Thomas Brunner (1821–74)


Surveyor and Explorer 

Thomas Brunner was a young, upper middle-class Englishman working for an Oxford architect and surveyor, but he came from a family of colonists and had adventure in his blood. He was employed as an assistant surveyor by the New Zealand Company and soon after arrival in Nelson in 1842, he was surveying the Motueka and Riwaka districts with Samuel Stephens.

Thomas BrunnerThomas Brunner Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection 67854/3
Click image to enlarge

The shortage of good rural land for settlers (and paid work opportunities) inspired Brunner to undertake three journeys between 1846 and 1848. With fellow explorer Charles Heaphy, and Brunner's indispensable guide Kehu  (Ngati Tumatakokiri), he set off in February 1846, following the Buller River to its junction with the Matakitaki and returning to Nelson via the Hope Saddle.

In March, they set off again on an arduous five month trek from Pakawau to Arahura (north of Hokitika), where they saw coal en route and noted about 2000 acres of suitable farming land south of the Whanganui Inlet .

Brunner and Heaphy would have been lost without the guidance and devotion of Kehu, who had a prodigious ability to live off the land. They lived by Kehu's hunting and gathering and the kindness and hospitality of Maori they encountered en route. Brunner remained lifelong friends with Kehu, who lived in his house for several years.
After his two journeys with Charles Heaphy and guide Kehu yielded little suitable agricultural land, Thomas Brunner set out to explore the middle of the South Island and to try and cross the Alps to Canterbury.

Leaving Nelson on 3 December 1846, he was away for 18 months on an epic journey which took him down the West Coast as far as the Paringa River near Haast. It was to test his endurance and stoicism.

Brunner and Kehu traveled the Maori way: light and building shelters as they went. While it was hard going, this gave Brunner unparalleled opportunities to experience Maori life at firsthand. He wrote of West Coast Maori: "They are quiet, and do no harm, and ought to have some share of the attention that is paid to the natives who are amongst the white populations." Brunner suggested axes, tools, nails and goats might be useful to these people who had shown him great kindness.

In March 1851, Brunner was appointed Government surveyor and also worked privately as an architect and surveyor. His work included: a street plan for Picton, plans for a suspension bridge over the Maitai River and additions to many houses and churches.

Mrs BrunnerMrs Brunner, The Nelson Provincial Museum, 291979_14Click image to enlarge

By 1854, Brunner was chief surveyor and returning officer for the province and earning £300/annum. He was one of the most eligible bachelors in Nelson and married Jane Robson in 1855.

The hardship and starvation Brunner endured permanently affected his health but,  in spite of failing health, Brunner held many positions. He was a consulting surveyor to the Government, a member of the Nelson College Council of Governors and a churchwarden at Christchurch Cathedral.

Brunner was considered to be very fair in his approach to legal and survey disputes by local Maori - many attended his funeral. Jane returned to England several years after Brunner's death.


This article is paraphrased from a series of columns written by Joy Stephens and published in the Nelson Mail in 2007.

 Note - Brunners's  home still stands at the end of Erin Street in Nelson.

 Updated: April 08, 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Heaphy, C. (1846) Notes of an Expedition to Kawatiri and Araura, on the Western Coast of the Middle Island, performed by Messrs Heaphy and Brunner. In Nelson Examiner; instalments from 5.9.1846 to 17.10.1846.
  • Host, E. (2006). Thomas Brunner: his life and great journeys. Nelson, N.Z.: Nikau Press
  • Lash, M. (1992) Nelson Notables Nelson, NZ : Nelson Historical Society 

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  • Where did Thomas Brunner come from (where was he born). Where can a person could more information?
    Ed - Thomas Brunner was born in 1821 in Birmingham, England. He was brought up in Oxford, England. His parents came from adventurous backgrounds of immigration and emigration. His father was William Brunner an Oxford lawyer and coroner. His mother Elizabeth Ann was a British subject born in Berbice (now New Amsterdam), British Guiana. A good source is the book Thomas Brunner: his life and great journeys by Emily Host (see the reference list).

    Posted by Eileen Brunner, ()

  • would like to know more about wife, Jane Robson Birth, Death etc family. I am linked to Brunner family. We have replied to Sue about this. Ed.

    Posted by sue, ()

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Further sources - Thomas Brunner (1821–74)



  • Baskett, P. (1992, December 9). A memory for survival. New Zealand Herald; s.2, 7.
  • Brunner's great journey (1971) New Zealand's Heritage: the making of a nation, v.2. Sydney: Paul Hamlyn, pp. 510-514
  • Mackie, J. B.(1999). Early surveying and surveyors in the Nelson region. New Zealand Map Society Journal (12), 4-13.


  • Print of original painting of  'Brookside', Brunner's Nelson home in Alton Street,  hangs in the Elma Turner Library (Nelson), Research Room
  • more on Brookside:
    Heritage New Zealand listing:
    Petherham, J. (1997, May 8) House, garden steeped in history. Nelson Mail, p. 13

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