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Thomson, Andrew Kilpatrick (1901–1989)

by Ken Goodwin

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

Andrew Kilpatrick Thomson (1901-1989), schoolteacher, trade unionist and professor of English, was born on 13 January 1901 at Bothwell, Scotland, one of four children of Robert Thomson, coalminer, and his wife Jeanie, née Kilpatrick. As a boy he migrated to Australia with his family. His father found work in the collieries at Ipswich, Queensland, but, as times were hard, Andy helped out by delivering papers in the Silkstone area. Although unlettered himself, Robert Thomson had a great respect for education and sent Andy to Ipswich Grammar School. At 15 he became a pupil-teacher with the Department of Public Instruction. He matriculated through private study and enrolled as a part-time student in English at the University of Queensland (BA, 1929; MA, 1933). In 1922 his poems won prizes in the Queensland Eisteddfod, a pointer to his enduring fascination with poetry.

After a teaching stint at Ipswich Grammar School, Thomson enrolled full time for his final year at university. He was the first student at UQ to graduate with first-class honours in the school of English language and literature, winning (1929) the P. J. McDermott memorial prize. His master’s dissertation was entitled ‘The Mind of Shelley: Social Background and Ideas’. He taught at Scotch College, Adelaide, and The Armidale School, New South Wales. On 30 August 1933 at her parents’ home Yuraga, Killarney, Queensland, he married with Presbyterian forms Elwyn Naida Backhouse (d.1960).

Back in Queensland, Thomson taught at Charters Towers, Rockhampton and, finally, Brisbane State high schools. Until the 1950s he was active in the Queensland Teachers’ Union. Assistant-editor of the Queensland Teachers’ Journal, he was responsible for its educational and literary content; he introduced new ideas and advocated reform. During his presidency (1944-45) of the union his recommendations on reclassification of the teaching service were accepted by the Department of Public Instruction. He was made an honorary life member of QTU in 1960.

In 1939 Thomson was seconded to the University of Queensland to fill a wartime vacancy. He was appointed temporary lecturer in English in 1941, a position made permanent in 1946. From 1948 until the 1960s he was chief examiner in English for both the junior and senior high school public examinations. He was promoted to senior lecturer (1950) and chief lecturer (1956), and to the second chair of English (1960). On 21 December 1961 in St John’s Church of England Cathedral, Brisbane, he married Charlotte Marjorie May Stephens; they divorced in 1970.

An excellent communicator, Thomson toured Queensland often, speaking to students in schools and cinemas and giving lectures to adults at night. He reviewed books (1950-52) for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. A Commonwealth Literary Fund lecturer in Queensland in 1950, he was chief organiser of the lectures in 1956-59, successfully delivering them himself again in 1959. Known to secondary school students for his anthology Living Verse (1954) and other textbooks, he loved ballads and believed that they were the best introduction to poetry, both at school and at university.

Thomson is remembered as one of the great teachers of his era at the University of Queensland. An inspirational lecturer, he was at his best in handling large classes. He was genuinely interested in students, especially external students who came to Brisbane for an annual vacation school. Young university staff colleagues appreciated his interest in their welfare. His publication record was slight, but he prided himself on the originality of his short article, ‘The Greatness of Joseph Furphy’, Meanjin Papers (1943), which reflected the contemporary revival of interest in Furphy. He edited The Collected Works of Thomas Welsby (1967) and in 1968 books of essays on the poetry of Kenneth Slessor and Judith Wright, all published by Jacaranda Press, with which he was closely associated. His attitude to poetry, which might now seem old-fashioned, could be described as positivist. For example, he compared G. M. Hopkins’s ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ with the report of the wreck in The Times (London) and illustrated Judith Wright’s ‘The Cycads’ with colour transparencies of the plants.

Dapper and always immaculately dressed, Thomson had a dogmatic manner that could be intimidating. He retired in January 1971 and moved to the Sunshine Coast, where he took up surfboard riding. Survived by two of his three daughters, he died on 3 November 1989 at Richmond, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Spaull and M. Sullivan, A History of the Queensland Teachers Union (1989)

  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 11 Oct 1959, p 2
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 9 Apr 1960, p 3
  • Thomson staff file (University of Queensland archives)
  • Robinson papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • SRS 893/2/929, SRS6427 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Queensland Teachers’ Union Archives
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ken Goodwin, 'Thomson, Andrew Kilpatrick (1901–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-andrew-kilpatrick-15652/text26847, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 October 2017.

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

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