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Thomson, George Edward (1826–1889)

by Dorothy Kiers

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

George Edward Thomson (1826-1889), miners' leader, was born on 3 October 1826 at Coupar Angus, Perthshire, Scotland, son of Charles Pratt Thomson and his wife Jane, née Oliphant, of Gask near Perth. The family normally lived at Croydon, Surrey, England, where his father owned considerable property. Thomson was educated at Sutton Valence near Maidstone and at a grammar school at Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. At 16 he entered a lawyer's office in London and later began and abandoned medical studies. He took part in the anti-corn-law and Chartist movements and knew many of the leaders and Thomas Carlyle. He became an Owenite socialist and remained faithful throughout his life. An active member of the British Association, he worked with the Mayhews in gathering material about the London poor and was prominent in movements for taxation and patent law reform. In 1848 he presided at a meeting in the City of London which protested against legislation suppressing the right of public discussion.

Thomson developed symptoms of familial tuberculosis in 1852 and decided to migrate. Arriving in Melbourne on 19 November in the Blorenge, he made for the Forest Creek (Castlemaine) goldfield where he had some success; in April 1853 he went to Sandhurst (Bendigo). Prominent in the formation of the Anti-Gold-Licence Association on 6 June, at a meeting next month he presented the petition for licence fee reduction, reform of the police, land reform and enfranchisement of the diggers; he went the rounds of the diggings and took the petition to Melbourne. When La Trobe rejected the petition Thomson rallied support at meetings in Melbourne and Geelong. At Bendigo on 13 August a huge meeting adopted his recommendation of passive resistance; it was agreed to tender only 10s. instead of 30s. for the next month's licence, and the red ribbon became the movement's insignia. On 28 August Thomson and others tendered 10s. to Commissioner Panton and Chief Commissioner Wright who rejected the offer and a 'courteous discussion' followed: the licence fee was soon reduced by more than one half. Thomson gave evidence to the select committee of inquiry and to the royal commission on Eureka. In 1888 he analysed the movement in his 'Leaves from the Diary of an old Bendigonian' in Leavitt and Lilburn's Jubilee History of Victoria and Melbourne, and revealed that an attack by troops would have been resisted. Acknowledged as the chief leader of the most efficient and popular of the diggers' movements, he had consistently advocated 'moral force' with 'physical force' only as a last resort.

Late in 1853 Thomson, with J. H. Abbott, founded and edited the Diggers Advocate; Ebenezer Syme was a prominent contributor, but it soon failed. He agitated about 1856 for agricultural settlement in the Loddon Valley, and in 1857 represented Bendigo at the Land Convention, where his land nationalization objective had little backing and he was persuaded to support Wilson Gray. He prospected in the Grampians, but soon organized the registration of miners as voters in the Pleasant Creek and Ararat areas. In Maldon about 1859 he was active in the movement for local government and refused to stand for the Legislative Assembly. Moving to Castlemaine he again took up law and formed a partnership with F. E. Paynter; he opened a branch at Daylesford where he was a borough councillor. In 1862 in evidence to the royal commission on the goldfields he advocated a general code of mining by-laws for the colony.

Thomson returned to Bendigo in 1875 to partner J. T. Saunders. He was 'Sandhurst's ripest scholar', with a phenomenal memory and learned in literature, history and science, especially geology, electricity, navigation and astronomy. He wrote often for the press, sometimes as 'Nemesis'. His socialist beliefs kept him out of colonial politics. He collapsed in his office after an overdose of chlorodyne, died in his home, Hustlers Terrace, on 17 January 1889, and was buried in Sandhurst cemetery with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife Rosalind, née Harper, whom he had married at Daylesford on 30 May 1863, and by two sons and three daughters. He left debts amounting to £579.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Mackay, The History of Bendigo (Melb, 1891)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • F. Cusack, Bendigo: A History (Melb, 1973)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9, 18, 22, 29 Aug 1853
  • Bendigo Evening News, 17 Jan 1889
  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 Jan 1889
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 18 Jan 1889, 25 Jan 1890
  • Bendigo Independent, 18 Jan 1889
  • Thomson press-cuttings (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Dorothy Kiers, 'Thomson, George Edward (1826–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-george-edward-4716/text7761, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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