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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Armstrong, Thomas (Tom) (1885–1955)

by David Pope

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Thomas (Tom) Armstrong (1885-1955), businessman and politician, was born on 26 December 1885 at Binchester, Durham, England, son of Thomas Armstrong, cabinetmaker, and his illiterate wife Margaret, née Watson. The family migrated next year to New South Wales and settled in the Newcastle district. Tom was educated with his brother and five sisters at Wickham Superior Public School, from which he joined J. & A. Brown, colliers and ship-owners, as a clerk. On 2 December 1908 at Tighes Hill Methodist Church he married Anice Mary Pepper (d.1948); they were to have three children.

While Armstrong worked his way up, the firm expanded considerably under the direction of John Brown: it acquired several high-producing mines at south Maitland and integrated operations through its railways, tugboat fleet and engineering works. Armstrong was a member (1914) of the Institute of Incorporated Accountants of New South Wales and an associate (1930) of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants. He had become general manager of J. & A. Brown by 1929. When John Brown died childless in 1930, he stipulated in his will that Armstrong should continue as general manager and left to him and to Sir Adrian Knox the residue of his £640,380 estate: Armstrong received an additional legacy of £10,000 and an annual fee of £1,000 as executor; he also seemed to inherit Brown's antagonism to trade unions.

From 1931 Armstrong was a director of the new company, J. and A. Brown & Abermain Seaham Collieries Ltd (chairman 1937-54). He was, as well, chairman of South Maitland Railways Pty Ltd and of Intercolonial Investment, Land & Building Co. Ltd, a director of Hexham Engineering Pty Ltd, president of the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce (1936-43) and chairman of the Northern Colliery Proprietors' Association. Having been active in politics for many years, Armstrong was elected in 1935 to the Legislative Council and remained a member until his death; he became northern president of the United Australia Party and later held positions in the Liberal Party. He contributed to debates on the coal industry and, as chairman of the New South Wales Combined Colliery Proprietors' committee, was appointed by Prime Minister Curtin to the Commonwealth Coal Commission. In 1945 Armstrong sat on the Commonwealth commission into the coal-mining industry; predictably, he criticized striking miners.

Despite his business and political life, Armstrong found time for civic and charitable duties. He was an alderman and mayor of Wickham, a leader and lay preacher in his local Methodist Church, deputy chairman of the State government's Housing Improvement Board, founder and president of the Newcastle branch of the Young Men's Christian Association, and vice-president of Toc H and of the Newcastle and District Association for Crippled Children. A Freemason, he was president of the Rotary Club of Newcastle and a governor of Rotary International. Bald and cigar-smoking, he belonged to the Newcastle, New South Wales and Newcastle City Bowling clubs.

Having suffered for nine years from Parkinson's disease and arteriosclerosis, Armstrong died of cerebrovascular disease on 13 June 1955 at his Newcastle home and was cremated. He was survived by his son and a daughter. His estate was sworn for probate at £175,285; he bequeathed £1000 to each of five local organizations.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 24 Aug 1955, p 11
  • Australian Coal, Shipping, Steel and the Harbour, 1 July 1955, p 49
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Apr 1930, 27 Feb 1934, 29 May 1937, 14 Feb, 24 May, 26 Nov, 13 Dec 1941, 7, 10 Jan, 28 Oct 1942, 28 Oct 1943, 9 Jan 1945, 14 June 1955
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 1, 4 Apr 1930, 4 Jan 1950, 14 June 1955.

Citation details

David Pope, 'Armstrong, Thomas (Tom) (1885–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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