Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Welton Stanford (1832–1918)

by E. Daniel Potts

This article was published:

Thomas Welton Stanford (1832-1918), businessman, spiritualist and philanthropist, was born at Albany, New York State, United States of America, youngest son of Josiah Stanford, public works contractor, and his wife Elizabeth, née Phillips. Educated locally and at Troy Conference Academy, Vermont, in 1852 he abandoned his plans of schoolteaching for the lure of the Californian goldfields which attracted all six Stanford brothers. By 1858 they ran the largest of the western oil companies. Drawn to the Australian colonies by rumours of a strong demand for kerosene, in December 1859 Thomas Welton and his brother De Witt sailed for Melbourne.

Acquiring exclusive Australian marketing rights, Welton—as from 1863 he signed himself—devised innovative ways of promoting the Singer sewing machine, among them time payment. His salesmen travelled through country districts with a model machine mounted on the back of a buggy. Despite stiff competition, they had record sales in 1876-77. Singer policy, however, changed. By the early 1880s the company had taken direct control of Australian distribution.

After De Witt's death in 1862, Stanford had become increasingly lonely. On 12 May 1869 in Melbourne he married Wilhelmina (Minnie) Watt with Wesleyan Methodist forms; she died within a year. He later moved to Clarendon Street, East Melbourne, where he became known for his garden of rare plants, his aviaries of exotic birds, his fine collection of Australian paintings, and, most of all, for his interest in spiritualism.

A 'man of six feet (183 cm) or more, dark, with heavy black beard' and 'piercing black eyes', Stanford in 1870 founded the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists with W. H. Terry and J. B. Motherwell. For many years the 'father of spiritualism in Australia' held exclusive meetings at his home and in his Russell Street office. Concerned for the welfare of her tall, thin, reclusive brother-in-law, Jane Stanford (his brother Leland's widow) visited him in 1903. Disillusioned with seances, she left Australia. Perhaps spurred by her attitude, Stanford gave US$50,000 for psychical research to the Leland Stanford Junior University which had been founded (1885) in California as a memorial to her only son; Welton had previously donated his US$300,000 legacy from Leland who had been a highly successful railroad president.

A member of Stanford University's board of trustees, Welton talked of establishing scholarships for Australian students. He donated his books on Australia and his art collection to be housed in the Thomas Welton Stanford Library which was built, and restored after the 1906 earthquake, with his money. Stanford history students were soon studying 'Australian affairs'.

Although he had threatened to become a British subject during the American Civil War, Stanford remained loyal to the U.S.A. and had served intermittently from 1890 to 1902 as honorary vice consul-general in Melbourne. He died at his home on 28 August 1918 and was buried in the Methodist section of Melbourne general cemetery. The bulk of his personal estate, valued for probate at £130,043, also went to Stanford University, for psychical research.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Dickinson, Catalogue of Oil Paintings in the Collection of T. W. Stanford, Esq., of Melbourne (Melb, 1882)
  • E. D. and A. Potts, ‘Thomas Welton Stanford (1832-1918) and American-Australian Business and Cultural Relations’, Historical Studies, no 67, Oct 1976, p 193
  • Stanford papers (Stanford University Archives, California, Unites States of America)
  • Singer Manufactory Co. papers (State Historical Society, Wisconsin, United States of America).

Citation details

E. Daniel Potts, 'Stanford, Thomas Welton (1832–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 25 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Albany, New York, United States of America


28 August, 1918 (aged ~ 86)
Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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