Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thompson, William Bethel (1906–1945)

by Graham Howard

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

William Bethel Thompson (1906-1945), racing motorist, was born on 28 December 1906 at Summer Hill, Sydney, second child of William Ernest Thompson, customs clerk, and his wife Gladys Macdonald, née Bethel, both native-born. On completing his education at Sydney Grammar School in 1923, William worked in the motor trade. He married Jean Mavis Anderson at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 26 September 1929.

Of moderate means, he was helped by Arthur Burkitt, professor of anatomy at the University of Sydney, who owned several of the cars that Thompson raced. He retired from his first Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island, Victoria, in 1929, but won the 1930 race in a new, supercharged Type 37A Bugatti owned by Burkitt who travelled as riding mechanic. Starting from scratch, Thompson won again in the same car in 1932 and won for a third time in a Brooklands Riley in 1933. He finished second (by 14 seconds) driving a supercharged MG Magnette in 1934 and was again second (by 27 seconds) in 1935.

Despite his youth, Thompson approached his driving with a thoroughness that was uncommon in Australian motor racing, then in its infancy. Observers commented on the clean and efficient presentation of his cars, and on the lack of last-minute work they needed. Behind the wheel he was very fast and exceptionally consistent; his lap times on the 6.569-mile (10.571 km) rectangle of rough and dusty Phillip Island roads often varied by no more than a second. An outstanding finishing record was an essential part of his success. While he made occasional driving errors, he took exceptional care of his cars. He did some of his own mechanical work, but had expert helpers, among them the skilled engineer Bill Balgarnie who was often his riding mechanic.

Strongly built and about 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, Thompson parted his dark hair in the centre. Contemporaries recall him as well-tailored, confident—almost calculating—but also impulsive and given to practical joking at post-race parties. His Riley and MG drives were for Melbourne motor traders and he moved to that city in 1934 to head the MG department of Lane's Motors Pty Ltd; he later transferred to the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd. He was briefly involved with midget speedcars in Melbourne and Sydney in 1934-35, but from 1936 his racing career faded. Divorced in 1938, Thompson married Millicent Francklyn Ironside, née King, a widow with two children, on 10 June 1942 at the government statist's office, Melbourne.

Joining the Royal Australian Air Force as flying officer in 1940, Thompson was based in Melbourne from 1941 where he organized the manufacture and supply of engine spares for rescue boats. He held the rank of squadron leader when he was drowned in an aircraft accident on 12 February 1945 in the Marshall Islands, Pacific Ocean. His wife survived him, as did the two sons of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Motorist, Apr 1929, p 460, Apr 1930, p 439, Apr 1932, p 395, Apr 1934, p 418
  • Car, Apr 1929, p 10, Apr 1930, p 15, May 1934, p 10, July 1934, p 17, Apr 1935, p 9, Sept 1935, pp 2, 5
  • Motor Life, Apr 1929, p 9, Apr 1930, p 17
  • Motor in Australia and Flying, Apr 1932, p 15, Dec 1933, p 40
  • Midget Car Broadsider (Wentworth Park Speedway programme), 9 Nov 1935
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Mar 1929
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Mar 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Mar 1932, 2 Jan, 12, 14, 20 Mar 1934
  • private information.

Citation details

Graham Howard, 'Thompson, William Bethel (1906–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thompson-william-bethel-8792/text15419, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 September 2014.

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

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