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Thomson, James Alexander (1805–1860)

by Harley Preston

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

James Alexander Thomson (1805-1860), architect, engineer and building contractor, was a native of Haddington, Scotland, and at 20, as 'a wild but clever young man', was transported to Van Diemen's Land for theft. With his brothers William and Joseph he had been discovered in a private house, and the three were tried together for the same offence and sentenced on 18 February 1824. William was considered less culpable and pardoned after imprisonment in Newgate; Joseph and James were transported separately; Joseph, who identified the object of the theft as jewellery to the value of £3000, was drowned after two years in the colony. James, who arrived at Hobart Town in the Medway on 14 December 1825, was assigned to public works and was frequently on loan to the colonial architect, David Lambe, and his successor, John Lee Archer, both of whom professed satisfaction with his work as draughtsman. Archer procured for him a small remuneration and towards the end of his assignment he was superintendent of the church building at Richmond (St Luke's 1834-37). He had also acted from 1830 as overseer of the government plumbers, glaziers and painters; indeed his trade was given in convict records as decorative painter. These records imply that at the date of transportation he had a wife and child living in Park Street, Regent's Park, London. By 3 June 1830, however, he had petitioned the lieutenant-governor for permission to marry Eliza Ogilvie, the comfortably endowed widow of a respectable Hobart wine and spirits merchant who had died in 1828 leaving her with three children. A daughter, Alice, appears to have been born on 7 August 1830, although the marriage at Richmond did not take place until 16 October 1832. A son, William, was born on 13 August 1833. By 1859 only one daughter, Fanny, survived, but two sons were living.

Thomson received a conditional pardon on I January 1835 and immediately set up a business in Liverpool Street, which lasted for most of his life, not only as architect, engineer and surveyor, but also as valuer, estate agent, map printer and dealer in machinery. His free pardon became effective on 31 July 1839. Despite his several complaints that officers of the Royal Engineers and public servants used their leisure time in architectural activities and caused unfair competition, Thomson seems to have enjoyed reasonably consistent architectural patronage, particularly during the shortage of architects in the 1840s. In 1841 he was a partner of James Blackburn in at least some contracts, though both worked independently as well. Thomson was also one of the first in Hobart to become interested in lithography both in its artistic and in its commercially reproductive applications. In 1850-51 Thomson had been one of the first to seek gold in Tasmania, investigating without success Frenchman's Cap and other areas. On 5 December 1852 his wife Eliza died, aged 51, and on 6 December 1853 Thomson married Catherine, the widow of the Hobart builder, John Jackson. Thomson moved from Liverpool Street to Elboden Street and later to Melrose in Hampden Road. He owned property in Macquarie Street, and worked professionally from the Stone Buildings later, about 1855-56 operating there under the name of Thomson & Cookney.

In 1853 he yielded to the supplications of a large group of supporters to stand as an alderman on the Municipal Council, a position he held until 1857. One of his great concerns was the Hobart water supply. Architecturally the bulk of Thomson's work appears to be in the domestic context: the designing and sometimes building of workmanlike utilitarian structures such as shops, office buildings, terraces and houses and cottages, none being works of paramount importance. One interesting tender let in 1850 was for fifty timber-framed houses for the Californian goldfields. Thomson was also engaged in contracting for jetties, wharves and harbour improvements in Hobart and, with Blackburn, road-making. His spectacular buildings were few. Unquestionably the most interesting and important work is the Hobart Synagogue (1843-45), the most comprehensive example of the Regency Egyptian style in Australia (felt suitable for this religion), surpassing in quality the first synagogues of Launceston, Melbourne and Sydney. Other churches are of plain and rudimentary village Gothicism, such as St Joseph's, Hobart (1841-43, some alterations), and St Joseph's, Launceston (1838-42, demolished and replaced), little touched by the more scholarly aspects of Gothic Revivalism. A few other works are attributable. Besides the Bridgewater Bridge (1846-49, with Blackburn) Thomson's best known early work was the pile bridge across the Derwent at New Norfolk (1840-41). An association with the stone bridge at Dunrobin (built 1850-56 under William Kay's supervision) is suggested by an obituary of reserved eulogies, which lists also the bridge at Richmond (presumably reconstruction of earlier fabric), the smelting works at Exmouth Bay, the former Hobart Exchange rooms and attorney-general's offices. Thomson had a long record of devoted service as a Freemason and Lodge treasurer, and committee member of the Hobart Mechanics' Institute. He sailed in the Isles of the South on 3 February 1860 for a visit to England, and died of typhoid fever at Helensburgh, near Glasgow, on 15 September 1860, aged 55.

Whatever his merits as architect, and they are relatively minor, Thomson provides a remarkable case of a former convict establishing himself as a successful businessman, despite his small estate, respected in many circles and with a considerable variety of commercial activities and social interests.

Select Bibliography

  • Hobart Town Advertiser, 21 Nov 1860, Blackburn papers (privately held).

Citation details

Harley Preston, 'Thomson, James Alexander (1805–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-james-alexander-2733/text3857, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 April 2014.

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

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