Thomas Mitchell, from a portrait in "Australia's Heritage"A Rifleman Down Under
Thomas Mitchell, Surveyor General of NSW

Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was born in Craigend, Scotland, on June 15 1792 to solidly middle class parents. The family were comfortably off, rather than rich, and had connections in trade rather than with the army (his uncle owned a colliery). He received a good classical education, showing particular skill as an artist and draughtsman. He also demonstrated a maturity beyond his age when entrusted with the management of his uncle's colliery at the age of 17.

At the age of 19 he obtained a 2nd lieutenant's commission in the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles. After basic training he was sent to the Peninsular, arriving just after his 19th birthday in 1811. His draughting skills were immediately recognised, and he spent nearly all of his time in the Peninsular attached to the QMG's department as one of Wellington's exploring officers specialising in topography and surveying. Early 1813, when he was still only 20, found him deep behind French lines surveying the proposed line of march in the mountains between the confluence of the Douro and Esla and Benavente.

In 1814, the British Treasury commissioned him to sketch and survey all the Peninsular Battlefields and this kept him occupied until 1819, and caused him to miss Waterloo - a fact he always regretted. (The maps and sketches were published by James Wyld in 1841 as Atlas Showing the Principal Movements, Battles and Sieges ... during the War from 1808 to 1814.) The sketch below probably dates from this time.

On his return to England the connections he had made in the QMG's department enabled him to obtain an appointment at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He found the life boring after his adventures in the Peninsular, and in 1828 accepted the position of Assistant to the Surveyor General of New South Wales, John Oxley, on the understanding that when Oxley retired he would succeed as Surveyor General.

Sketch of Salamanca by Thomas Mitchell, from "Australia's Heritage"

He spent the next 28 years quarrelling with all and sundry while surveying NSW. As a result Peninsular names crop up in all sorts of odd places across NSW (the original street grid of Wagga Wagga is entirely named after Peninsular battles). In between this activity he managed three major exploratory trips tracing the course of the Darling River, and discovering the plains of Western Victoria. He returned to England only once - to receive his knighthood in 1839 - and died in Sydney in [?1856]. The NSW State Library is named after him.

Thomas Mitchell was one of a number of Peninsular veterans who helped shape the colony of New South Wales. Others include Governors Macquarie and Darling, and the explorer, Charles Sturt of the 39th. Other veterans turn up in Victoria and South Australia, and a Napoleonic naval captain was one of the founders of Perth.


References

Australia's Heritage, volume 4 p597
Robertson, IC, Wellington at War in the Peninsular: 1808-1814, p23
Clark, CMH, A History of Australia, volume III, p96
Flannery, T, The Explorers, p171
[Cumpston, JHL, Biographer]

The view from Mundi Mundi lookout, north-west of Broken Hill in the area reached by Mitchell in his travels. Photo by Sue
The above picture is the view looking north from Mundi Mundi lookout, northwest of Broken Hill and about 100 km west of the section of Darling River explored by Mitchell. It was extremely hot and very dry out there when I took this photo, but does illustrate the nature of the country. The Scottish-born Mitchell found it depressing.

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