Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

McKERROW, James

(1834–1919).

Surveyor, explorer, administrator

McKerrow was born on 7 July 1834 in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and was educated at the Kilmarnock Academy and Glasgow University. He arrived in New Zealand in November 1859 to take up an appointment with the survey department of the Otago Province. McKerrow worked with J. T. Thomson in the triangulation of Otago and Southland, helping to make the Otago system of surveying, based on the practice of the survey of India, the best in New Zealand and later its model.

One of McKerrow's main tasks was the exploration and mapping of the Otago lakes district, where sheep farmers had already penetrated, between 1861 and 1864. He began with a journey through from Wanaka down into Southland. Then he explored the two northern lakes, Wanaka and Hawea, reached over the Lindis Pass, and his excellent account in the Otago Provincial Gazette comments shrewdly on the possibilities and the drawbacks of this inland region with its pastoral as well as goldmining potentialities. It could be reached by bullock dray only by the Lindis Pass, and the unfordable Clutha made southern access difficult. McKerrow explored the Matukituki, Motatapu, Makarora, and many subsidiary river systems. He noted especially the great seasonal fluctuations in volume of the glacier-fed mountain rivers. Later McKerrow travelled through the southern portion of the lakes district, exploring Wakatipu, Te Anau, and Manapouri, with the rivers feeding the lakes from the Kawarau south to the Waiau. He left the exploration of country beyond Lake Hauroko to be completed from Preservation Inlet. Again his report was shrewd and realistic: even if passes existed to the West Coast, the routes would be so menaced by flooding rivers as to be of doubtful value.

The physical difficulties of these journeys, in which over 500 square miles of country were explored, can hardly be exaggerated, even though the existence of a few scattered sheep stations provided a certain amount of support. Lakes Wanaka and Hawea were surveyed from a whaleboat. A much smaller craft had to be used in similar waterborne surveys of Manapouri and Te Anau, where storms made the enterprise especially dangerous. In January 1864 McKerrow and his companion landed at the head of the western-lying Middle Fiord of Te Anau and made their only deliberate attempt to reach the West Coast. Although after some days of struggle in this very difficult region they stopped short of their objective, they did reach a mountain top from which they could see Caswell Sound in the distance.

In 1863 McKerrow was appointed Geodesical Surveyor and Inspector of Surveys in Otago. His work was of a high standard; his younger colleague, J. H. Baker, who accompanied him on his visit to Bluff Hill to take bearings on prominent distant features, attested his debt to McKerrow: “This work and my conversations with Mr McKerrow were of great use to me, as they gave me an insight into the higher branch of my profession which I had not had before”.

In 1873 McKerrow was appointed Chief Surveyor of Otago. In 1877, after the abolition of the provinces and the absorption of their servants into the General Government's civil service, McKerrow became Assistant Surveyor-General. Two years later he was appointed Surveyor-General and Secretary of Lands and Mines. In 1882 McKerrow observed the transit of Venus from the Wellington Observatory, and in 1885 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

As a competent administrator, McKerrow had much to do with work with other Government Departments. He was appointed Chief Commissioner of Railways in 1889 and on the dissolution of the Railways Commission in 1895 he became chairman of the Land Purchase Board. He retired from the Public Service on 31 December 1901. In 1905 he was appointed chairman of the Land Commission. He died on 30 June 1919.

A casual acquaintance, C. S. Ross, reported McKerrow's genial nature and that “his wide and comprehensive knowledge of New Zealand made him a most attractive and interesting companion”. McKerrow was typical of the lad “of pairts” who came out from Scotland with a good education and undertook skilled tasks with “painstaking enthusiasm and tireless accuracy”. In addition to his meticulous survey field work, McKerrow discharged with distinction the tasks of a higher public servant at a time when administration needed resource and invention as well as energy and method.

by David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).

  • History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
  • Exploration of New Zealand, McClymont, W. G. (1959)
  • Early Otago and Some of its Notable Men, Ross, C. S. (1907)
  • A Surveyor in New Zealand, Baker, J. H.


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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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