Previous Find of the Month August 2020

August 2020

Making their Mark

Federal Survey Camp Field Books

ACT/NSW border survey filed book cover page - A69 - Coree CH48,000.1

This month’s article is not so much a ‘find’, but more a feature to help promote awareness of a group of notebooks that record the work undertaken by surveyors in the field while they were plotting the borders and layout of the Australian Capital Territory. Many of the field books can be accessed by viewing digital copies online, so we thought it would be an interesting subject to cover in our August Find of the Month.

Following Federation when the seat of the Federal Parliament was located in Melbourne, options for a more permanent location were being considered. As early as 1903 options were discussed, but it wasn’t until November 1908 that Senators and Members finally voted in favour of a site in the Yass-Canberra district. This led to the Seat of Government Bill, which received royal assent on 14 December 1908 i. Having selected the Yass–Canberra region as the site for the capital, the boundaries for a Federal Capital Territory (later named the Australian Capital Territory) then needed to be defined within the Yass–Lake George–Canberra triangle. Surveyor Charles Scrivener’s advice, that the Canberra valley would be the most appropriate location, was supported by a departmental board in February 1909 i.

ACT/NSW  border survey field book - A85 - River Traverses 2

Having already played a big role in the selection of a site for the national capital, Charles Scrivener then got to work on surveying the layout of the future capital and the border between New South Wales (NSW) and what was to become the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). He set up the Federal Survey Camp initially with the help of two Assistant Surveyors and three labourers. He wrote from Canberra to the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs on the 8 March 1909;

As a consequence of the recommendations of The Committee appointed to report upon matters in connection with the Federal Capital it will be necessary to have two survey parties employed in contour survey work about Canberra….and as the work to be done is not intended, except in certain cases, to be of very great accuracy I would suggest the employment of two (2) Assistant Surveyors with three labourers for each party as they will be working in different localities and cannot use the same camp.ii

In his next letter to the Secretary dated the 16 March 1909, written from the ‘Federal Camp near Queanbeyan’ he reported with a hint of frustration that;

my time has been taken up with Camp visitors and members of the Federal Parliament, but I cannot any longer devote any considerable part of my time to inspections in their company as I must proceed with survey work. iii

When the survey camp was first set up on Kurrajong Hill (now Capital Hill), Scrivener was supported by Licensed Surveyor Percy Sheaffe and Assistant Surveyor Peachey iv. By the time the camp started their work on the FCT boundary, the number of team members had grown to include Harry Mouat and Frederick Johnston, as well as Percy Sheaffe. Their task was to survey and identify a seat of government and water catchment within the federal territoryv.

Federal Survey Camp Kurrajong Hill (capital Hill) 3

The detailed survey work undertaken to plot the FCT/NSW border was carefully recorded in a series of field books which were issued to each surveyor. The name of the surveyor has been noted in the front of each book and the date range of the recordings each book contains is also included. The importance of these field books has been recognised through their inclusion in the ACT Heritage Register. They are considered to be significant heritage objects because;

  • they are evidence of surveying methods that are no longer used
  • they constitute the only original record used in the surveying and marking of the border of the ACT
  • they define the border of the ACT and as such have a unique association with the history of the ACT
  • they contain detailed information regarding the natural features in the vicinity of the border. This information is significant in understanding the evolution of the natural landscapevi

While running this survey, Surveyor Percy Sheaffe experienced difficulties in connecting to survey marks of lands that the border passed through. As the Commonwealth was going to acquire all such land parcels, he also resurveyed all these parcels and recorded his observations in additional field books, which also form part of the border survey field book collectionvii.

The border survey field books are part of a larger set of field books issued by the Department of Home Affairs to surveyors working from the Federal Survey Camp site. As well as books for the Territorial Border Surveys (TBS) there were many others issued for surveys required to plan the city of Canberra, issued under different headings relative to the type of survey undertaken. It would appear that the first field book issued, which was numbered ‘A1’, was used by Charles Scrivener on the 24 January 1910 and the second handed to Percy Sheaffe (‘A2’) as they began their work on contour surveys prior to the border survey work.

Survey Field Book Index page  - A1  issued to Charles Scrivener. 4

The survey field books are regarded to be an essential resource for surveyors. When placed in their context within the wider collection of field books created by the Federal Survey Camp, their value to other researchers is better understood. Any reader is sure to appreciate each surveyor’s clear notetaking and artistic drawings, often recorded in remote locations and trying conditions. They provide a reminder of a different time when field work was clearly and carefully recorded by hand.

The ACT/NSW border survey field books can be viewed online on the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate website.

Other field books issued by the Department of Home Affairs to the Federal Survey Camp, along with later books, can be viewed online via the ACTmapi website. Follow this link, click on the Open Map Information icon and navigate through the Search Field Books Online link.

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i.Ling, Ted: Government Records about the Australian Capital Territory. National Archives of Australia, Canberra 2013. Pp. 8-9.

ii.National Archives of Australia – A100; A1909/6981 - Federal Capital Site – Survey Assistants to Mr Scrivener



v.Ling, Ted: Government Records about the Australian Capital Territory. National Archives of Australia, Canberra 2013. Pp. 8-9. 

vi.ACT Heritage Council: Entry to the ACT Heritage Register - Heritage Act 2004 10005. Field Books, Survey of the ACT – Canberra 1995 pp. 6-7. 

vii.ACT Government, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate - ACT/NSW border survey original field books -


1 Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate – ACT/NSW border survey original field books. A69 - Coree to CH48,000 -

2 Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate – ACT/NSW border survey original field books – A85 – River Traverses.

3 Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia – A1200, L41192: Historical – Buildings – Land and Survey Office, Canberra 1910.

4 Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate – ACTmapi Survey Infrastructure Field Books: A1.

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