Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Joseph (Tom) Hartigan (1877–1963)

by R. M. Audley

This article was published:

Thomas Joseph (Tom) Hartigan (1877-1963), railways commissioner, was born on 8 December 1877 at Woolloomooloo, Sydney, eighth child of Irish-born parents Michael Hartigan, letter carrier, and his wife Ellen, née Cusack. Educated at the Christian Brothers' High School, Lewisham, in January 1893 Tom joined the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways as an apprentice clerk. On 26 March 1908 at St Thomas's Catholic Church, Lewisham, he married Imelda Josephine Boylson, a schoolteacher. He was promoted chief accountant in 1921 and comptroller of accounts and audit in 1928.

In 1924 Hartigan had appeared before the royal commission into railway and tramway services and pointed out that the major source of the railways' deficit was interest paid on loans. The commission recommended sweeping reforms of the railways' managerial structure. Although it was widely expected that Hartigan would become assistant-commissioner for finance in 1925, the post went to an engineer A. D. J. Forster, provoking suggestions that sectarianism had played a part in the appointment.

In 1929 Hartigan toured Britain, Europe and the United States of America to investigate railway operations. On his return, he clashed with the chief commissioner W. J. Cleary over accounting procedures. Having avoided involvement in Cleary's conflict (1930-32) with Premier J. T. Lang and his protégé C. J. Goode, Hartigan was promoted assistant-commissioner in March 1932. Lang's government was dismissed in May and the new minister for transport (Sir) Michael Bruxner appointed Hartigan commissioner for railways on 29 December. The selection of F. C. Garside as assistant-commissioner appeased the largely Protestant senior ranks of the service, but Hartigan's religion was to remain an issue during his commissionership.

The financial position of the railways improved marginally in the mid-1930s and Hartigan was able to keep critics at bay by pointing to improvements in revenue. In 1936 he was appointed C.M.G. The drought and the 1938 coalminers' strike had adverse effects on the service. Despite the introduction of major economies, and higher charges for fares and freights in March 1939, earnings fell, staff were retrenched and Hartigan was publicly criticized. None the less, he was appointed for a second term on 29 December. He moved quickly to place the railways on a war footing and was largely responsible for preparing for the immense increase in traffic that occurred in 1942-44. From December 1941 he chaired the (Commonwealth) War Railway Committee which co-ordinated services nationally.

After 1945 the substantial surpluses from wartime revenue dwindled. Strikes created chronic shortages of coal; a backlog of maintenance—deferred during the war—began to affect the reliability of equipment; and competition from road and air transport heightened. Workers demanded improvements in pay and conditions. Hartigan's 'gift of the gab' and personal charm, which had helped him achieve generally good relations with the unions, could not prevent a dramatic rise in the number of industrial disputes. His retirement on 1 October 1948 may have saved him from being made a scapegoat for the railways' problems. Yet his management had been competent and the decline of the service had resulted from circumstances over which he had little or no control.

A man of robust health, Hartigan enjoyed an active retirement and continued a long involvement with the Gordon Cricket Club. He died on 2 May 1963 at Mosman and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery; his wife, two daughters and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • D. Burke, Man of Steam (Syd, 1986)
  • J. Gunn, Along Parallel Lines (Melb, 1989).

Citation details

R. M. Audley, 'Hartigan, Thomas Joseph (Tom) (1877–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 December, 1877
Woolloomooloo, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


2 May, 1963 (aged 85)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.