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Four Maps of New Zealand: The General Survey Office and imperial tourism

Visiting Early Career Research Fellow, Dr James Watts, explores the map collection of the Manchester Geographical Society (MGS).

Dr James Watts is a Visiting Early Career Research Fellow in 2020/21. His project, ‘Landscape, Environment, and British Imperial Identity, 1860-1914’, explores  the multiple ways British people experienced  imperial landscapes and investigates how visual and textual projections of images of the physical landscape and environment of ‘Greater Britain’ emphasised  and  shaped identity and cultural belonging.

In June and July of 2021, working within the weave of Covid restrictions, I was a Visiting Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute. This allowed me two months of leafing through parts of their archive, hammering away at ideas, and remembering how to do original research. This was incredibly helpful for me for working out my next steps and inspiring for future research.

During this time, I became particularly interested in the map collection of the Manchester Geographical Society (MGS). The MGS was founded in 1884 and became an important regional Geographical society quickly hosting lectures by figures such as the explorer of Africa, Henry Morton Stanley. It continued to host internationally renowned explorers such as Fridtjof Nansen on his expedition to the North Pole in 1892; the hunter and probable basis for Henry Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, Frederick Courteney Selous, in 1893; and the Central Asian explorer Sven Hedin in 1897.[1] The society gathered maps covering much of the globe, particularly of Africa, as well as North America and Oceania. 

Some maps from this collection particularly struck me. My research interests are in imperial travel, the representation of empire, and the landscape and there is a series of four maps of New Zealand from 1888-9, which eloquently speak to this theme. These were tourism brochures and maps created at the General Survey Office in Wellington compiled and drawn by the surveyor Thomas Muir Grant, with the hills being drawn by artist and surveyor William Deverell.

The text of two of these maps are also written by women and speak to the increasing advertising of imperial tourism to women. The period of 1880-1914 was an age of increasing female leisure, travel and adventure, albeit largely confined to the middle class.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic New Zealand was one of the most popular tourism destinations on the planet. This was fueled by the endless fascination with the land where The Lord of the Rings was filmed, along with gorgeous scenery – 3.8 million tourists visited in 2019, not too far short of the New Zealand population of 4.9 million. 

This interest in the mountains, scenery, and atmosphere of New Zealand is not new. Alongside the settler colonialism of the British Empire with waves of British emigrants settling the land of New Zealand, and in the wake of the New Zealand wars between 1845 and 1872, a tourism industry grew. The increasing speed and availability of travel, although still around 40 days from Britain to New Zealand, for the British across the British Empire made steamer excursions increasingly popular.

The New Zealand government as well as businesses for passengers and tourists were increasingly aware of this by the end of the century. Beauty spots were discussed in travel guides, distances and travel times were advertised and the Scenery Preservation Act of 1903 was passed to cater to this burgeoning interest in tourism. 

The Maps

The maps in the MGS collection form part of this history. They show popular tourist destinations in New Zealand: one is of the North Island, Central Thermal Springs Country, showing Lake Taupo, the other three focus on the South Island and form a chain from Aoraki in the middle of the South Island through Milford Sound to Fiordland national park. Two are of the Otago peninsula, Dunedin, Interior Cold Lakes of Otago and West Lakes of Otago, and the third is Aorangi, New Zealand; a picturesque sanatorium of the South Pacific. 

There is a detailed map of the area concerned on one side, and the reverse has two columns of writing detailing how to get to each area, distances involved, and notable things to see and do, alongside eight pictures of the landscape. 

Figure 1 Manchester Geographical Society (Map) MMGS: I (104)
Figure 2 Manchester Geographical Society (Map) MMGS: I (104) – reverse

Central Thermal Springs Country on the North Island of New Zealand takes visitors around Lake Taupo and what became, in 1894, New Zealand’s first national park, Tongariro. The volcanoes of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe (now famous as the filming site of Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings), and Tongariro, form part of the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribal lands. An agreement between the tribe’s chief, Horonuku Te Heuheu and the NZ government in 1887 led to the park’s creation in 1894. This decision derived from the worry that the land would be parceled out, due to tribal disagreements or colonial encroachment, and sold to settlers.  

In this map, however, the main focus is on the health benefits of the surrounding area. There are recommendations from Doctor Ginders, Resident Medical Officer at Rotorua, and Graham and Joshua’s Sanatorium at Taupo. Dr Ginders emphasises that the journey is difficult but that they ‘have many cases’ of patients who arrived unable to walk yet ‘went away enjoying the full use of their limbs.’ 

Figure 3 Manchester Geographical Society (Map) MMGS: I (103)
Figure 4 Manchester Geographical Society (Map) MMGS: I (103) – reverse

Aorangi (Modern day Aoraki) refers to Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, at 12,254 ft (3,735m), which became a national park in 1953. The reverse of the map contains an enlarged map of ‘The Eastern Glaciers of Mt Cook’ alongside the usual two columns of writing. These, as with the other four, have a section on ‘How to get to…’ but alongside this is an excerpt from ‘The Tourist – A Lady’s Trip to Mount Cook’, from the journal Australasian.[2]

The surroundings of Aoraki are described as ‘bathed in a delicious rosy light’ and the whole trip to Mt Cook is evoked as a pleasant excursion. In the account, ‘The Tourist’ travels from Timaru on the Eastern coast through a three-day excursion through Fairlie, Burkes Pass, and the Western edge of Lake Pukaki, the main approach to Aoraki today. The writer recommends the area especially to the ‘alpine tourist’ and hopes that ‘at least some who read these words will have an opportunity of judging for themselves.’ This promotion of self-directed tourism, and one particularly aimed at women, was an integral part of the purpose of these maps.  

Figure 5 Manchester Geographical Society (Map) MMGS: I (102)
Figure 6 Manchester Geographical Society (Map) MMGS: I (102) – reverse

The Western Lakes and Sounds of Otago painted Milford Sound and what became Fiordland national park in 1904, in picturesque colours. Fiordland and Tongariro National Parks were created with tourism and leisure in mind. Soon after the parks’ creation, red deer were released in Tongariro and wapiti (Elk) were released in Fiordland to create conditions for hunting tourism. 

But these maps predate this, and instead focus on the scenery and landscape, showing majestic waterfalls, and fjords. Fish are shown alongside seabirds on the reverse implying good fishing country and emphasizing the opportunities for leisure. The focus is on the scenery. The account states ‘in no country in the world can there be found such magnificence as in the sounds and mountains of the south-west coast of the middle island.’ The depth (often over 100 fathoms) of the fjords were recorded as evidence of the drama of the scenery and the appeal of this area to tourist. 

Figure 7 Manchester Geographical Society (Map) MMGS: I (101)
Figure 8 Manchester Geographical Society (Map) MMGS: I (101) – reverse

The Interior Cold Lakes of Otago map, which covers Lakes Wakatipu and Wanaka now forms part of Mount Aspiring National Park, established in 1964. As with its sister map, this appears to have been written by a woman as it is written in the female voice, describing the ‘‘mountaineer’ who paddles her way from Kingston through the dark waters of Lake Wakatipu’. The writer describes majestic mountains and lakes and emphasises the ease of access for the tourist, as ‘From Queenstown we ascend Ben Lomond, 5,747ft high, in four hours, without difficulty even to ladies.’ The landscape is so majestic that the writer signs off her description, ‘Lake Hawea is the least interesting of the lakes and is well worthy of a cruise over its broad delights.’  

Manchester, New Zealand, and MGS

These maps speak to the increasing advertising of imperial tourism in the late nineteenth century. The maps were acquired in the same years that they were produced, 1889, by the Manchester Geographical Society. Lectures at the Society touched on subjects local and imperial, and there was a talk on New Zealand by J M Moore in 1891. 

Figure 9 Ticket to JM Moore’s 1891 talk on New Zealand at the MGS. MGS/5

The writing for the ‘Aorangi’ and ‘Cold Lakes of Otago’ maps also struck me. The first of these was written by ‘A bird of passage’ and reprinted from the Australasian and contributes to an established tradition of middle-class white women traveling through the empire for leisure and interest. 

Women travelers and explorers were more common in the early 1900s than might be thought. Figures like Kate Qualtrough FRGS and Freda du Four, the first woman to climb Aorangi in 1910, both female mountaineers in New Zealand, presented to the Manchester Geographical Society in the years before the First World War. In 1914, a Mrs Edward Melland, presented on ‘Personal Experiences among Maoris and Mountains in New Zealand’, which was then written up for the Manchester Geographical Society Journal.[3]  

Katharine Alice Melland had lived in Dunedin, New Zealand from the 1880s up to the 1900s, having three children there, by the census of 1911 she had returned to Britain and was living in Hale, a suburb of Manchester.

Figure 10 Ticket for Mrs Edward Melland’s lecture. John Rylands Library, MGS/5

These maps then speak to the links between New Zealand and Britain in the 1880s and 90s and alongside the collections of the Manchester Geographical Society link to an imperial history of travel for leisure. Alongside female travelers like Freda du Four, Kate Qualtrough, and the ‘bird of passage’ of the maps, they also speak to an increasing culture of women travelers of empire and this being incorporated into more formal systems of knowledge sharing like the Manchester Geographical Society. 

[1] John Rylands, MGS/14/10

[2] ‘THE TOURIST.’ (1888, January 7). The Australasian, p. 8. Retrieved July 20, 2021, from


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