In an expression of gratitude, Meehan named his farm Macquariefield, and it eventually became the largest in the district, covering an area of more than 800 hectares.

Macquarie also confirmed Meehan's lease on his property in Sydney, lying between South Street (now O'Connell Street) and Bell Row Street (now Bligh Street), and he supported Meehan in his bid for appointment to the post of Surveyor-General. However, the British government could not contemplate a former Irish convict occupying such a high office and instead gave the job to John Oxley, a naval officer with no experience in land surveying. Meehan was left as Deputy Surveyor-General with responsibility for all the field work.

In 1811 Meehan accompanied Macquarie on a tour of the Tasmanian settlements and, at the governor's request, drew up a new town plan for Hobart. During the tour Macquarie received many complaints about disputed land boundaries, so in September 1812 Meehan went back to Tasmania where, with George Evans, he remained for a year, remeasuring all the land grants there. On his return to Port Jackson, Meehan resumed his surveys throughout the Sydney region, from Barrenjoey to Appin, from Bondi to Kurrajong, and, later, across the mountains to Bathurst.


In 1818 Meehan was given a new task. The governor, anxious to establish a link between the Cow Pastures (now the Camden/Picton district) and Port Jarvis (Jervis Bay), instructed Meehan to find a suitable route for a road. In company with Charles Throsby, Hamilton Hume and nine other men, including two Aboriginal guides, Bundle and Broughton, Meehan set out from Camden on 6 March. Three weeks later, after long days of exposure to extreme wet weather and the impossibly steep gorges of the Shoalhaven River and its tributaries, Meehan and Throsby split the party, Meehan continuing to the south-west where he eventually came across Lake Bathurst and the Goulburn Plains, thereby discovering vast new grazing grounds for the colonists' sheep and cattle.

The following year Meehan again tried to find a suitable route between Jervis Bay and the Cow Pastures. Starting from the south, he completed the journey but the terrain he crossed was far too steep and rugged to allow for the construction of any sort of road. In 1820 the governor asked Meehan to make yet another attempt, but this time the surveyor decided that it would be more profitable to discover a route from the Cow Pastures to Bathurst that would avoid having to cross the Blue Mountains. For once Meehan somehow missed his way and although he worked his way around the mountains he kept too far to the west and ended up on the Macquarie River north of Wellington, where he finally recognised his mistake. In miserable conditions, out of provisions and virtually barefoot, Meehan and his men traced the river back to Bathurst, reaching there after an expedition lasting more than six weeks.

A founder of St Mary's Cathedral

1820 was also significant for another event – the establishment of the Committee for the Erection of a Roman Catholic Chapel. Meehan, who, according to one writer, did not let his religion 'lie like a misplaced milestone', [2] was a founding member of the committee and a significant subscriber to the building fund. However, his most important contribution to the new chapel was his choice of a site close to Hyde Park which he himself measured. St Mary's Chapel, now St Mary's Cathedral, still stands on the site.

Retirement to Macquariefield

When Governor Macquarie left Sydney in February 1822, Meehan also decided to retire. In June that year he retreated to Macquariefield to live out his life with his wife, Ruth, and their children, Thomas and Mary. Sadly, Mary died in 1823 and James Meehan's attempts to improve his farm induced him to mortgage the property to Samuel Terry, a moneylender of some notoriety. Unfortunately, Meehan's plans did not work out and his health began to deteriorate. In January 1826 he signed his last will and testament, and three months later he died.

Meehan left all his real and personal estate to his executors, Charles Throsby and William Redfern, in trust for his 18-year-old son, Thomas. However, when Thomas reached his majority and took over the estate in a time of severe drought, he was unable to repay the debts and Macquariefield passed into the hands of Samuel Terry.

It was a sorry ending to all that James Meehan had achieved during his lifetime, but no one could take away from him his accomplishments as a surveyor, and greater Sydney today still bears the imprint of his work.


Tony Dawson, James Meehan – a most excellent surveyor, Crossing Press, Sydney, 2004


[1] Governor King to Lieutenant-governor David Collins, January 1805, Historical Records of Australia

[2] JP McGuanne, 'Old St Mary's', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 3 part 4, 1916, pp 150–179