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Thompson, George Thomas (1895–1987)

by Donald S. Garden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

George Thomas Thompson (1895-1987), surveyor and conservationist, was born on 15 December 1895 at Ascot Vale, Melbourne, only surviving child of Victorian-born parents Henry Thompson, railway employee, and his wife Christina, née Powles.  George attended Melbourne High School (1911-13) and afterwards trained as a surveyor.  On 18 February 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a gunner.  Joining the 8th Field Artillery Brigade on the Western Front in December, he was wounded in action in September 1917 and invalided to England.  Having returned to France in October 1918, he was repatriated in July 1919 and discharged on 2 October.

Thompson then joined the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission in Victoria as surveyor-in-charge of the Red Cliffs soldier-settlement project (1921-23).  On 31 July 1923 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Surrey Hills, Melbourne, he married Winifred Tyrrell Gill, a chemist.  Thompson subsequently spent more than a decade surveying rivers throughout Victoria for the commission.  He observed that land clearing, poor agricultural practices, gold-mining and intervention in rivers had badly damaged soils in many regions, leaving them open to erosion, and had silted and degraded water systems.  Accordingly, conservation and remedial work became the main focus of his professional life.

As executive engineer, rivers and streams branch (1935-46), Thompson investigated erosion and flooding throughout Victoria.  He was responsible for inspections and recommendations for river-improvement works financed under the River and Streams Fund.  In the 1930s the government of (Sir) Albert Dunstan ignored increasing concern about erosion, especially in the Mallee.  As a councillor (1935-41) of the Victorian Institute of Surveyors, Thompson presented a paper in 1939 on ‘The Surveyor’s Part in Combating Erosion’.  The paper stimulated a symposium on soil erosion attended by representatives from government departments and professional groups.  Lobbying and submissions by members of the symposium, including Thompson, finally led to the Soil Conservation Act, 1940.  Thompson was appointed to the new Soil Conservation Board, as a part-time member and deputy chairman (1943-46), and then as full-time executive officer (1947-50).  In 1950 he became chairman of the newly established Soil Conservation Authority, holding the position until he retired in 1961.

In a semi-private capacity, Thompson had become one of the key figures working in the 1940s for the ‘Save the Forests Campaign’, which in 1951 became the Natural Resources Conservation League of Victoria.  He served two terms as president (1953-54, 1972-73).  Following retirement, he was the league’s director (1962-72).  Thompson was also a convenor and briefly chairman of the Save our Bushlands Action Committee, which successfully opposed government plans to subdivide the Little Desert in western Victoria into farms.  Following this campaign, he played a major role in the establishment of the Conservation Council of Victoria in 1969.  He was appointed OBE (1965).

Still active in his eighties, Thompson published A Brief History of Soil Conservation in Victoria (1979), which charted the history and processes of soil and stream damage in Victoria, and the campaigns and administrative efforts to deal with them.  Predeceased (1971) by his wife and survived by their daughter and son, he died on 10 October 1987 at Camberwell and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Powell, Watering the Garden State, 1989
  • L. Robin, Building a Forest Conscience, 1991
  • L. Robin, Defending the Little Desert, 1998
  • Victoria’s Resources, vol 14, 1972, p 27
  • B2455, item THOMPSON G T (National Archives of Australia)

Citation details

Donald S. Garden, 'Thompson, George Thomas (1895–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thompson-george-thomas-14865/text26054, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 March 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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