Ladies and Gentlemen


Thank you for inviting me along this afternoon, to the former home of Francis Lord, John Gowlland’s father in law. It is an honour to be part of the ceremony to launch Jo Vink’s excellent book ‘My Dearest Gennie’ which describes the short life of Staff Commander John Gowlland and gives us some insight into his work as a hydrographic surveyor.  I understand that for Jo this has been a labour of love and the end result is a fitting testament to Jo’s commitment towards preserving the memory of her great grandfather.


In helping Jo launch this book I would like to reflect on a few things that stood out as I took in each chapter. Firstly, I was conscious that Jo has managed to humanise John Gowlland through his logbook and journal entries, along with his personal letters to his wife Genevieve, to weave a narrative that tells a story of love, persistence, dedication, frustration, adventure, human courage, endurance and hope.


What also comes through in the book is a profound sense of resilience grounded in the hope that as a hydrographic surveyor, John Gowlland would one day, have the opportunity to make his mark and contribute to the hydrographic profession. Certainly he felt those closest to him harboured high hopes and expectations that he should ‘some day, turn out to be a second Nelson.’

Reading the book also brought home to me the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. John Gowlland was often frustrated by Government bureaucracy. He was at various times, pre-occupied with the difficulties of living aboard a ship at sea in the midst of a heavy gale, bouts of seasickness and the loneliness of Command. He was troubled about the personal and financial effect on his family as a result of his periods away from home, along with concerns over his own advancement and lost opportunities to develop professionally. He was also irritated by the inability to have new enlightened ways of doing business considered and accepted by his superiors. ‘New ideas’ he once wrote ‘are received with caution and suspicion, condemned and voted to be wrong for not agreeing with the “old style.”’


The great man was also frustrated with the seemingly nugatory aspects of some of his surveying assignments – whilst surveying the Clarence and Richmond Rivers on one particular occasion ‘Jack’, as he was known to many, was adamant he would not stay here any longer than he could help ‘as it is useless wasting time over these so called rivers which are little better than creeks.’


John Gowlland once summed up the lot of a hydrographic surveyor in assessing the work as ‘repetitive and painstaking, sounding again and again to chart the navigable channels and the shoals, rocks and shifting sand bars.’ This work, along with many of John Gowlland’s other observations of a life at sea employed in Government service, would resonate with today’s mariner and hydrographic surveyor.


Finally, throughout the book there was the continuing theme that John Gowlland was totally devoted and attached to Genevieve, almost to the point of obsession, and from the time they first met, nothing was going to, or would ever, stand between them for very long.


My Links With John Gowlland – Why Have I Been Asked Along To This Book Launch?


On the 26 October 1988, a Deed of Gift was drawn up and signed between the grand-daughter of the late John Thomas Ewing Gowlland and the Hydrographic Branch of the Royal Australian Navy.


Jo’s mother, Eleanor Barron, expressed a desire to preserve the memory of her late grandfather, acknowledging his contribution to this country in the field of hydrographic surveying and cartography, through the establishment of a special fund (the Gowlland Fund). It was Eleanor’s request that the interest accumulated annually from this fund would be used to strike a memorial medal each year, for it to then be awarded to the Australian or NZ naval officer who in the opinion of the Hydrographer of Australia, had reached the highest standards in graduating from the existing Australian Navy’s hydrographic surveying course for officers.


In essence the medal is awarded to the Dux of the officer’s hydrographic course conducted at the RAN Hydrographic School, HMAS PENGUIN here in Sydney, and is given to the student who best displays the necessary comprehension of all facets of the course along with the most effective application of training objectives.


The Gowlland Memorial Medal was first presented in 1988 and as a young naval officer about to embark on his surveying career, I was fortunate to be the inaugural recipient of this prestigious award. The Gowlland Medal has since been awarded a further 22 times (with seven [7] of these annual awards going to NZ officers).


Hydrography and Hydrographic Surveying


The International Hydrographic Organisation defines hydrography as the branch of the applied sciences that deals with the measurement and description of the physical features of oceans, seas, coastal areas, lakes and rivers.


Hydrography allows us to survey, visualise, and interpret the physical characteristics of the earth’s surface beneath oceans and seas, throughout coastal waters, and in lakes and rivers. To achieve this, hydrographic surveyors undertake their work from a variety of platforms including ships and aircraft, and from submersible Remotely Operated Vehicles.


To successfully map the sea or a river bed requires state of the art navigation, surveying and computer equipment. This includes the use of multi-beam echo sounders, which emit sound pulses in the water that are then measured to determine the time it takes for the pulse to reach, and then return from, the seabed. This pulse sequence is then processed and displayed as depth information either on a traditional nautical chart or increasingly, in an electronic navigational chart.


Hydrographic surveying, or hydrography, is essential to the development and maintenance of any coastal nation’s economy, infrastructure and security.

Only a small percentage of the world’s oceans have been adequately charted. Australia alone has an area of charting (and surveying responsibility) of over 13 million nm2 (one eighth of the world’s surface). A significant amount of this area has not been surveyed to a modern standard - it is noteworthy that some of these inadequately charted areas lie adjacent to future planned ports and offshore facilities.


This starts to give us some insight into why hydrographic surveying is so important, particularly to an island nation like Australia.


Australia is reliant on maritime trade for its economic prosperity. Hydrographic surveying and nautical charting has always formed a significant part of Australia’s maritime infrastructure, providing safe access to ports from the sea, and safe passage along coastal and international trade routes. Given that over 80% of international trade globally is transported by sea, not surprisingly maritime trade is crucial to Australia’s future. Australia’s maritime trade accounts for 70% by value; over 25 000 commercial voyages are undertaken throughout Australian waters each year; this equates to more than $300 billion in trade and some 99% of Australia’s trade by weight.


The prosperity of this island nation of ours depends greatly on the extent to which it achieves excellence in hydrography.


Closer to home, port authorities are required to maintain and develop Australia’ ports and harbours to ensure the safety of shipping and to cater for larger, faster and deeper draught vessels; an extra 30 cm in a vessel’s draught can easily equate to a further 2,000 tonnes more cargo per ship. Regular hydrographic surveys are required to monitor charted depths and to ensure depth accuracy is maintained and underwater hazards identified. Port authorities therefore employ hydrographic surveyors to help maintain operations and to ensure the safe operation of maritime-based trade.


Hydrographic surveys also form an integral part of coastal zone management. Hydrographic surveyors play key roles in teams comprising planners, ecologists, civil engineers and others dedicated to the management, monitoring and protection of the coastal zone environment. Hydrographers are also well placed to provide expertise in the assessment and prediction of coastal erosion and in measuring the predicted rises in sea levels resulting from climate change.


Increasingly, hydrographic surveyors are also playing an important role in the exploration for ocean-based resources, not only oil and gas deposits, but also for various minerals, often in the world’s remotest and deepest ocean regions. Oil and gas field developments increasingly utilise the services of hydrographic surveyors in supervisory and team leader roles for operations such as the laying of pipelines, platform installation and platform placement.


Finally, military hydrography forms a key component in supporting military and agency-led humanitarian and regional disaster-relief operations. Knowing where vessels can navigate, where amphibious (or beach) landings can be conducted safely, and how military systems, weapons and sensors might be affected by prevailing maritime environmental conditions, helps enable military commanders and operational planners achieve mission objectives in the littoral and realise Government- directed tasks.

In summary, hydrography and hydrographic surveying underpins almost every activity associated with the sea and in coastal rivers and inshore waters. 


What Role Did John Gowlland Play in Advancing Hydrography in Australia, in particular the colony of NSW?


Commander Gowlland entered the Royal Navy at 15 and was a seasoned seaman within two years. Commencing his surveying career at the age of 19, his initial work centred on survey activities in the Caribbean, off the coast of South America, on the west coast of Canada and the Mediterranean.


However, John Gowlland’s hopes lay here in Australia where he was determined to enhance his standing through his work, and as an entrepreneur and business man (interestingly in the coal industry). When ‘Jack’ finally received word of his appointment to the SA survey in March 1865, his joy at the news was reflected in the following journal entry; ‘Hurrah for sunny Australia: a new world; and a new field for one’s energies.’ 


During his time on the Australian station Commander Gowlland surveyed parts of the Queensland coast that resulted in work which today, still forms the basis for many modern charts. He undertook detailed surveys of the waters around Brisbane and throughout areas of the Torres Strait. Further south, his work took him to parts of the east coast of NSW, following in the steps of other notable surveyors such as John Lort Stokes, to compile Admiralty charts of Port Stephens, the Broughton Islands, Broken Bay, Pittwater and Newcastle.


He compiled detailed fair charts of the Richmond, Clarence, Hunter and Hawkesbury Rivers and ventured south to Twofold Bay and even as far as Wollongong, Kiama, the Shoalhaven River and Jervis Bay. His surveys of key coastal rivers facilitated the agricultural and industrial expansion of the fledgling NSW colony which, at the time, relied heavily on coastal shipping and maritime trade for its survival.


John Gowlland also proved instrumental in surveying the waters of Port Jackson as a result of a Royal Commission convened to determine the present condition of the harbour. He was first to provide detailed plans for the re-development of the naval base at Garden Island; such vision also came through in his plans to dredge parts of Sydney Harbour to accommodate the safe passage of larger vessels, in particular deeper draught warships of the future. Importantly, Jack’s surveying work allowed him to author several pamphlets on the winds and currents that characterised the east coast of Australia. Such information underpinned the safe navigation of many a vessel and helped guide many a ship’s captain.   


In 1871 the vessel Governor Blackall under the command of John Gowlland, departed Sydney with a scientific expedition from Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and transited north to observe a total eclipse of the sun. This undertaking, while ultimately unsuccessful, still showcased Australia’s capacity, as a relatively new nation, in contributing to the field of scientific discovery and research.


Such were his efforts as a competent naval officer and leader of men that he received the personal thanks from the NSW Premier, Sir James Martin, while Alexander Oliver, the Parliamentary draughtsman, was inspired to compile a small book of verse which opens with the following lines:


Hail Gowlland! Man of Kent!

Our Navy’s pride,


The full poem goes on to describe in part, the confidence the NSW politicians at the time placed in John Gowlland’s survey work. There is no doubt that Commander Gowlland’s faircharts of Australia were highly regarded; a copper engraving of the Hawkesbury River, Broken Bay and Port Jackson is considered his finest work. He was described as a fine looking man of strong moral character, humorous and kind with a keen artistic perception which came through in the high standards of his cartographic work.


When his life was cut short while surveying the seemingly benign harbour of Port Jackson he was just 36 years old. In a full page obituary, the Sydney Mail observed that ‘he did not die before he had done the State some service’ while the London Times recorded that ‘the country has lost a good seaman, an accomplished navigator, and a skilled draughtsman.’







Every Australian is intimately connected to the sea: we depend on it for the fuel in the cars we drive, for much of the furniture we use and clothes we wear; we depend on it to export the ores, grains and manufactured goods Australia produces; and we depend on the sea for food and the critical and enduring role the sea plays in our environment and in this nation’s future.


The provision of specialist hydrographic expertise ensures the safety of navigation and supports a wide range of marine activities, including tourism, disaster relief efforts, defence, scientific research, and environmental protection.


Through the work of the Australian Hydrographic Office, hydrographic services continue to meet Australia’s charting responsibilities and surveying obligations, that also encompass the waters of Antarctica and which extend north to PNG. Such services are an essential public good. Importantly, this work is the ‘most fundamental of all the enablers required to develop and sustain the Blue Economy’ which is defined as the sum of all economic activity associated with the oceans, seas, harbours, ports and coastal zones.


The art of hydrography is the interpretation of the seafloor or riverbed that you can’t actually see. It is fundamental that one is able to trust the information presented to you. In this regard John Gowlland was a talented and gifted hydrographic surveyor whose services were held in the highest regards.


Hydrography is one of the world’s oldest scientific disciplines. Hydrographic surveying today, continues to build on the pioneering work of those who went before us in the early years of European settlement in Australia. John Gowlland was one such pioneer who made a significant and lasting contribution; for him … ‘no day was too long, no task too arduous.’ 


Today, ‘Jack’s’ legacy lives on in so many ways, none more so that through the Gowlland Memorial Medal.


However, in considering the service rendered by John Gowlland as representative of the contribution made by all hydrographic surveyors, past and present, perhaps the final word should go to Captain William Wharton, RN who, in 1882, published Wharton’s ‘Preliminary’ Hydrographical Surveying in which he penned these words:


‘In hydrography there is no branch of the public service where surveyors are ‘more anxious to do their duty, not only to the letter, but to the utmost of the spirit, and to such as these, no day seems long enough. To them, the interest is constantly kept up. Every day has its incidents. The accuracy of the work … when proved,… is [of] infinite gratification, and [there] is the continual satisfaction of feeling that, of all that is [accomplished], a permanent record will remain in the chart which is to guide hundreds of … fellow seamen on their way’.


Thank you.


Michael Beard

Captain, RAN     9 Nov 13