History of ISNSW

A Brief History of The Institution of Surveyors NSW Incorporated (ISNSW)

Established 1891

Image: D. M. Maitland, First President of Institution of Surveyors NSW

D M Maitland, First President of Institution of Surveyors NSW

The surveying and geo-spatial Information profession in New South Wales has a very long history. Starting from the early infancy of the colony the profession has played a very important role in the shaping and growth of this state as well as the rest of Australia and in small parts the rest of the world. The profession has had its ups and downs but keeps continuing to grow to cater for future generations. One organization with a long standing within the profession is the Institution of Surveyors NSW Inc (ISNSW).

ISNSW began as an Association originating from a suggestion made at a picnic and resulted in monthly meetings being conducted at a pub (the Grand Hotel in Wynyard Street, Sydney). It might be reckoned by the uninitiated to have been convivial rather than to have had serious aims. However, the bearded elders of the profession were earnest, dedicated men and from the very first meeting in 1884, of what was then 'The Surveyors Club of New South Wales', papers of considerable importance were read, and the problems discussed were, in many of their aspects, those which continue to perturb surveyors today.

The knowledge that a social and professional club of surveyors existed in Sydney attracted others eligible to join, and by October 1888, there were 52 Members and 2 Associates. Though, in the interim, there had been, as the first President, Mr D.M. Maitland put it, many vicissitudes "as some gentlemen who entered upon the undertaking at its initiation with great enthusiasm, gradually allowed their ardour to abate." Throughout its history, this professional body of surveyors has had several such periods of difficulty when members either did not, or could not; give it their full support. But always, as at the outset, there have been the devoted few who have pulled the struggling sufferer through.

In 1889, the Club's name was changed to 'The New South Wales Association of Surveyors', as being more in keeping with the society's actual nature. With a view to federation, with similar instructions in the neighbouring colonies, it was incorporated as 'The Institution of Surveyors, New South Wales', on 28 May 1891. Mr D.M. Maitland, who was largely the father of the Institution, continued in office as its first President until the close of that year.

The Association had been at its lowest ebb in 1887 with less than 30 members, but the Institution as incorporated in 1891 seemed then, as Mr S.R. Dobbie afterwards put it, "to have got away to a fine start." Dobbie, who spent 11 years as Honorary Secretary, a term as President in 1910, and had been elected to membership in 1889, witnessed the decline associated with the financial crisis towards the close of the last century. His statement "from 1897 to 1907 the Institution had at times to struggle for existence, and the question as to the possibility of the continuance of the struggle arose on more than one occasion”, is borne out by the minute book, which shows how meeting after meeting had to be abandoned for lack of a quorum. However, the devoted few stuck to their guns, and it is to be remarked too, that even throughout that difficult period 'The Surveyor' continued to be published and to maintain its high standard.

To some extent that decline can be ascribed to the private surveyors of the day, working chiefly in the country, not being able to take a very active part, and not altogether very willing to co-operate. The Institution at that stage was largely maintained by surveyors of a scientific turn of mind from Government Departments, so the private surveyors were apt to regard the Institution as rather the affair of those men. Still, as Dobbie records, "the time came when the private men took more interest and moreover increased in numbers, and finally coming in, practically took control."

This early reluctance of the private surveyors reads rather strangely to any of us today who have experienced a similar reluctance on the part of some Departmental surveyors, from the exactly opposite standpoint that they consider the Institution just the province of private surveyors interested mainly in fees. This kind of mistaken conception has caused President after President to comment in their annual addresses on the question heard over the years from one quarter or another "but what can the Institution do for me?" The answer of course, has always been "you will find out if you first ask, what can you do for the Institution."

The first registered offices of the incorporated Institution opened in 1891 at 5 Victoria Chambers, Elizabeth Street, but a move was made to the Queensland Offices, Bridge Street, in 1892. Both general and council meetings were held there. However, the first general meeting of the new Institution (presided over by the Governor of New South Wales, the Earl of Jersey) was at the Royal Society's House (now Elizabeth House), 5 Elizabeth Street, and in 1907 the office was transferred to that address. The Royal Society's rooms were again used for meetings until 1931, when a further move was made to Science House, Gloucester Street, which remained the official address for all activities until quite recently. The existence of branches should be noted here: The North Coast Association of Surveyors (now the Country Surveyors' Association) was formed in 1913, the Staff Surveyors' Association (Lands Department) in 1921, and the Hunter-Manning Group in 1959.

The years since the war saw uninterrupted activity and progress. Our numbers, including all grades of membership, now exceeded 1000. Nevertheless, to look at the story thus, as simply one of ups and downs, and lately ups, is to ignore the steadiness of achievements for the profession gained patiently in the face of disappointments and delays, such as those 64 years it took to reach the goal of Federation. Members who initiated progressive ideas seldom lived to see them realised, but others carried on their efforts. One of the advantages of Federation, as foreseen as early as 1890, was the pressure a united Australian Association could exert towards legislative action to protect the interests of the profession, something of the nature of our Surveyors' Act.

But the Surveyors' Act did not come into force until 1929, and when it did, it contained clauses, which the Institution found objectionable. Then representations were made and frequently pressed, to have the matter corrected, but did not succeed until the necessary amending legislation was passed in 1964. The establishment of a University Course is a similar story.

Throughout the years, the education of surveyors and such matters as certain disadvantages of the pupil system have been constantly under discussion. Agitation for a University Course was advocated by Mr J. H. Cardew in 1909 and was taken up seriously in 1925, apparently at the suggestion of the Western Australian Licensing Board. Eventually, the University of New South Wales agreed to undertake the proposed Degree Course and the first students were enrolled in 1957.

In the surveying profession, there is a close relationship between those who teach and those who practice. The School of Surveying at the University of New South Wales is working on a number of developments, which have implications for the practicing profession.

The Surveyors' Club in its day was represented at meetings of the Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1892 the incorporated New South Wales Institution was represented by its President and Secretary at the first Inter-Colonial Conference of Surveyors. This was a meeting called by the Surveyor-General of Queensland and held in Melbourne. Outcomes were the common examination for surveyors in Australian States and New Zealand - a principle of reciprocity still cherished, and the Standard Time Zones as subsequently fixed by legislation in several colonies. The Institution was also represented at the Federal Capital Congress in Melbourne in 1901.

In 1952 the Institution of Surveyors, New South Wales, became a foundation society of 'The Institution of Surveyors, Australia.' Within that larger body, its scope and influence extended, but its activities within the State of New South Wales remained autonomous.

From the outset, the main underlying aims of the Institution have been the welfare and standing of members and the advancement of the profession of surveyors. Remuneration, ethics, conduct and status have provided constantly recurring problems for discussion from the very first meeting. Always, there has been among members, deep concern with ethics as the foundation of a professional body's standing in the community, and with conduct as the basis of surveyors' satisfactory relationships with one another. Another advantage to members has been the fruitful exchange of ideas on new techniques or new opportunities.

Today, the Institution has over 1000 members and has established 8 regional groups across New South Wales, to better service the needs of all its members. The Institution seeks to establish itself as an influential leading body, and to provide effective professional education. The Institution seeks to further create a positive public perception of surveying and surveyors and to provide effective relevant leadership to participating satisfied members. 

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