Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas, Ernest Ambrose (1886–1958)

by M. French

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Ernest Ambrose Thomas (1886-1958), farmer and managing director of a milling co-operative, was born on 20 May 1886 at Lithgow, New South Wales, ninth of ten children of David Thomas, a miner from Wales, and his English-born wife Susanna, née Frith. Educated locally, Ernie worked as a coalminer at Lithgow and in the Illawarra district before moving to Queensland about 1904. He took jobs in a foundry and a brickworks, and as a railway fettler in the Toowoomba area. In 1910 he joined his elder brothers in selecting a small property in the Hunterton district, near Roma. With his earnings from employment off the farm for part of each year, he soon bought out his brothers. On 13 September 1915 in her father's house at Roma he married Florence Ethel Salisbury with the forms of the Churches of Christ.

Acquiring additional land, Thomas consolidated his grain, wool and beef-cattle properties as the Gwenbrook Farming & Pastoral Co. He also experimented with cotton growing, and developed an interest in closer settlement and the co-operative movement. Elected to various local government and farmers' organizations, he not only helped to obtain extensions to the nearby railway but also promoted immunization against diphtheria. While chairman of the graziers' sub-committee of the Queensland Council of Agriculture, he initiated a meat stabilization scheme and was appointed to the State Meat Advisory Board. He was a member (1930-36) of the Bungil Shire Council. In 1932 he unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Maranoa for the Country and Progressive National Party.

As chairman (1932-38) of the State Wheat Board, Thomas grew frustrated by decreasing world prices, the failure of the 'grow more wheat' campaign, the 'dumping' in Queensland of cheaper wheat from New South Wales, and attempts by the Queensland government and millers to lower prices further. He and others responded to wheat-growers' protests by establishing the Queensland Co-operative Milling Association. The group acquired, through vendor finance, the Brisbane and Toowoomba mills of the Dominion Milling Co. Ltd for £541 161 and began operations in March 1938.

Prevented by legislation from holding positions simultaneously on the boards of the S.W.B. and Q.C.M.A., Thomas chose to serve (1939-54) as chairman of the latter organization. In 1947 having settled his sons on family and neighbouring properties, he moved to Toowoomba as managing director (from 1948) of the Q.C.M.A. Under his guidance, the co-operative introduced Queensland's first cereal laboratory, modernized both mills, repaid vendor finance (1945), established six regional depots, acquired produce and transport operations (1947), and set up a merchandizing department (1949). In 1952-54 it ran a facility at Gladstone to export sorghum. On 25 May 1954 Thomas resigned as chairman after a disagreement over the means of raising additional shareholder capital. He relinquished his post as managing director on 30 November that year.

Thomas was a forceful, eloquent advocate for the co-operative movement and 'the man on the land'. In 1937 he was awarded King George VI's coronation medal. He enjoyed gardening, photography and sketching caricatures of his fellow members during board-meetings. Survived by his wife, their five sons and one of their two daughters, he died on 29 December 1958 at Toowoomba and was cremated with Methodist forms.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Co-operative Milling Association, Record of Achievement (Toowoomba, Qld, 1950) and Annual Report, 1966
  • M. Rafferty, The History of Flourmilling in Queensland to 1988 (Toowoomba, Qld, 1988)
  • R. S. Marriott and G. McLean, Going with the Grain (Toowoomba, Qld, 1991)
  • Brisbane Courier, 31 May 1932
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 9 June 1932
  • Clifton Courier, 13 Sept 1932
  • Chronicle (Toowoomba), 30 Dec 1958, 3 Jan 1959
  • A History of the Thomas Family (typescript, undated, privately held).

Citation details

M. French, 'Thomas, Ernest Ambrose (1886–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-ernest-ambrose-11842/text21195, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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