Incompetent Surveyor

The Sydney Morning Herald

10 July 1852

Gentlemen,

As a former resident of Gundagai, and the acquaintance of many of those who have been hurried into eternity by the late catastrophe, I solicit the favour of a few remarks, believing it a solemn duty to read the whole of that awful warning which has been uttered by the late melancholy event to the people of this young nation.

On the part of the unfortunate inhabitants it must be allowed to have been a piece of temerity to place their dwellings where the Murrumbidgee is no rivulet.

And on the part of government, it was undoubtedly the most reckless negligence to allure, as it were, a number of people (many of them poor) into such a vortex of danger.

The first error was an incompetent surveyor, blind to the indications by which he was surrounded, who could deliberately choose the very lowest flat, and the only one which is ordinarly flooded, for a township - a flat which bears unmistakeable evidence of having once been the bed of the river, which is intersected with back-water creeks, and encircled by an arm of the river, which in winter runs with great impetuosity until forced back again to its parent stream by Mount Kimo at the one extremity of the township, and which flat is more or less under water every winter.

The town having the appearance of a number of little islands holding communication with each other by boats and blacks canoes.

The public have a right to demand the dismissal of this surveyor, who has most likely been the cause of the government having been so lamentably misled, lest he should repeat his error elsewhere.

The second error was an obstinate adherence to what this worthy had chosen, which you have so well exposed by the publication of Mr. Commissioner Bingham's correspondence; but it did not stop there, for although some allotments were laid out at the foot of the hill on the rising ground, the main road was laid out through the swamp, and all the public buildings were built upon this dangerous flat; a large national school, court-house, and lock-up - and all this within the last two years - and placed in the very centre of the flood.

And I believe I am right in stating, that this was done in the face of opposition from a portion of the inhabitants, that is, those on the dry land.

Some eighteen months back a subscription was set on foot for a bridge across this arm of the river, and a grant was obtained from the Government.

No sooner did we, on the dry land, hear of this, than we found the site chosen, the choice made, and where?

Why, gentlemen, at the sharp bend of this northern river (creek they call it), a place where there would be at least 12 or 15 feet of water, with a fearful current.

The money had not been paid, when a petition was immediately sent to the Governor against it, signed by the proprietors of the steam mill, one storekeeper, one inn- keeper, many tradesmen, in short by all on the dry land, and many on the flat, a majority in the town, representing the utter uselessness of such a site.

An abrupt and ungracious answer was returned, that the choice had been made by their surveyor, and could not be altered. The bridge was made (in the time of drought) for a miserable 36. It was not wanted until June of last year, when this creek began to run.

I attempted to go by that way into the town, but was stopped by a backwater creek, and when I turned back had to walk up to my knees in water to get to this grand bridge. Within two or three hours the flat was covered with water, and the fragments of the bridge floating down the stream; - and in one petition we had pointed out these contingencies.

This is the way public money has been thrown away in Gundagai.

No bridge should have been erected over such a stream without the superintendence of a competent surveyor, in which case the site chosen would have been the very last, and the work would not have been under- taken for such a miserable sum.

There are butchers who are ready to do work at your own price, and if in favour with Wardens or senior J.P.'s, their work may pass; but as a man once told me "If the work is to be approved by a surveyor, I must withdraw that tender."

No honest man would undertake some of these road works for anything like the sums which are granted.

The consequence of this obstinacy on the part of the Government has been to keep the main part of the town in the swamp, and to make that the centre of business, and consequently people have been driven there to seek a living the greatest traffic and the population was there; - a constant spirit of rivalry and ill will has always subsisted between those on the dry land and those in the flat.

His Excellency should at once displace from their position of influence whoever have been the advisers in these arrangements, - and they need be very shy of being guided by any little clique that may appear to rule a town.

Public meetings properly advertised are better authorities to decide upon the site for public buildings, than interested or partial individuals.

(I have omitted to mention that the reserves for places of public worship are also on the swamp; the graves are on the hill, had they placed the living where they have put the dead, their number would have been much larger now.)

Surveyors should be intelligent practical men (as many of them are) who would not be ashamed to take counsel of some old resident bushman, and not pedantic dandies, with their classical tastes and poetic names to streets, who could be well spared in the colony if they were sent home to figure in their native sphere - the ball-room; in the formation of a new country they have no business; and they should also be proof against local influences.

If it suits me to live in a waterhole, it is no reason why a town should be laid out round me; the interests of the many should not be sacrificed to serve the few.

In conclusion, as to the temerity of those who placed their dwellings in the swamp, I feel disposed to say but little.

They were warned almost every year - the blacks tell of a larger flood that had been previously known.

Last year the flood was the largest which had been known; one hut was washed away, and one store thrown down: many had a narrow escape; but where the Eternal has spoken in ruin, desolation, and death, it becomes us to be silent, or only to open, our lips to call attention to His voice.

If culpable, if in error, how have they suffered.

With reference to some, their affliction is the same as Job's. A Sabbath school was there; the manager, his wife, and his four children, are no more; and most of the children who formed the school are involved in the general ruin.

In these events do we not read the most solemn warnings that we should not tempt the Lord our God by placing our dwellings within the probability of danger, while we ask his protection.

On the banks of most rivers there are marks by which we may judge of the height they have been wont to reach (in this case it was peculiarly so) - logs lodged in trees, &c.

Why not dwell out of the possible reach of danger; why should the blessing of rain, which has kept the country in perpetual spring, and caused the hills and the valleys to rejoice as the cattle luxuriate on their pastures - which gave us in a time of peculiar need, a bountiful harvest - be turned by our indolente and folly from a blessing to a curse?

Flats are low and unhealthy; why not form the township on the adjacent rise, where we can take a more expansive view of the beauties of nature, and exhilarated by the purer air, rejoice in the goodness of our God.

In conclusion, the error in reference to this unfortunate place has been repeated in a lesser degree.

As many new townships may soon be required to be formed, it will be well if those who have the choice of their sites, those who purchase the first allotments, will remember Gundagai.

It has been said that the first public-house and the first store form the nucleus of a township.

This should not be.

A surveyor need take an oath of office, of fidelity to our Lady the Queen, that no local influence should induce him to choose any other than a safe and eligible spot for the residence of her subjects.

And all works for which public money is granted should have to be guaranteed to bear the inspection of a competent surveyor.

Had a good site been chosen for Gundagai, it had now been a large and flourishing township, and the voice of gladness had now been heard, in the place of tears, lamentation, and woe.

Yours, respectfully, W. Martin,

Late Storekeeper in Gundagai.

Balmain, July 7.