James Blanch - Australia's First Metrologist?


By Julian Holland


Reprinted from The Australian Metrologist, No. 21, May 2000, pp. 3-4


With the beginning of a new millennium (or of the last year of the old one, if you prefer!), it is a particularly apt time to reflect on historical matters. The Metrology Society of Australia is pretty new on the scene. How far back can the practice of metrology be traced in Australia? It is a commonplace of scientific and technical history in Australia to begin with Captain Cook. Certainly Cook’s mapping of the east coast of Australia in 1770 was a great feat of precision measurement and cartography in his day - he didn’t carry any chronometers until his second Pacific voyage - but he was really just a passer by. This article concerns my candidate for Australia’s first resident metrologist - James Blanch.

The Imperial System of weights and measures was introduced into England by an Act of Parliament in 1824. This new system swept away an increasingly unsatisfactory infrastructure of measurement. The Imperial System was not immediately transferred to the colony of New South Wales - which then covered much of mainland Australia. By 1832, however, the need for reform was clear. In July the governor introduced A Bill for preventing the use of false and deficient Weights and Measures into the Legislative Council of New South Wales. This was passed on the third reading the following month. This led to the need to procure ‘Copies and Models’ of the standard weights and measures established by the Act. The Legislative Council set aside 254.10s in its forward estimates for 1833. Where were these ‘Copies and Models’ to be procured? The mathematical instrument maker and brass founder, James Blanch, was prepared to undertake the work.

James Blanch was probably born in London in 1784. If he followed the usual path for a lad going into trade he would have been apprenticed at the age of fourteen. So far his apprenticeship papers have not been traced but as he emphasised his skills as a ‘mathematical instrument maker’ - a person who made precision measuring instruments such as those used in navigation and surveying - he presumably served an apprenticeship in this trade. By the end of the eighteenth century London was the world’s leading centre of scientific instrument making - mathematical, optical and philosophical instruments, in the parlance of the time - and there were numerous pieceworkers and wholesalers in addition to the well known makers and retailers.

Blanch did not migrate to the colony to take advantage of the growing economic opportunities. Rather, he suffered the consequences of an ill judged act of petty theft! The earliest documentation turned up so far has Blanch not as an instrument maker but a ‘Custom-house Officer’ working on the London docks in January 1814. ‘Feloniously stealing’ ten yards of Russia duck, a heavy linen fabric, worth 30 shillings from the ship, Lord Harlington, lately arrived from St Petersburg, saw Blanch, then 29, and his fellow official, John Brennan, 32, appear at the Old Bailey in February. They were both found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years. The supply of involuntary passengers must have outstripped the means for sending them ‘bound for Botany Bay’ as the ship Fanny arrived in Sydney with a cargo of convicts, Blanch among them, on 18 January 1816, two days short of two years since the duck-pilfering incident.

Having served his time, Blanch gained his Ticket of Leave in February 1821 and soon began to make a contribution to the comfort and convenience of the inhabitants of Sydney, then a town still rough and ready but beginning to put down roots. Blanch set up business in Pitt Street as a mathematical and philosophical instrument maker, brass founder, brazier, plater and general worker in silver and brass. By February 1822 he had moved to ‘a more commodious and centrical situation’ at 78 George Street. ‘J.B. makes, and has always for Sale, brass and plated harness furniture, parlour and chamber candlesticks, copper tea-kettles, brass cocks of all sorts, locks and hinges of every description, scales, beams, weights and steelyards, wire fenders, hand bells, ivory and wood rules, &c.’ He also advertised ‘Sextants, Quadrants, Compasses, Telescopes, and other Nautical and Optical Instruments repaired and accurately adjusted.—Umbrellas and Parasols made and repaired; Musical instruments repaired; and every article in brass, copper, silver or ivory, made to any pattern.’ Such were the diverse means by which Blanch began to prosper. By this time Blanch was aided in his work by assigned convicts, and before 1822 was out he was seeking an apprentice. His address then was 71 George Street, and in time he also acquired the adjacent properties, nos. 69 and 70.

The range of his goods and services suggests that his skills as a mathematical instrument maker played a minor part in his business. While he could not have made a living at this alone, his skill was unique in the colony, and was on occasion valuable to the government. At the beginning of 1823 we find him being paid for the repair of compasses at the government dockyard and the following year he received 32 Spanish dollars and 50 cents for repairing mathematical instruments in the Surveyor-General’s Department.

With the passing of the Bill for preventing the use of false and deficient Weights and Measures in August 1832, a more substantial piece of precision work came to Blanch. ‘It then became a question whether the old or New English Weights and Measures Should be declared the Standard in New South Wales [Governor Bourke informed Lord Goderich in the Colonial Office in London], which question was decided by its being found upon enquiry that no Authorised Set of weights and Measures of the Old Standard could be procured; but, from the Commissariat, a standard Set of Imperial Weights and Measures, Sent out by the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, has been obtained, which, being lodged in the office of the Colonial Treasurer, are declared the Standards of New South Wales, by which all Copies and Models are to be compared and verified.’ Bourke added that a Standard Yard had been obtained from the Surveyor-General’s Office.(1)

Seven sets were required each consisting of a series of weights (1, 2, 4, and 8 drams, 1, 2, 4, and 8 ounces, 1, 2, 4, 7, 14, 28, and 56 pounds), a series of volume measures (half gill, gill, pint, quart, half gallon, gallon, peck, half bushel and bushel) and a standard yard.

Detail of Standard Yard made by James Blanch in Sydney in 1833 (private collection)

Blanch had these ready by February 1833. Then balances and scales were required for ‘making a proper comparison of weights’. The provision of these also fell to Blanch, ‘the other Iron Mongers in the Town declined furnishing the Articles no one of them being able to make the same’. A note records the result: ‘The Surveyor General reports that the Colonial Architect considers the articles to be of as good quality as can be made in the Colony & the prices reasonable’.

Sets were distributed to police offices in various regional towns - Parramatta, Windsor, Bong-Bong, Goulburn, Bathurst, Maitland - as well as one to the police office in Sydney. In the end the production of the weights and measures, and their distribution to the various towns, amounted to 323.11.6, rather more than the sum allocated, but no one seems to have complained.

The late 1830s have been described as ‘a period of dazzling but false prosperity’.(2)  Blanch shared in this, acquiring farms at Kissing Point, Brisbane Water and Illawarra in addition to the George Street properties. Blanch died on 27 October 1841 intending the various properties to provide for his wife and three children. His widow, Sarah Blanch, believed the value of his estate did not exceed fourteen thousand pounds. But in the depths of the depression of 1844 it appears that all these properties were auctioned off. Blanch’s name has long since vanished into obscurity but his foundry was taken over by Peter Nicol Russell, a name very familiar - at least to engineering graduates of the University of Sydney.(3)


This article is based on a variety of primary source materials, published and unpublished, most of which are not readily available. I have therefore omitted references for most of my source material. I have further research to undertake on Blanch and intend to produce a fuller biographical treatment in due course, with full referencing. A number of weights and measures made by Blanch are known to survive. A yard made by him in 1838 is on display in the Museum of Sydney and a large brass weight is illustrated in Caroline Simpson and others, Australian Antiques, First Fleet to Federation (Sydney, 1977), p. 134. I would be pleased to hear of any surviving weights, measures or other items made by Blanch.[JH]

1. Bourke to Goderich, Dispatch No. 110, 30 Oct. 1832, Historical Records of Australia, Series I, vol. 16 (1923), p. 782

2. Joseph Fowles, Sydney in 1848 (Sydney, 1848; facsimile 1973), p. 50

3. P.H. Russell, ‘Sir Peter Nicol Russell 1816-1905, his family and associates, pioneers of the Australian iron and engineering industry’, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal, vol. 50 (1964): 129-143


Visit the Metrology Society of Australia web site



Copyright Julian Holland, 2000-2005