Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

BRUNNER, Thomas

(1821–74).

Surveyor, explorer.

A new biography of Brunner, Thomas appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Thomas Brunner was born in April 1821, the son of an Oxford attorney. He trained as a surveyor and at the age of 20 was appointed an “improver” on the New Zealand Company survey staff. He sailed to Nelson with the main party on the Whitby, along with the Will Watch, and thus was a first settler in the Nelson Haven site.

In the late winter of 1843 Brunner explored the head of the Motueka River, but had to leave the testing of Maori stories of grassy plains between Rotoiti and the West Coast for a later expedition. In February 1846 Charles Heaphy, with Brunner, Fox, and a Maori guide Kehu, resumed the search for accessible Nelson grazing land. The heavily laden party reached Rotoiti and continued to the Buller, its southern tributary the Howard, and over the ridge to Rotoroa. They then crossed to the Tiraumea (Mangles) and travelled down the Buller to below the junctions of the Matakitaki and the Matiri, where shortage of food compelled their return on 1 March.

Three weeks later Heaphy and Brunner set out again, this time by the coast, to find the mouth of the Buller. With the faithful Kehu they crossed the isthmus from Golden Bay to the West Wanganui and, travelling steadily south, they camped by the Kawatiri on 30 April and decided that this was the Buller which sprang from the lakes. They continued on to reach the Mawhera (Grey) on 21 May, the Taramakau on the 26th, and the Arahura, their furthest point south, the next day. Local Maoris gave them much important information, including details of the greenstone route over the Alps, but could not be induced to accompany them. The heavy return journey past flooded rivers, bluffs, and hampering tides brought the party back to Nelson by the same route in late August.

On 11 December the indomitable Brunner set out on his third expedition for the year with Kehu and his friend Pikewate, both of whom were accompanied by their wives. Dillon and Stafford's run on the Motueka was their last contact with civilisation, Fraser, the manager, accompanying them to Rotoiti. Brunner explored Rotoroa in more detail and spent February 1847 in the Murchison-Matakitaki area. Below here the Buller offered only weeks of hunger and danger in its gorges, with the added risk of crossing tributary streams between rain-sodden hills. Progress was painfully slow through bad weather, difficult travelling, and halts to allow the Maoris to snare birds. So desperate was their situation at one stage that Brunner consented to the killing of his dog for food. On 4 June they reached the deserted pa at the river mouth. Continuing south they were at Mawhera on 1 July, and nine days later arrived at the Taramakau. Here, to Brunner's disappointment, the Maoris insisted on remaining for the winter as there were no supplies of food further south. Eventually, on 12 October, in company with four local Maoris, he set out to explore the coastline. The mouth of the Hokitika was crossed on the 15th and the Okarito on the 22nd. On 19 November, while passing Titihaia Head (Tititera), and encumbered as usual with a heavy pack, Brunner slipped on the rocks, crushing his foot and twisting his ankle. He managed to return to Paringa where he rested, but on 11 December, to ensure Maori assistance up the Mawhera and to avoid a second winter, he reluctantly decided to return. The party reached the Mawhera mouth once again on Christmas Day and, until the end of January, the time was passed in small excursions south to Hokitika, Lake Kaniere, and elsewhere.

Finally, on 26 January, Brunner and his four Nelson Maoris set off up the Mawhera as part of a minor Ngai Tahu expedition of four canoes. Some 6 miles upstream he sighted a coal seam, now part of the Brunner coalfield, and continued up the tributary stream, now known as the Arnold, to the lake, later to be named after him. Brunner noted his impressions of the Maori route over the pass, but was obliged to return to the main stream. The Ngai Tahu contingent returned at this point, except for one who acted as an additional guide, and the party set off up the main stream. On 18 February they left the Grey for the tributary Mawhera-iti up which they made good progress through open bush and grass flats, crossing a low ridge into the Inangahua valley on 7 March. From the summit of a hill above the valley floor four days later Brunner was certain he could see the plains of Port Cooper – which at best may have been the Maruia flats. On 23 March they were at the Inangahua-Buller junction, Brunner having linked by exploration the Buller and Grey systems.

Two months of heavy exhausting labour in retracing his steps up the Buller still lay ahead. On 15 April, after a particularly wet spell, Brunner found that he had lost the use of his leg and was mortified to hear Pikewate urging Kehu to leave him. Although Pikewate and his wife departed, the faithful Kehu remained to help Brunner during the week he lay crippled. He was still limping badly when Maruia was reached on the 26th. At last, on 5 June, they were back at Rotoroa and, eight days later, at the Buller outlet from Rotoiti. Next day, in the Rainy River, they pushed on steadily to reach Fraser's late on the 15th.

Brunner was unjustifiably modest regarding the positive results of his journey. His only instruments were a compass and a sextant, soon damaged by water. His sketches were lost and he regarded his journal, later published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, as an imperfect record. He was ignorant of geology and was certainly in error in believing that there was nothing on the West Coast worth the expense of exploration. Although he was 550 days on the journey, the actual time spent in travelling was less than half the period of absence. However, in addition to the inevitable delays through bad weather, it is difficult to see how Brunner could have done other than he did. Once he had committed himself to travelling in company with Maoris he could have left them only at his peril, because he was without access to any supplies sent by sea from Nelson. Time and again survival depended upon the bird-snaring skill of Kehu. History supports his claim that he had accomplished a great work in tracing the two main rivers of the coast from source to mouth and “having maintained myself for eighteen months on the natural products of this island”.

The struggling settlement of Nelson sought to raise £25 by public subscription to buy him a small flock of sheep, but he found work difficult to obtain. Late in 1848 he was temporarily employed in surveying the line of road between Nelson and the Wairau, but in May 1849 he went to Canterbury in search of work. Back in Nelson in mid-1850, he was glad to accept a position on meagre terms; in the following year he was appointed a Government surveyor at £100 per annum. In 1856 he was appointed Chief Surveyor of the province and, later, Commissioner of Public Works, which positions he held until 1869 when he retired, but retained a part-time position as consulting surveyor. He died in Nelson on 22 April 1874.

What modest recognition he received was for his work of exploration. There is clear evidence that he was not good at administration. Thus J. C. Richmond, while at Nelson in 1863, commented sharply on Brunner's jealousy of later explorers' efforts to find alternative ways through the country over which he had travelled. His fame firmly rests on the epic quality of the journeys which he had completed and survived. The Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, the recognition of some of his contemporaries and, more fully, of posterity, must be his justification.

by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.

  • Early Travellers in New Zealand, Taylor N. M. (1959)
  • The Great Journey, Brunner, T., Pascoe, J. D., ed. (1952).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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