George Frederic Allen was born in London in 1837, the son of Maria and George Allen, who was a noted architect.

After training as an architect and surveyor, George somehow secured a job as an engineer for the Great Barrier Kauri Timber and Copper Mining Company in New Zealand, arriving in July 1860.

The company went broke, so he got a job teaching at the Church of England Grammar School in Auckland.

Allen then started up an architecture and surveying practice with James Barnard.


William Fox, a future premier of New Zealand, appointed them as district surveyors for the Wellington Province. Allen was moved to the Whanganui area in 1862. Not long after, when the New Zealand Wars intensified in this region, surveying became too dangerous to practise in isolated areas. Allen became a teacher again, opening a private school. He was also an active militiaman and was present at the relief of Pipiriki, where a force of 200 Taranaki Military Settlers and Patea Rangers had built redoubts and were subsequently trapped by Maori from the upper river.

Allen had continued to design houses and other buildings during the war years; he was the designer, for instance, of the noted Trenton House, Oneida, for J.A.H Burnett and of St Stephen's Church in Marton. By 1869, however, he was able to return to surveying. He surveyed in the Waitotara Valley and on the Whanganui River. His work on the upper Whanganui River took him into the mountains and he climbed Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, revelling in the grandeur of the area. He was an accomplished watercolourist, like many other surveyors, such as Whanganui man John Tiffin Stewart. When finding themselves at a loose end at the end of a long day's work in the bush or the high country, they would sit down and sketch.

Allen built a summer camp and coaching stop between Waiouru and Taupo on the Waihohonu Stream. From there, he took guided tours into his beloved mountains. His writings were published in 1894 in Willis' Guide Book of New Routes for Tourists, promoting the trip from Auckland to Whanganui through the mountains and down the Whanganui River.

In the 1890s he also painted the mountains in a series of literal, measured, panoramic watercolours, all precisely annotated as to time, date, distance and landscape identification. These were donated to the Wanganui Public Museum in 1930.

Libby Sharpe is senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum