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Walker, Thomas (1858–1932)

by F. B. Smith

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

Thomas Walker (1858-1932), lecturer, journalist and politician, was born on 5 February 1858 at Preston, Lancashire, England, son of Thomas Walker, flour-mill operative, and his wife Ellen, née Eccles. Precociously exhibiting his quick memory and histrionic bent, Walker became a child preacher in the local Wesleyan circuit and then a pupil-teacher at St Thomas's school. In the early 1870s he migrated with his family to Canada, where they worked as labourers in villages near Toronto.

In 1874 Walker set up in Toronto as a materializing spiritual medium. During a seance with a believer, John Saunders, Walker burned himself with the phosphorus he used to make 'illuminated writing' and 'spiritual lights'. Saunders helped extinguish the fire and received burns on his hands and left foot. He died from tetanus three weeks later. A coroner's jury found that Walker had 'feloniously' caused Saunders' death: but Walker had left Canada the morning following the accident and was never indicted. Subsequently he claimed that he had bought his ticket to England before the mishap.

On returning to Lancashire Walker wrote for the Preston Herald and other local newspapers. He later asserted that he had returned to Canada in 1875 and offered to stand trial for Saunders' death, but this has not been verified. Around 1876 Walker turned up in Toledo, Ohio, United States of America, as a journalist. In the same year, dressed as a frontiersman, he made a triumphant début at the Michigan state spiritualist congress. He then joined the entourage of Dr James Peebles, the itinerant spiritualist healer, who commended Walker to Australian spiritualists; apparently at their invitation he arrived in Sydney from San Francisco in the Zealandia on 3 March 1877. His first lecture in Melbourne, delivered in a trance under the 'control' of Giordano Bruno, was chaired by Alfred Deakin.

Walker's racy flow of invocations to the spirits, plagiarized from A. J. Davis, geology plagiarized from Lyell, and anti-orthodoxy plagiarized from Voltaire and Volney, won him enthusiastic audiences. But his sponsors tired of his vulgarities and in August 1879 he left for Britain, where he lectured for the National Reform Union in Lancashire, Wales and Scotland. In March 1880 he sailed for South Africa and resumed spiritual preaching. At Graaff-Reinet on 19 May 1881 he was licensed to marry Andretta Marie Somers, niece of the lieutenant-governor of Cape Colony. He also published his first volume of poems there. After attacks on the genuineness of his mediumship he accepted an invitation from Victorian spiritualists to return. He recommenced trance lecturing, now with eyes open, to a full Temperance Hall on 27 November. His preoccupation with 'iconoclastic' subjects, linked with his 'independent protectionist' candidature for the Richmond seat in the Legislative Assembly, estranged him from respectable spiritualists; he was not elected.

Early in 1882 Walker broke with the spiritualists, denounced the phenomena as fraudulent and proclaimed himself a materialist. He founded the Australasian Secular Association in July with himself as salaried president and lecturer. In 1883 he allied himself with the agitation to open the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria on Sundays, but the leaders disowned him, thereby heightening his popularity. His advance as people's champion halted in September when the spiritualists released details of his adventures in Toronto. He removed to Sydney, briefly returning to Melbourne for a three-day debate with David Blair in January 1884.

Walker established himself in Sydney as secularist spokesman and larrikin populist campaigner. He opposed the Sudan Contingent, imperial federation, Australian intervention in Papua and the Pacific islands and proposed giving to the poor the funds raised for the Queen's jubilee. In 1885 he was convicted for exhibiting obscene pictures while advocating birth control. He conducted his own appeal and won. He was prominent in the agitation to save the bushranger Frank Johns, who had been sentenced to death after a doubtful trial. Johns was hanged, but Walker was acclaimed for his humanity. The same year his second volume of poems, Bush Pilgrims and Other Poems, appeared and his dramatization of His Natural Life was the hit of the season. He also acted in his own play, Marmondelle the Moor.

In February 1887 Walker was elected to the Legislative Assembly as a 'protectionist, democratic republican' for Northumberland. In parliament he emerged as an indefatigable troublemaker on points of procedure, on which he usually proved correct. He advocated reform of the legal profession, reduction of legal costs, easier divorce, abolition of distress for rent, capital punishment and the Legislative Council, and the establishment of a national bank. His parliamentary career was damaged in mid-1892 when he inadvertently shot and wounded a clergyman. He was convicted of being drunk and disorderly, though acquitted of criminal negligence. He immediately set up as a temperance lecturer. He contested the seat of Wallsend in 1894 but was not elected.

Walker arrived in Western Australia in 1899, after a time in New Zealand as a temperance and elocution exponent. In Perth, in addition to temperance work, he wrote for and eventually edited Frederick Vosper's West Australian Sunday Times, after an interlude in Kalgoorlie with the Sun and the Kalgoorlie Miner. In 1903 he became editor and part-owner of the Sunday Press, but soon returned to Kalgoorlie to edit the Sun and to win the Kanowna parliamentary seat in October 1905 which he represented until 1932. Walker now ceased newspaper work and began to farm and to study law. As a Labor back-bencher he spoke long and often on extending country libraries and irrigation, creating a central bank and, almost alone, he defended the Aboriginals. He regularly dissented from the Speaker's rulings, lectured the House on British constitutional history and on 5 October 1909 passionately defended Martha Rendall, who was accused of murdering her three stepchildren. In October 1911 he became minister for justice and education in John Scaddan's cabinet and on 22 November, the day he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor, was sworn as attorney-general, a post he held until July 1916. As attorney-general he intermitted capital punishment, promoted education, reformed the criminal law and local courts, and legislated against cruelty to animals.

In February 1912 he joined the Senate of the University of Western Australia and until his term ended in 1916 he was a courageous advocate of its spending money to secure first-rate scholars and build the highest standards. In 1924-30 he was Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. Survived by his wife Andretta, a daughter and two sons, Walker died on 10 May 1932 at Inglewood, Perth, and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery. His favourite saying was, 'Charity never faileth'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adelaide, 1912)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1889, 1, 681
  • Liberator (Melbourne), 5 June 1887
  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870 to 1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960)
  • printed catalogue (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

F. B. Smith, 'Walker, Thomas (1858–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walker-thomas-4789/text7975, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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