Born in London in 1801, Felton Mathew moved to New South Wales in 1829 to take up an appointment as assistant surveyor of roads and bridges in Sydney. He was promoted to town surveyor in 1835 and probably looked forward a career of steady advancement in Australia, but in the first of a series of professional disappointments his office was abolished in 1839. Reluctantly accepting the post of acting surveyor general in New Zealand, he embarked from Sydney on January 18, 1840, with the British Consul, Captain William Hobson, aboard the HMS Herald. He was present at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on February 6. ‘The speeches occupied about six hours,’ he recorded in his diary, ‘and the whole scene was one that I would not have lost for the world, and which I shall never forget. The manner of the chiefs is exceedingly noble and dignified; their mode of speaking bold, emphatic and accompanied with much vehement, but always expressive and generally graceful action …’
In April and May 1840 Mathew explored the coastline from Whangarei to the Firth of Thames, looking for a suitable site for the capital of the newly established British colony. He recommended the isthmus between the Waitemata and the Manukau Harbours, but Hobson overruled his suggestion that the city of Auckland should be founded on the banks of the Panmure Basin under Mount Wellington.
Mathew settled in Auckland with his able wife, Sarah (his companion on many of his field trips), in September 1840 and began exploring the district in depth. Having expected to be granted a permanent position, he was devastated when Charles Ligar replaced him as surveyor-general in November 1841. The Mathews decided to return to England in September 1847, but Felton's health by this time was poor. He died at Lima, Peru, midway though the voyage home.
The first official survey of Auckland, Mathew's field book contains many pencil sketches and trigonometric measurements made from the region's volcanic cones. It was donated to the Library by the Vaile family in 1947. A note by Samuel Vaile (1828-1913), attached to the front cover, reads: ‘This is the original book of the first Surveyor-General of NZ, Mr Felton Mathew. It was given by him to the late John Peter du Moulin and by him given to me when he left Auckland for England in [date left blank, but it would have been the late 1880s].’