John Turnbull Thomson

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John Turnbull Thomson (10 August 1821 – 16 October 1884) was a British civil engineer and artist who played an instrumental role in the development of the early infrastructure of nineteenth century Singapore and New Zealand.[1]

Biography[edit]

Thomson was born at Glororum, Northumberland, England, the third child of Alexander Thomson and his wife, Janet, née Turnbull.

After his father was killed in a hunting accident in 1830, the young Thomson and his mother went to live in Abbey St. Bathans, Berwickshire. He was educated at Wooler and Duns Academy, later spending some time attached to Marischal College, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh University before studying engineering at Peter Nicholson's School of Engineering at Newcastle-on-Tyne.

Thomson arrived in the Malay Straits in 1838 and was employed by the East India Survey. In 1841 he was appointed Government Surveyor at Singapore and in 1844 became Superintendent of Roads and Public Works.

He was responsible for the design and construction of a number of notable engineering works including bridges, roads, and hospitals. He conducted the allotment survey of Singapore, the topographical survey of the island of Singapore and its dependencies, and the marine survey of the Straits of Singapore and the east coasts of Johore and Penang. His outstanding achievement was the erection of the Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca.

Thomson memorial in Ranfurly, New Zealand

In 1853 his health failed and he returned to England where he studied modern engineering techniques, and travelled widely through Britain and the Continent inspecting engineering works. Early in 1856 he emigrated to New Zealand, where he worked as Chief Surveyor of the Otago Province until 1873. From 1876 until 1879 he was Surveyor-General of New Zealand.

From 1856 until 1858 Thomson surveyed and explored large sections of the interior of the South Island, covering most of the southern half of the island. Many names in the area bear witness to Thomson's Northumbrian background, though there is a widespread belief that the naming of many places was through a disagreement with the New Zealand surveying authorities. It has long been suggested that Thomson originally intended to give traditional Maori names to many places, but these names were refused. In response, Thomson gave prosaic Northumbrian names to many places, often simply in the form of a Northumbrian dialectic name for an animal. The Maniototo region around the town of Ranfurly, Central Otago is rife with such names as Kyeburn, Gimmerburn, Hoggetburn, and Wedderburn as a result, and the area is still occasionally referred to as "Thomson's Barnyard".

Thomson was a founder of the Otago and Southland Institutes of New Zealand, to which he contributed numerous papers on scientific subjects including ethnological studies. Through his knowledge of Hindustani and Malay, he became interested in comparative linguistics and developed a theory of racial diffusion based on philological evidence.

He was also a keen amateur painter of landscapes, working mostly in oils. His paintings have little artistic merit but from a topographical viewpoint are of some interest today.

Thomson married Jane Williamson of Dunedin in 1876. He died at his home in Invercargill on 16 October 1884. By marriage he was related to the Hall-Jones family, whose number included William Hall-Jones, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand. Thomson was responsible for the planning of the city of Invercargill in Southland, New Zealand and his mausoleum is in the St. John's Cemetery in Waikiwi, Invercargill. Descendants have written numerous books which contain authoritative information on his life in southern new Zealand and should be easily found by searching the name "John Hall-Jones" as author.

Legacy in Singapore[edit]

During his government service in Singapore, Thomson was responsible for many projects:

Several extant places, roads and buildings in Singapore are named after J.T. Thomson. These include:

Area

  • Thomson, a region in central Singapore

Roads

Amenities

References[edit]

  • Victor R Savage, Brenda S A Yeoh (2003), Toponymics – A Study of Singapore Street Names, Eastern Universities Press, ISBN 981-210-205-1

Further readings

  • John Turnbull Thomson, Extracts from a journal: kept during the performance of a reconnaissance survey of the southern districts of the province of Otago, New Zealand, s.n., 1858.
  • John Turnbull Thomson, Sketch of the Province of Otago: A Lecture, Being One of the Series Delivered at Dunedin, W. Lambert "Otago Colonist" Office, 1858.
  • John Turnbull Thomson, An Outline of the Principles and Details Connected with the Colonial Survey of the Province of Otago, Otago Witness, 1891.
  • William Thomas Locke Travers, Walter Baldock Durrant Mantell, Richard Taylor, Fraser (Capt.), Gilbert Mair, W. D. Campbell, Johann Friedrich Heinrich Wohlers, James West Stack, A. C. Baines, William Colenso, John Turnbull Thomson, Julius von Haast, The Māori, 1871.
  • John Turnbull Thomson, An Exposition of Processes and Results of the Survey System of Otago, Henry Wise & Company, 1875.
  • John Turnbull Thomson, Exploration and Travel in New Zealand, Royal Scottish Society of Arts, 1878.
  • John Turnbull Thomson, On the Cleansing of Towns, 1879.
  • John Turnbull Thomson, Ethnographical Considerations on the Whence of the Maori, Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 1871.
  • John Turnbull Thomson, Rambles with a Philosopher, Or, Views at the Antipodes, Mills, Dick & Company, 1867.

External links[edit]