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Baker, Thomas (1840–1923)

by L. Lomas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Thomas Baker (1840-1923), farmer, was born in Ireland, eldest son of Edmond Baker and his wife Bridget, née Macnamara, farmers near Ennis, County Clare. Prompted by the potato famine, in 1851 the family took an assisted passage in the Lady Elgin to South Australia; on learning of the discovery of gold, they disembarked in March 1852 at Melbourne where employment was immediately offered by J. G. Ware of Camperdown. In October 1854 Edmond died after a fall from a horse. In 1857 his elder boys took employment with a government surveyor who appointed young Thomas foreman of a surveying party. He had had little schooling, and now read J. S. Mill, the speeches of Bright and Gladstone, and any books procurable. Biddy Baker taught her family to follow the Catholic faith, to avoid gambling, racing and bad language, and to practise thrift. After leasing a farm from J. and P. Manifold, the family selected land at Glenormiston under the 1865 Land Act, and prospered. In 1882, soon after his marriage on 15 February to Rosanna Despard, daughter of the Mortlake shire president, Thomas left the family partnership and leased land on the shores of Lake Colac.

At home among Colac's lakes and soft green hills, Baker saw the agricultural potential of the fertile soil on the pastoral runs. In 1885 he bought land on Cororooke, one of the four estates of Robertson Bros and, by inducing an onion-grower from the Bellarine Peninsula to sow a trial crop, proved that Colac land was as productive as the best in the colony. In 1887 he formed a syndicate to subdivide Dr D. E. Stodart's Corunnun estate on Lake Corangamite near Colac. From December 1888 Corunnun was offered for sale and lease in small lots, until the primitive sheep-walk employing four hands became a prolific onion and potato-growing area supporting 4000 tenants and workmen. Usually attired in gentleman's top hat and tails, the tall and strongly built Baker, with full grey beard cut short, became a familiar sight as he cut the huge paddocks into small holdings. The response from the Warrnambool district was remarkable; men from Killarney, Crossley and Koroit, most of them Irish Catholics, 'good fellows and good farmers', set the cultural and social pattern of the district. In 1892 Baker canvassed to form the Colac Dairying Co., which gave another thrust to local development.

From his Corunnun homestead Baker now worked to improve community life. For twenty-eight years he was a zealous councillor of Colac Shire and president in 1895-96. In 1894 he defeated the entrenched squatter, C. L Forrest, for the Legislative Assembly seat of Polwarth; closer settlement, decentralization, and their handmaiden, transport, were his chief interests. Partly due to the over-enthusiastic support of his co-Religionists, his parliamentary life lasted only one term, to September 1897. Between 1890 and 1920 he supported the local farmers' association, the People's Party and the Victorian Farmers' Union. His logical presentation of the case for railways connecting surrounding districts with Colac had notable results between 1889 and 1922. Although in time he became better known as a stock, land and general commission agent based in Colac than as a farmer, he never deserted the cause of the onion and potato men. Always aware that growing root crops was one of the few ways for a working man to become a landowner, he originated export schemes and promoted plans for co-operative marketing; in 1910 Cororooke was the largest onion-growing centre in Australia. Shrewd and strong-willed, though speaking quietly and courteously with a marked brogue, he guided many rowdy meetings of angry onion-growers towards constructive action.

The respected patriarch of an industry, Baker died on 29 December 1923 at Coragulac House, aged 83, and was buried in the Camperdown cemetery. He was predeceased by his wife and was survived by five sons and two daughters; he left an estate valued for probate at £27,365.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 2 (Melb, 1904)
  • Table Talk, 26 July 1895
  • Colac Herald, 29 Jan 1917, 31 Dec 1923
  • Colac Reformer, 6 Dec 1919
  • Farmers Advocate (Melbourne), 22 July 1920
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 Dec 1923
  • M. G. Finlayson, Victorian Politics 1889-94 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964)
  • Mackinnon papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

L. Lomas, 'Baker, Thomas (1840–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-thomas-5109/text8535, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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