Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Carmody, Thomas Joseph (1885–1961)

by L. Lomas

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

Thomas Joseph Carmody (1885-1961), onion-grower and marketer, was born on 15 June 1885 at Woodford, Victoria, twin son and eighth child of Irish-born parents Edward Carmody, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Costello, who had migrated to Victoria in 1870. Forced off their Woodford farm by the depression, in 1892 the family took to the road by wagonette, finally settling at Corunnun, near Cororooke, where large sheep- and cattle-runs on rich, volcanic soils were being subdivided for dairy-farming and potato- and onion-growing.

Although the work was laborious and demeaning, rents exorbitant, pests and diseases prevalent, and seasons capricious, the landless looked to onion-growing as the first step towards owning a farm. On leaving Cororooke State School, Thomas leased land and entered into share-farming arrangements with local landowners. He earned a reputation for his sound judgements on critical aspects of successful onion production—soils, seed and seasons—and for his diligence and skills in planting, weeding and harvesting. On 19 June 1912 at St Mary's Catholic Church, Colac, he married Margaret Goonan.

As he struggled to get established, Carmody identified with members of the Cororooke onion-growing community and began to take a lead in improving their lot by removing two of the factors that made onion-growing such a lottery—low and fluctuating prices. Looking to wartime marketing schemes for a model, in 1921 he organized a voluntary marketing pool which collapsed when a few local growers sold outside and the court judged it to be a restraint on trade.

For Carmody, the pursuit of orderly marketing was a mission, the growers' welfare became his passion, and merchant price-manipulators and black marketeers the objects of his bitter scorn. In the depressed early 1930s he stumped Victoria, urging growers to unite or face starvation. Hindered by diabetes, he was supported by his wife who travelled with him. In 1933 the Victorian Onion Corporation Ltd, based on the 'Carmody Plan', was formed, with Carmody its chairman. After E. J. Hogan, minister for agriculture and a former premier, steered the marketing of primary products bill (1935) through parliament as a framework for all marketing boards, Carmody was elected foundation chairman of the Victorian Onion Marketing Board. Despite legislative support for compulsory pooling, some growers continued to sell on the black market, particularly in times of abundance. With Carmody's support, vigilantes raided trucks carrying onions to clandestine destinations. Violence and tempers flared in the 'onion war'. It was not until 1958 that Carmody could claim that the black market had been obliterated. 'Tom Carmody's Board' was acknowledged to be the most persistent and successful marketing organization to grow out of the Depression.

Slight in build, Carmody was powerful in voice and personality. He became a legendary figure, a 'fighting fury' feared and respected in the produce trade. A staunch supporter (in the Scullin mould) of the Australian Labor Party and president of the Cororooke branch, he stood unsuccessfully for the State seat of Polwarth in 1945. His continued allegiance to the A.L.P., following the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, raised tensions with his family and neighbours. Carmody was acknowledged, even by the many enemies of orderly marketing, as a man of high principle; he was a devout Catholic who regularly went to church to pray for guidance before meetings of the board.

Known to the press as 'the onion king', Carmody retired from the board in 1960, having been defeated in the biennial election for chairman. He retired to his 60-acre (24 ha) block at Coragulac, planning to expand it to a grazier's property. Survived by his wife and six of their seven children, he died on 26 September 1961 at Colac and was buried in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Polwarth Elector, Nov 1945
  • Victorian Potato Growers' Association, Potato Grower News, 26 Sept 1958
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13, 16 Sept 1958, 22 July 1960, 27 Sept 1961
  • Colac Herald, 29 Sept 1961
  • private information.

Citation details

L. Lomas, 'Carmody, Thomas Joseph (1885–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/carmody-thomas-joseph-9692/text17107, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 December 2018.

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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