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Alexander Black (1827-1897)
Article by David Taylor


ALEXANDER BLACK was born on 25 May 1827 at Arndilly, Banffshire, Scotland, son of James Black and Isabella Middleton, née Riach. After receiving a good education as a land surveyor in Aberdeen and then completing his articles, he acted for some time as assistant factor on several estates, gaining much experience in the improvement and management of landed property. In Scotland, a Factor (or property manager) is a person or firm charged with superintending or managing properties and estates -sometimes where the owner or landlord is unable to or uninterested in attending to such details personally, or in tenements in which several owners of individual flats contribute to the factoring of communal areas.

In 1851, Alexander Black prepared a report to the Falkirk stentmasters relating to water supplies from the coal waste areas in Falkirk Muir and the effect of the Grand Canal. The stentmasters were elected by the merchants and tradesmen of the town to be responsible for the maintenance of the water supply and buildings within the town.

Sailing on the Oriental, he left London  in early 1852 and arrived in Port Phillip on 10 December 1852 at the height of the Victorian gold rushes. He went to the Castlemaine goldfields, but returned to Melbourne late in 1853 and practised as a surveyor.

On 18 April 1854 he was appointed to the staff of the Victorian government survey office on trial. On 1 August 1854 he became temporary assistant surveyor with a salary of £300 and allowances. His first duty was to survey the township of Lancefield. Later he worked in the Heathcote area and in central and northern Victoria.

In 1860 when the geodetic survey commenced under Robert Lewis John Ellery, Black was appointed as one of the surveyors. His work, chiefly in northern and eastern Victoria, ended with the survey of the boundary between Victoria and New South Wales, and received high praise from Ellery. Black was well respected for his surveying, and despite being 'sober, cautious in outlook, he never failed to win commendation for his thorough methods, energy and competence'.  

In late 1869 Surveyor Alexander Black determined the position of a spring 22.5 chains (452.6 metres) north-west of Forest Hill, which he thought to be the correct source of the Murray River closest to Cape Howe. This was the spring found by the Victorian surveyor, Thomas Scott Townsend in 1856, that in the period 1862-63, the New South Wales District Surveyor, Edward Twynam had remarked as the source of the Murray River nearest to Cape Howe.

With the trigonometric points established, triangulation of Forest Hill commenced in December 1869 with the objective being to compute the bearing from the spring near Forest Hill to the mark at Conference Point. In early 1870 Alexander Black and Alexander Allan independently commenced running, clearing and marking the boundary line, finishing in August 1871 – a distance of approximately 180 kilometres. Black cleared and marked trees, lay rock lines and constructed nine major rock cairns on the highest points of the boundary line between Forest Hill and "Allan's peg" (The first cairn at Forest Hill is now known as Townsend Corner).  For the eleven months that Black and his team laboured, the total cost of this exercise was approximately £2000: £350 salary per year was paid to Black, £100 for equipment per six months, £45 for the cost of conveyance, £265 for the packhorses and £5 for their forage.

This section of the border survey held further challenges, including snow from Forest Hill, multiple crossings of the icy-cold Snowy River and climbing over Mount Tingaringy (or Tingy Ringy), with no flowing water between the latter two locations. Their route was often difficult to navigate as the dense Murray Pine forest allowed a visibility of less than ten metres. Black's cairns in themselves were great achievements, but became smaller as he ventured along the border line.


The cairn at Forest Hill (now known as 'Townsend Corner')


The original ground mark under the cairn at Forest Hill

It should be noted that the Victorian surveyors, Alexander Allan and his associate Auguste Tuxen, laid down the line eastward from the peg (known as "Allan's peg", since found on the western side of the Delegate River) to Conference Point in twelve months (August 1869-August 1870) – a distance of 115 kilometres. This was a survey made through exceedingly difficult country. Their surveyed boundary line passed within 18.4 feet (5.6 metres) south of the "Conference Point" mark placed by Ellery and Adams in 1869. Alexander Black and his helpers traversed the western section of this "straight line" boundary from the spring at Forest Hill to "Allan's peg".

The survey undertaken by Surveyor Black is catalogued Trig. 11 Sheet 1 (NSW) and Map BL1A (Department of Lands and Survey, Melbourne Victoria). The survey undertaken by Surveyor Allan is catalogued Trig. 11 sheets 2-5 (NSW) and Maps BL2A, 3A-8A (Victoria).

In 1871, Black was appointed acting district surveyor at Bairnsdale (this was confirmed on 1 November 1872), where he was also lands officer and collector of imposts. On 21 January 1873 he was transferred to Sale and on 16 September became district surveyor at Sandhurst where in January 1875 he was also collector of imposts. Although his services were nominally dispensed with on Black Wednesday, 8 January 1878, at the request of James Macpherson Grant he continued his daily work until officially restored to his post. Promoted District Surveyor third class on 5 April and second class on 1 January 1879, he was appointed assistant Surveyor-General. He succeeded Alexander John Skene as Surveyor-General on 1 July 1886, holding that post until his retirement in May 1892. Among other appointments he had been elected in 1877 a member of the Victorian Institute of Surveyors, became its president in 1879-80 and served on its council at various times; in 1880 he was appointed to the Water Conservancy Board and later with George Gordon, engineer,  reported on water problems and irrigation. He served on two royal commissions, the first on water supply in 1884; at the second, on the working of the Transfer of Land Act, he also gave evidence on the accuracy of surveys. In 1870 and 1882 he was deputy electoral officer; on 1 January 1890 he became deputy-chairman and, after four months, chairman of the Tender Board on which he served until 1892. In 1886-93 he was a member of the Board of Land and Works and commissioner of land tax. Sober and cautious in outlook, he never failed to win commendation for his thorough methods, energy and competence.

On 14 August 1886 Black married Agnese Constance (b.1859), daughter of Michael Guilfoyle of Sydney and his wife Charlotte Delafosse, née Austin. Although Black was an Anglican the ceremony took place at the home of the bride's brother, director of the Melbourne Botanical Gardens; they had no children.

Alexander Black died at his home, Hammerdale, Alma Road, St Kilda, on 13 March 1897 and was buried at the St Kilda cemetery.

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Alexander Black (1827-1897)


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