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Thomson, Alexander (1800–1866)

by Lyndsay Gardiner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Alexander Thomson (1800-1866), by Frederick Grosse, 1866

Alexander Thomson (1800-1866), by Frederick Grosse, 1866

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN20/01/66/8

Alexander Thomson (1800-1866), medical practitioner and pastoralist, was born at Aberdeen, Scotland, the son of Alexander Thomson, shipowner. After medical training at Aberdeen and London he married Barbara Dalrymple in Aberdeen on 24 March 1824. Next year he made the first of his several voyages to Australia as surgeon in a convict transport. Attracted by the colonies, he chartered the Auriga in which he arrived at Hobart Town in December 1831 with his wife and three-year-old daughter Jane. They went on to Sydney but returned next February. On an earlier visit he had applied to Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur for a land grant which he received in 1833 in spite of the changed regulations. Half of his capital of £9000 was in the form of two steam-boats which he imported from Britain. After they were assembled he opened a steam ferry service between Hobart and Kangaroo Point in October 1832. After a year he sold the service to George Watson and moved to Launceston.

In 1835 Thomson became interested in Port Phillip and sent across early consignments of cattle and sheep. He himself followed in the Caledonia in 1836 and settled temporarily near the site of the present St Paul's Cathedral. There he held Sunday services. William Lonsdale appointed him medical officer to the settlement at a salary of £200. In 1836 he moved to the Geelong district where he chose land at Kardinia 'at the falls on the Barwon', a spot remembered by John Dunmore Lang as the home of 'people of cultivated minds and refined taste'. Thomson became one of the leaders of early pastoral society. At Kardinia in 1837 he formally welcomed Governor Sir Richard Bourke on his first visit to the Geelong district. He was active in the early exploration and survey of the area west of Geelong, and is said to have driven the first bullock team from Geelong to Melbourne in spite of the hostility of the Aboriginal tribes around Werribee.

As a prominent member of the Geelong community Thomson was active in several fields. First, he was largely responsible for starting Presbyterian services in the district. These were held in his parlour and then in his woolshed; later he headed the subscribers who petitioned for a minister and for a church at Geelong the foundation stone of which he laid in 1841. In 1845 he chaired the meeting which inaugurated the Geelong branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society. His enthusiastic Presbyterianism kept him in close touch with his friend Lang, whose radical political views he shared in part.

Second, Thomson was interested in the civic development of Geelong, of which city he was sometimes called the founder. He was the town's first mayor in 1851 and served again in 1855-57. He was a director of the Geelong-Melbourne Railway Co., whose line was completed in 1857. Geelong's first bank, a branch of the Union Bank, was opened in 1842 in a house he rented. The welfare of the Aboriginals in the district also interested him; he helped missionaries in their work with the local tribes, particularly in advising Francis Tuckfield on the location and character of his Buntingdale mission.

Third, Thomson was active in more general colonial affairs. In 1843 he was elected one of the Port Phillip members to the New South Wales Legislative Council, but resigned in 1844 in protest against having to attend the sittings in Sydney. Throughout the 1840s he was prominent in the separation movement. His views on the labour question, like Lang's, did not coincide with those of all his fellow squatters, for he opposed Irish immigration and every form of convict labour, including 'exiles' or 'expirees'. He formed a local organization with a fund to resist transportation, and in 1847 quarrelled bitterly with his friend George Russell over the question, using language that was 'more uncompromising than prudent'. Thomson also differed from the squatters when he was elected for Geelong to the Victorian Legislative Council in 1852-54 and to the Legislative Assembly in 1857-59. As an urban liberal, he was appointed to the select committee that in 1853 drafted the Constitution bill. He followed it to Europe and at Vienna won a promise from Lord John Russell that the bill would receive early attention by parliament.

In March 1844 Thomson had found himself in financial difficulties through speculation, but he recovered and increased his holdings to 150,000 acres (60,703 ha). Towards the end of his life he was again nearly penniless and had to accept appointment as medical officer at the Sunbury Boys' Home. This setback, according to the Australian Medical Journal, was due to his disregard of 'the prevailing rule of looking well to his own interests before endeavouring to promote those of his fellow creatures'.

His popularity still remained; like his old horse, Creamy, he had become an institution in the Geelong district and on the Melbourne road. When he died on New Year's Day 1866 many mourners, representing most public groups, attended his funeral. He was buried in the old Geelong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • T. F. Bride (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers (Melb, 1898)
  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1904)
  • R. H. Croll and R. R. Wettenhall, Dr. Alexander Thomson: A Pioneer of Melbourne and Founder of Geelong (Melb, 1937)
  • A. D. Gilchrist (ed), John Dunmore Lang, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1951)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 2-5 (Lond, 1952-63).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lyndsay Gardiner, 'Thomson, Alexander (1800–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-alexander-2731/text3853, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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