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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomson, James (1852–1934)

by Wendy Birman

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

James Thomson (1852-1934), journalist, commissioner and newspaper editor, was born on 1 September 1852 at Cullycapple, Londonderry, Ireland, son of Alexander Thomson, contractor, and his wife Martha, née Gilmor. The family arrived in Victoria in 1853. James attended Geelong Presbyterian School and the National Grammar School, Castlemaine. With his schoolmates he formed a 15 shillings paid-up mining syndicate and successfully panned gold at Wattle Flat until a disastrous explosion ended the enterprise. Later he was a mine manager.

Having been a runner for the Mount Alexander Mail, at the age of 16 Thomson was apprenticed at the Australasian. Successively, he edited the Kyneton Observer, worked as a journalist on Melbourne's Daily Telegraph and was secretary to parliamentary boards of inquiry and royal commissions. He married Alice Leyland on 1 June 1878 at Trinity Church, Melbourne. As Victorian secretary to the commissioners for the Melbourne International Exhibition (1880), and for the Calcutta and the Colonial and Indian exhibitions (1886), he travelled in India and via Venice to London. There, due to his appearance, he was often mistaken for the explorer, (Sir) Henry Stanley. In 1888 Thomson was a commissioner for the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition.

Appointed to the Argus in the early 1880s, Thomson resigned in 1889 to become founder-manager of the Evening Standard which he left in 1894 when it amalgamated with the Herald. Commissioned that year by the Melbourne Age to write about Western Australia, he embarked in the Innamincka for Fremantle.

At Perth and Geraldton Thomson mixed with everyone, especially those with Victorian connexions. Sir John Forrest, J. M. A. Despeissis and W. H. J. Carr-Boyd were among his friends. A witty raconteur, whose penchant was dropping names of people and places, Jimmy had a rubicund appearance, 'with geniality bubbling from every pore and wrinkle', and became widely known in the city and on the Murchison goldfields. He ate 'diminutive' crayfish, frequented country race meetings, travelled his magisterial circuits by train when wildflowers were in bloom, and was unperturbed when a bearded prospector dropped 900 oz. (25.5 kg) of gold on his bedroom floor.

Thomson's racy articles and his publication, Nor-West of West (1904), gained attention in Melbourne. Meanwhile, he drove in his 'pegs' at Cue, imported a Wharfdale printing machine and set up the Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette. A widower, he married Blanche White on 26 February 1908 at the Congregational Church, Fremantle. He retired to Queen's Park, but continued to write articles based on his own experience and local legend. Survived by the two sons of his first marriage, he died in Perth on 4 August 1934 and was buried with Anglican rites in Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £244.

Select Bibliography

  • Truthful Thomas, Through the Spy-Glass (Perth, 1905)
  • Western Mail (Perth), 12 June 1924, 19 Mar 1933
  • West Australian, 4 Aug 1934.

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Thomson, James (1852–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 9 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 12

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