Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tait, Sir Thomas James (1864–1940)

by Susan Johnston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Sir Thomas James Tait (1864-1940), railway commissioner, was born on 24 July 1864 at Melbourne, Quebec, Canada, son of (Sir) Melbourne McTaggart Tait, advocate and later chief justice of the Superior Court, Montreal, and his wife Monica Blanche Louisa, née Holmes. Educated at Montreal High School and McGill University, Thomas entered the service of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1880. Between 1882 and 1886 he was private secretary to Sir William Van Horne and subsequently filled a variety of administrative positions with the Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific railway companies. On 10 December 1890 Tait married Emily St Aubert Cockburn. His railway career continued to prosper and by 1903 he was manager of transportation with Canadian Pacific.

In March 1903 the premier of Victoria, (Sir) William Irvine, announced that Tait had been appointed chairman of commissioners of the Victorian Railways with a salary of £3000 per annum. W. F. Fitzpatrick and C. Hudson were appointed additional commissioners on £1500 per annum. Tait's appointment occurred against the background of continued efforts by the State government to reduce public expenditure following the 1890s depression and was followed by an engine drivers' strike in May 1903. A major feature of the Tait years was the investigation by C. H. Merz into the electrification of Melbourne's suburban railways. In 1908 Merz submitted a plan for the electrification of 124 miles (200 km) of track, a scheme which was estimated to cost £2,227,000 and to take four years to complete. Believing that Merz's proposal was premature, Tait opposed electrification, arguing that money would be better spent on the further development of the State's resources.

Heavily built (13 stone, 83 kg) and frequently flourishing a thick cigar, Tait was a strong man who spoke his mind and brooked no interference. He looked upon the railways 'as a great public trust which he was commissioned to administer on sound lines'. His resignation in 1910 caused 'surprise and regret' among those who appreciated his work. During seven years in Victoria he had turned a 'ruinous' annual deficit into a profit, improved and increased the railways' rolling stock, and—as an economy measure—reduced the frequency of trains. Knighted in 1911, he left Victoria with his wife and daughter amid expressions of appreciation and goodwill. Electrification work began in 1913, but was interrupted by World War I: the red carriages of Melbourne's new electric trains were known as 'Tait cars'.

Appointed director-general of national service for Canada in 1916, Tait resigned from this post within a few weeks of accepting it and retired to private life. He died at his summer home at St Andrews, New Brunswick, on 25 July 1940.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Harrigan, Victorian Railways to '62 (Melb, nd, 1962?)
  • J. Iremonger et al (eds), Strikes (Syd, 1973)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 14 May 1908
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Nov, 1 Dec 1910
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 14 Jan 1911
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Nov 1940.

Citation details

Susan Johnston, 'Tait, Sir Thomas James (1864–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tait-sir-thomas-james-8740/text15305, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 31 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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