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Rofe, Thomas Ernest (1869–1945)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Thomas Ernest Rofe (1869-1945), solicitor, financier and philanthropist, was born on 15 June 1869 in Sydney, fourth son of Sydney-born parents Alfred Rofe (d.1902), leather cutter and later solicitor, and his wife Sarah, née Fulton. Educated at Cleveland Street Public and Sydney Grammar schools, Tom was articled in his father's office. Admitted as a solicitor on 17 March 1893, he became a partner in Alfred Rofe & Sons, 60 Castlereagh Street. At Redfern he married Minnie Edith Hilder on 27 December.

In October 1895 Rofe was convicted of conspiracy arising out of T. R. Butler's divorce suit and given a suspended sentence: the judge thought that he had been carried away by 'overswerving conceit and belief in his own ability'. Rofe was automatically struck off the roll of solicitors. He unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court for readmission in 1901 and 1906. Meanwhile he set up as a financial agent and invested in real estate, including building the Grand Opera House. In 1921 he established his own company, T. E. Rofe Ltd. He was a director of N.S.W. Associated Blue Metal Quarries Ltd and other companies and owned houses at Wahroonga, Canberra and Port Hacking.

Seared by his experiences, Rofe turned to religion and philanthropy to rehabilitate his character. Joining the Churches of Christ in 1910, he was State president (1923-24 and 1935) and federal president (1940); and foundation president (1933) of the New South Wales Council of Churches. He was a director of Sydney Hospital, a vice-president of Royal North Shore Hospital, president of the Anti-Tuberculosis Association and founding chairman (1933) of the Metropolitan Hospitals Contribution Fund. He gave large sums to his church and endowed beds or wards at leading Sydney hospitals: his many benefactions were listed in his entry in Who's Who in Australia. The organizations he worked for included the Australian Red Cross Society, St John Ambulance Association (officer brother of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, 1938), the Royal Society of St George, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Association for the Protection of Native Races.

In 1921 a Legislative Assembly select committee inquiring into Rofe's conviction reported him innocent. In 1924 he engaged W. A. Holman as counsel and sued Smith's Weekly for alleging that the £12,000 he had donated to hospitals and the Churches of Christ in 1921 had been given in worthless shares and that his ' “philanthropy” synchronized with another desperate attempt to get his name restored to the roll of attorneys'. He appealed to the Privy Council but in 1927 settled out of court.

A Nationalist, Rofe was a member of Hornsby Shire Council (1927-41; president, 1932), a vice-president of the Local Government Association, sometime president of the Town Planning Association and a trustee of National Park.

Hyperactive, he was a council-member of the Millions Club, president of the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney and British Empire Union, life member of the Royal Empire, Royal Australian Historical and Canberra Musical societies, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London and Royal Society of Arts, and associated with innumerable local sporting clubs and musical societies. He gave an annual prize for a history essay, endowed a violin scholarship and presented an aeroplane for an attempted record flight to London.

On 15 June 1933 Rofe was unconditionally readmitted to the roll of solicitors and admitted to the Bar on 18 May 1939. Awarded King George V's jubilee and King George VI's coronation medals, 'he was always an outstanding personality, his leonine head surmounted with a wealth of snowy white hair'. A teetotaller, he claimed to live by the precept: 'As I go through the World I strive to do well, for I will not pass this way again'.

Survived by his wife and two daughters of his four children, Rofe died at his Wahroonga home on 16 May 1945 and was cremated. He left the residue of his estate, valued for probate at £90,915, in trust to benefit the Churches of Christ and other worthy causes.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader (Syd, 1940)
  • Notable Citizens of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1921, p 1513
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1, 1923, p 13
  • Millions Magazine, 8 Mar 1932, p 7
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22-25 Oct 1895, 20, 22 Dec 1921, 10 May, 30 Nov 1922, 5 Apr, 4 June 1923, 25 June, 2 July, 20 Aug, 26 Sept 1924, 18 Aug 1927, 16 Oct 1928, 21 Dec 1932, 3, 9-11 May, 16 June 1933, 20, 25 Apr 1935, 1 Feb, 22 Nov 1938, 21 Feb, 18 Mar, 19 May, 26, 27 July 1939, 17 May, 18 Aug 1945
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 27 Oct 1923, 20 Dec 1924.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Rofe, Thomas Ernest (1869–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rofe-thomas-ernest-8254/text14455, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 2 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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