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Forster, Thomas Richmond (1862–1951)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Thomas Richmond Forster (1862-1951), pastoralist and benefactor, was born on 13 January 1862 at Richmond, Melbourne, sixth child of Christopher Brooks Forster, stationmaster, from Cornwall, and his Tasmanian-born wife, Catherine, née Marzetti, and grandson of Captain G. B. Forster, R.N. He was brought up in Sydney, attending The King's School in 1875-77, and entered the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney which posted him to Armidale in 1887. On 31 January 1891 he married Kate Sarah (1864-1949), eldest daughter of Frederick Robert White, and niece of James White. Kate grew up in the large houses of her family in the Hunter valley, was educated in Sydney, travelled extensively in Britain in 1884-85 and moved in 1888 into the huge new mansion, Booloominbah, designed by Horbury Hunt on the outskirts of Armidale.

Upon the marriage F. R. White bought the 40,000-acre (16,000 ha) property, Abington, near Bundarra and settled it in trust on his daughter and son-in-law. Forster resigned from the bank and devoted himself to improving his property. In the 1890s much of it was converted to freehold, it was consolidated to 20,000 acres (8000 ha), fences were erected, a fine merino stud established from White stock, and a new house built. His meticulous diaries, letter-books and business records reveal an able and hard-working businessman, and a devoted husband and father. Much business and family life was focussed on Booloominbah, the White home; and when F. R. White died in 1903 Forster partly took over his role as leading Anglican layman and benefactor—from 1904 he was a member of the Armidale Diocesan Synod. He was determined to honour the debt he believed all Australians owed to their pioneer forebears, and wrote that Labor's Federal victory in 1910 showed that Australians would permit only 'the Aristocracy of Brains'. By the 1920s the Forster family was the largest shareholder in The Armidale School; Thomas was a member of its board and was also a founder of Cranbrook School in Sydney. Forster insisted that the wealthy landed and professional classes should be prepared to pay heavily for the privilege of a private school education.

In 1936 Forster offered to buy Booloominbah from the trustees of the White estate and give it to the University of Sydney, if it would agree to establish a university college. The large home stood in 183 acres (74 ha) and was valued at £30,000. His offer rekindled the local movement which since 1924 had been campaigning for a university for Armidale. He remained the anonymous donor for much of the hectic eighteen months it required to obtain government and university support, but was a determined and significant figure in the negotiations, working closely with the local member and minister for education, D. H. Drummond. Once classes began in February 1938 Forster became a member of the Advisory Council and at its first meeting took the lead in pledging that the council members would have 'no sectarian or political bias or interests of any kind'.

The loss of his eldest son Frederick, who won the Military Cross, in France in 1917 was a terrible blow to the close-knit family. Another son, Norman Lachlan Forster (d.1949), though crippled by infantile paralysis from boyhood, became one of Australia's leading breeders of Aberdeen Angus cattle, and was a founder and president of the Aberdeen Angus Society of Australia. Forster had a quick mind and strong opinions. Although not popular, he was respected; he never quite became a bushman and was always more comfortable in the Union or Australian clubs in Sydney. He died on 11 May 1951 at Abington and was buried in the Anglican section of Armidale cemetery. He was survived by a son and a daughter. He left £10,000 and the residue of his estate, valued for probate at £35,846, to provide scholarships at The Armidale School.

Select Bibliography

  • G. N. Griffiths, Some Northern Homes of New South Wales (Syd, 1954)
  • D. H. Drummond, A University is Born (Syd, 1959)
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Dec 1949, 16 June 1951
  • A. Harris, Abington: The History of a Station and its People (manuscript, privately held)
  • Abington papers (University of New England Archives).

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Forster, Thomas Richmond (1862–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forster-thomas-richmond-394/text10683, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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