Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Thompson, John Joseph (1907–1968)

by Peter Kirkpatrick

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

John Joseph Meagher Thompson (1907-1968), poet and broadcaster, was born on 20 December 1907 at Kew, Melbourne, elder son of Victorian-born parents John Grattan Thompson, dentist, and his wife Nora Catherine, née Meagher. Young John was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1929). In 1931 his grandfather paid his fare to London where, on an allowance of £2 a week, he endeavoured to make a name as a poet and novelist. Although he was unable to sell any of his novels, he published a collection of romantic lyrics, Three Dawns Ago (1935). After some time on a farm at Affpuddle, Dorset, he returned to London in 1937 and met Patricia Drakeford Cole; they were married at the register office, Westminster, on 4 June 1938. The couple moved in leftist circles—Patricia worked at Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club—and John supplemented his allowance by work as a film extra and photographic model.  

With war looming, the Thompsons travelled to Perth early in 1939. John was employed as an announcer with the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He and Patricia joined the Communist Party of Australia: John later described Marxism as 'probably the last Christian heresy'. Sesame and Other Poems (Sydney, 1944) marked a shift from his earlier verse and included some political and Australian themes. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 12 December 1942, Thompson qualified as a radio mechanic and performed educational duties in Australia before being discharged from the army on 2 August 1945 to work as an A.B.C. war correspondent. He reported the Japanese surrender at Rabaul and wrote an account of the Indonesian struggle for independence, Hubbub in Java (Sydney, 1946).

Thompson settled in Sydney, and became senior feature writer and producer at the A.B.C. In 1946 he devised the popular literary programme, 'Quality Street', and in 1949 accompanied A. P. Elkin on an anthropological expedition to Arnhem Land. He spent six months in London in 1951, working under Laurence Gilliam at the British Broadcasting Corporation. Over the years, Thompson wrote, produced and narrated many radio documentaries, mostly on literary and historical subjects. He also reported on his travels in Australia, South Africa, India, and the Pacific islands. In 1961 he ran a course on broadcasting at Radio Malaya. He edited selections of his radio portraits of famous Australians, On Lips of Living Men (Melbourne, 1962) and Five to Remember (1965). His Bill Harney's War (1983) was published posthumously.

Tall, fair, blue-eyed and handsome, Thompson was a generous, self-effacing man who spoke with the patrician tones then favoured by the A.B.C. His career in radio overshadowed his poetry—which his wife called 'the guiding spirit of his entire life'—and he regretted not writing more. Largely traditional in form and characterized by reasoned clarity, Thompson's best work was shaped by his experience with the spoken word. His third collection, Thirty Poems (Sydney, 1954), won the Grace Leven prize. He collected many of his poems in I Hate and I Love (Melbourne, 1964). With Kenneth Slessor and R. G. Howarth, he edited The Penguin Book of Australian Verse (London, 1958). Assistant-editor (1959-61) of Southerly, he also edited Australian Poetry 1965 (Sydney).

In 1964 the Thompsons founded the Paddington Society to protect the Victorian character of the suburb in which they had lived since 1951. John was its president. Early in 1968 he retired from the A.B.C. Following an operation for a duodenal ulcer, he died on 19 July that year at St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated; his wife, and their son and adopted son survived him. A small fountain opposite Paddington Town Hall commemorates him. Colin Colahan's portrait of Thompson is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • P. Thompson, Accidental Chords (Melb, 1988)
  • D. Foster (ed), Self Portraits (Canb, 1991)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 28, 1969, p 132
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 1955, 9 Aug 1964, 20 July 1968, 28 June 1977
  • Thompson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Kirkpatrick, 'Thompson, John Joseph (1907–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thompson-john-joseph-11849/text21209, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014