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Charles Edward Douglas



 Charles Edward DouglasCharles (Charlie) Edward Douglas (1 July 1840 – 23 May 1916) came to be known as Mr. Explorer Douglas due to his extensive explorations of the West Coast Region of New Zealand and his work for the New Zealand Survey Department. Charlie Douglas was awarded the Royal Geographical Society Gill Memorial Prize in 1897.

Charles Edward Douglas was born 1 July 1840, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the youngest of six children, to parents Martha Brook and James Douglas. His father was an accountant with the Commercial Bank of Scotland. Charlie Douglas was educated at the Royal High School (Edinburgh) and worked at the accountant's office of the Commercial Bank of Scotland from 1857 to 1862. He emigrated to New Zealand, arriving in Port Chalmers in 1862.

For five years, Charlie Douglas worked at a variety of jobs, including working on a sheep run, and gold digging. He moved to Okarito, Westland in 1867.

For 40 years Charlie Douglas explored and surveyed the West Coast Region of New Zealand. He was described as heavily bearded and with a slight frame, standing about 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) in height. He was accompanied throughout his years of exploration by a dog, first "Topsy", then "Betsey Jane" and others.

When exploring Charlie carried little in the way of equipment beyond some basic provisions, including tobacco for his beloved pipe, and a swag. He camped beneath his two piece "batwing" tent of canvas or calico or crude rock shelters. He supplemented his food stocks by hunting native birds and living off the land. Although Charlie lived simply he supported himself by occasional work, supplemented by some infrequent provisions sent by his family in Scotland, who also supplied him with some of the books that he read avidly. He worked for a part-time wage from the survey department for 20 years before becoming a full-time employee from 1889.

Charlie Douglas was a quiet, shy man, who was noted for his keen, accurate and entertaining observations relating to flora, fauna (particularly birds) and geology in his journals, sketches, watercolours and survey reports. Later in his life he grew increasingly intolerant of tourists who were, unwilling or unable, to the endure the hardships he experienced. Charlie condemned the changes to the natural landscape he saw occurring in Westland and he became increasingly embittered as old age and illness began to curtail his later explorations. When he was not exploring he was known to be a heavy drinker.

Between 1868 and 1888 both Gerhard Mueller and George John Roberts attempted to employ Charlie Douglas full-time at the survey department, but he instead sent in voluntary reports and maps of the rugged Westland valleys that he tramped and explored and earned a part-time wage while exploring for the department.

In 1868 Douglas accompanied Julius Haast on a month long expedition traveling down the west coast, making stops and exploring at: Okarito, Bruce Bay, Paringa and Arnott's Point before returning to Okarito. It is probable that Charlie learned something of Geology from Haast at this time because he used Haast's terminology in his later geological notes.

During 1874 Charlie Douglas met George Roberts and formed a friendship that was to lead to his growing involvement with the New Zealand Survey Department. Also in 1874, Douglas formed a partnership with Bob Ward and the two men bought 700 acres (280 ha) of land on the Paringa River and began cattle farming. The pair also operated a ferry service across the Paringa. Charlie Douglas gave up cattle farming after his partner, Ward, drowned. After his time as a cattle farmer, Charlie abandoned a settled life and began to tramp and explore Westland, picking up odd-jobs as he needed them.

From a base in Jackson Bay starting in the 1870s Douglas continued to explore the: Paringa River (1874-1877), Haast River (1880) and Landsborough River, Blue River (1881), Turnbull River (1882), Okuru River (1882) and associated passes the Actor and Maori (1883), Cascade River with Mueller (1883) and Arawhata River (1883), travelling with Mueller and Roberts on the "Reconnaissance Survey" from Jacksons Bay to Martin's Bay (1884).

In 1885 Douglas accompanied the chief surveyor, Gerhard Mueller, exploring the Arawhata River valley. Together, they traced one tributary of the Arawhata, the Williamson river to the Andy Glacier. The other branch, the Waipara River they traced to the Bonar glacier on the west slope of Mount Aspiring. During this journey they accomplished the summiting of Mount Ionia 7,390 foot (2,250 m).

In 1886 Douglas and G. T. Murray made a survey trip to the Northern Olivines.

During 1887, Douglas and Mueller made a "Reconnaissance Survey" of the Clarke River and the Landsborough River.

In 1887 and later in 1888, Charlie Douglas visited the Balfour Glacier near Mount Tasman and the Fox Glacier.

Charlie Douglas, claims in his monograph on the birds of South Westland (c. 1899) that he shot and ate two raptors of immense size on the Haast River valley or Landsborough River (possibly during the late 1870s or 1880s):
"The expanse of wing of this bird will scarcely be believed. I shot two on the Haast, one was 8 feet 4 inches (2.54 m) from tip to tip, the other was 6 feet 9 inches (2.06 m), but with all their expanse of wing they have very little lifting power, as a large hawk can only lift a duck for a few feet, so no one need get up any of those legends about birds carrying babies out of cradles, as the eagle is accussed [sic] of doing."
In light of Douglas' generally trustworthy, detailed observations and measurements as a surveyor, it has been hypothesized by paleozoologist, Trevor H. Worthy, that the dead birds may have represented a biological relict or remnant of the otherwise extinct Haast's Eagle.

Charles Edward Douglas (left), Arthur Paul Harper, and Douglas' dog Betsey Jane in the valley of the Cook RiverCharles Edward Douglas (left), Arthur Paul Harper, and Douglas' dog Betsey Jane in the valley of the Cook River in 1894.  From 1889 Charlie Douglas agreed to work for the survey department full-time for a wage of eight shillings a day. He was provided with: a prismatic compass, a survey chain and other drawing tools.  For five months, in 1891 Douglas traveled up the Waiatoto River. He climbed Mount Ragan and reached the Therma Glacier at the head of the Waiatoto.

During 1892 Charlie Douglas made an important expedition up the Copland River. It was during the Copland trip that Charlie experienced the first real illness of his 52 years. Later in the year he explored the Whitcombe River.

Between 1893 and 1895, Charlie Douglas was teamed with Arthur Paul Harper and the two first explored the Wanganui River in a dug-out canoe. They then explored the Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier and in 1894 the area of the Cook River. It was in 1894 that rheumatism first began to force Charlie to curtail some of his exploration.

In 1896 Charlie returned to the Whitcombe river valley and crossed the Whitcombe Pass to the upper Rakaia.

In 1897 Charlie continued track work in the Whitcombe river. It was also in this year that he was awarded Royal Geographical Society Gill Memorial Prize. He spent the prize money on a camera that he ended up giving away.

From 1898 through to 1899 Charlie worked on hut making and track cutting around the glaciers and along the Whitcombe river valley.

In 1900 Charlie Douglas made his last major expedition along the Wanganui River that included an trip to the Lord Range.

In 1901 Charlie explored the Otira River and from 1903 he explored the Okarito district. He increasingly suffered from from ill health.

From 1904 to 1906 Charlie continued to explore and survey for the department but was increasingly restricted by illness and old age. In 1906 while on holiday in Wataroa, Charlie met and was photographed with Richard Seddon, shortly before Seddon's death. Later in 1906 Charlie suffered his first stroke. Charlie continued to explore for the department in 1907 and 1908 but his second stroke forced him to retire from the New Zealand Survey Department after 40 years of almost continual exploration of the West Coast Region.

memorial stoneCharlie spend much of his time from 1906 until 1916 being looked after by friends and the widow of his cattle ranching partner, Mrs. Ward. He was also in and out of hospital in 1911, 1914 and 1916. Charlie Douglas died, two months short of his 76th birthday, of a Cerebral hemorrhage in the Westland Hospital on 23 May 1916.

Known works

The following works by Charlie Douglas were published, exhibited or are held and collected:
Contributed to the Appendix to the Journal of the House of Representatives
Exhibited an oil painting at the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (1889)
Journals and sketchbook are held at the Alexander Turnbull Library
Watercolours and washes are held at the Hocken Library
Sketches are held at the Westland Museum, Hokitika.


Charlie Douglas was awarded the 1897 Royal Geographical Society Gill Memorial Prize for, "persistent explorations during twenty-one years of the difficult region of forests and gorges on the western slopes of the New Zealand Alps".


The following New Zealand landmarks are named after Charlie Douglas:
Mount Douglas at the head of Fox Glacier
Douglas pass through the Hooker range
Douglas River
Douglas Névé and Glacier west of Mount Sefton.


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Sources for this article include:

•  Langton, Graham. "Douglas, Charles Edward". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage.


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