Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomson, Robert (1829–1905)

by Jill Eastwood

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

Robert Thomson (1829-1905), actuary, was born on 25 February 1829 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, son of James Thomson, then headmaster of the Royal Academical Institution, Belfast, and his wife Margaret, née Gardiner (d.1830). Frail as a child, he had an operation for calculus at 10 and in 1845 was very ill with scarlet fever. He was educated at home by his father who had become professor of mathematics at the University of Glasgow in 1832. He matriculated at Glasgow in 1842 in the Greek class but did not graduate. His two elder brothers had distinguished careers: James (1822-1892) became professor of engineering at Queen's College, Belfast, and later at Glasgow, and William, later Lord Kelvin (1824-1908), was appointed to the chair of natural philosophy at Glasgow when only 22.

Robert shared the family gift for mathematics. He entered the Glasgow office of the Scottish Amicable Life Assurance Society and after his father's death in 1849 migrated to Dunedin, New Zealand. About 1853 he came to Sydney, where he joined the Liverpool and London Fire and Life Insurance Co. On 20 April 1854 he married a Catholic, Sarah Mary Murphy, at St Mary's Cathedral. On 11 July he became secretary to the Australian Mutual Provident Society, then a small and obscure organization. He supervised the expansion of the society's operations to New Zealand in 1854 and Hobart Town in 1855, and in 1860 appointed B. Short as the first full-time canvassing agent in Australia. In 1861-65 he was secretary and actuary to the society whose growth under his direction was shown in his last annual report of 1865. 'Whatever his shortcomings', said Professor John Smith in 1877, 'there can be no question that his enthusiasm in the cause of life insurance contributed much to the rapid development of our society'.

Thomson's 'shortcomings' cost him his post with the society. From July 1861 he had been in personal financial difficulties; he was also unable to account for £1500 in his reckoning of the society's funds. He strenuously denied fraud, pleading irregular book-keeping during a period of ill health and overwork as the cause of the deficiency; he claimed that one investigation alone, made gratuitously, had involved some 130,000 calculations. Dismissed but then reinstated, Thomson was helped by the directors with personal loans but by October 1864 he was still further in debt, especially to James Mitchell, industrialist. Arrangements were made for monthly payments to a group of trustees but Thomson was unable to meet mounting bills. In October 1865 he was finally asked to resign from the society and in November he became bankrupt; he was granted a certificate of conformity in March 1866. Struggling to gain regular employment, on 17 February 1868 he was again bankrupt after losing money in attempting to promote the Aerated Bread Co., the New Guinea Co. and sundry unsuccessful mining companies.

In 1868 Thomson had left his home at St Leonards and set up as 'accountant, actuary and insurance broker' from lodgings in Pitt Street. Success came next year when he helped to establish the Mutual Life Association in Sydney, acting in association with T. Jaques Martin who was the resident agent in Victoria; until July 1870 Thomson was secretary and actuary for the association. By May 1871 he had moved to Melbourne where he was a founder and consulting actuary to the Australian Widows' Fund Life Assurance Society. His long-lasting achievement was, however, his successful association with the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd, founded in 1873 with Martin as its general manager. For many years the society's consulting actuary, Thomson gained a reputation as a man of 'genius' but erratic working habits.

He prepared actuarial tables for superannuation funds for friendly societies and, in 1870, conversion tables to help the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce to introduce the metric system into wholesaling. Thomson also early advocated the protection of life policies against the claims of creditors and favoured general legislation on life assurance. In 1880 he received formal notification of his re-admission to the Institute of Actuaries of Great Britain and Ireland. In December 1886 he read a paper before the Historical Society of Australasia on the development of life assurance in the southern hemisphere.

Thomson died of inflammation of the lungs and heart failure on 9 September 1905 at Strathblane, Prahran, predeceased by his wife and survived by three daughters, one of whom married W. L. Stillman. He was buried in the Kew cemetery after a Church of England service. In 1908 his daughters were remembered in the will of their uncle Lord Kelvin who left £10,000 to be divided equally amongst them.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 9 July 1880, 20 Sept 1905
  • Table Talk, 1 Dec 1899
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Sept 1905
  • Dr J. Mitchell papers, 1824-69 (ML)
  • AMP Society Archives (Sydney)
  • insolvency files, 7397/5 and 8827/6 (State Records New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Jill Eastwood, 'Thomson, Robert (1829–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-robert-4717/text7821, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 April 2014.

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

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