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Thomas, Kenneth William (Ken) (1913–1997)

by Sam G. Everingham

This article was published online in 2022

Kenneth William Thomas (1913–1997), transport entrepreneur, and social and political activist, was born on 15 June 1913 at Harden, New South Wales, fifth of six children of New South Wales-born parents Arthur Picton Thomas, engine driver, and his wife Elizabeth, née McLeod. Ken began his education at Murrumburrah Superior Public School. In 1924 the family moved to Sydney, where he attended Fort Street Boys’ High School. Aged fifteen he started work as a bank clerk. He took evening classes to prepare for university, matriculating in 1932 to the University of Sydney (BA, 1936; BEc, 1940), where he continued to study at night. On 23 December 1939 he married Sydney-born Anne Jean Muriel Mackinnon, a stenographer, at St Peter’s Presbyterian Church, Blues Point.

Following his graduation, Thomas worked as a schoolteacher, station-hand, salesman, and shop assistant. A pacifist who with his mother’s encouragement had become a Presbyterian lay preacher by the time he was eighteen, in World War II he made himself available to the Commonwealth Manpower Directorate, which sent him as a personnel officer first to the Maribyrnong munitions production complex, Melbourne, then to the Rockhampton meatworks, Queensland. Back in Sydney in 1946, while working for Standard Telephones & Cables Pty Ltd, he was attracted by the profits in hauling timber and invested in a five-ton truck for local haulage. The business initially struggled, but he took advantage of a Victorian rail strike to try interstate haulage. As rail was slow and unreliable, customers were willing to pay the road tax for him to take freight, and he began to concentrate on interstate transport. By the end of 1948 he had acquired three table-top trucks and a semi-trailer. He left his salaried job—by then he was a survey officer at Cumberland County Council—and bought a small carrying company with a depot in the Sydney suburb of Balmain.

Active in the establishment of the Long Distance Road Transport Association, Thomas was its vice-president from 1948. He was also involved in the National Freight Forwarders Association (NFFA), formed to present an industry-wide stance to the complexities of working with the railways. By 1949 he had improved paperwork efficiency by combining the freight note with the invoice into a single document, which became an industry standard.

In 1951 K. W. Thomas Transport Pty Ltd was registered, and the company soon had branch offices across the country. The New South Wales government introduced diesel locomotives from 1951, which could haul trains weighing up to seven hundred tons, and the company led negotiations for a bulk contract with the railways. By 1953 the firm had enough freight to ship daily by rail. Thomas saw his staff as partners, providing them with bonuses, profit-sharing, and share-purchase schemes. He supported the welfare of drivers. For example, in 1955 he began a shuttle operation on the Sydney–Melbourne run, based on a service station and hostel he established at Tumblong, New South Wales, where drivers refueled, changed over, ate, and slept.

During the early 1950s Thomas introduced permanent subcontractors, who painted their vehicles in the colours of the company and were regularly employed. In 1961 he also introduced Flexi-Van semi-trailer pantechnicon units, which incorporated containers that could be lifted off their bogie wheels for loading onto flat-bed rail wagons. These containers could be insulated to carry perishables. From 1958 his company had been known as Thomas National Transport, and in 1962 it was listed on the Sydney and Melbourne stock exchanges as Thomas Nationwide Transport Ltd (TNT).

By 1964 TNT was carrying close to a third of all interstate haulage freighted by members of the NFFA. In the same year, TNT and Peter Abeles’s Alltrans Pty Ltd jointly launched Comet Overnight Express Pty Ltd to compete with Gordon Barton’s Interstate Parcel Express Company road freight. In 1967 TNT and Alltrans merged; the TNT name was retained and Thomas remained chairman, while Abeles was to be chief executive. For a time the two men were joint managing directors, before Thomas stepped back from the role. TNT expanded into sea freight, securing a portion of the shipping enterprise Bulkships, and employing roll-on, roll-off ships on routes across the Tasman. Kwikasair was acquired in 1968, and the following year TNT established itself in North America.

Thomas was an outspoken commentator on political and social issues. In November 1966 he joined his business rival, Barton, in founding the Liberal Reform Group on an anti-conscription and independent foreign policy platform. The following year he ran unsuccessfully as a candidate in the Senate elections. He frequently made the news for his vocal stance against Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, including a well-publicised interjection during the World War II veteran J. L. Waddy’s address at his sons’ school’s speech day late in 1967. In mid-1969 he founded the Australian Movement to Abolish Conscription for Overseas Service and the Australian Peace Institute, a centre for peace research and information.

At the same time, the key group leading the anti-conscription and anti-war movement in New South Wales, the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament, formed the Committee in Defiance of the National Service Act to support draft resistance; Thomas was elected chairman. Members encouraged and supported twenty-year-olds to refuse to register under the National Service Act, in itself an offence carrying a penalty of a fine or prison term. When two thousand people signed a statement of defiance, the government was pressed to either prosecute or amend the National Service Act. One of many to be prosecuted, Thomas demanded to be gaoled alongside conscientious objectors. By the end of 1969 the statement of defiance had been signed by around eight thousand people.

In March 1972 TNT bought a 23.5 per cent stake in Ansett Transport Industries Ltd, a consortium which included one of Australia’s passenger airlines and interests in airfreight, tourism, and television. Eighteen days later, TNT announced a $45 million takeover bid. The bid was withdrawn after Sir Henry Bolte’s Victorian State government legislated to impede the takeover. During a lecture that year, Thomas criticised the role of religion in retarding social and political progress. After newspaper headlines such as ‘TNT Head Says Destroy Religion’ appeared the next day, the company’s board asked Thomas to resign as chairman. While he characterised the decision to ‘retire’ as his alone, privately he remained bitter for some years towards his long-time colleague Abeles for complicity in his dismissal. He remained active as a chairman or director of several other companies, among them Queensland Pacific Airways and Tenex Australia Pty Ltd; none were as successful as TNT and he suffered financial losses.

Living in Castlecrag, Sydney, Thomas and his wife were active in the local community. He opposed compulsory voting, and would have his name crossed off at the polling booth and leave without voting. Long a campaigner for safer roads, he was influential in making the wearing of seatbelts compulsory in New South Wales in 1971. In early 1979 he began the Save a Life a Day campaign to decrease the number of road fatalities in New South Wales. The strategy included lobbying the State government to introduce compulsory licence suspension and mandatory gaol sentences for drink driving offences. Regional safety councils were proposed to enquire into deaths on the roads in their localities. In 1981 he stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate on the road safety issue in the State election. Always a strong supporter of rail transport, he also promoted increased government spending on rail, and a decrease in spending on roads. In his leisure time he enjoyed squash and tennis. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1991) and one son (d. 1970), he died on 21 September 1997 at Orange, and was cremated; two sons and two daughters survived him. In 2012 he was posthumously inducted into the Shell Rimula Wall of Fame at the National Road Transport Hall of Fame at Alice Springs. Portraits include one by Judy Cassab (1975), held by his family.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Everingham, Sam. Gordon Barton: Australia’s Maverick Entrepreneur. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2009
  • Saunders, Malcolm James. ‘The Vietnam Moratorium Movement in Australia: 1969–1973.’ PhD thesis, Flinders University, 1977. Papers of Malcolm Saunders, 1972–1977, MS 5572. National Library of Australia
  • T. & B. Staff Writer, ‘Cap-and-Gown Men Can Also Be Successful Truckers.’ Truck and Bus Transportation 15, no. 8 (August 1951): 32–33, 45–50
  • Truck and Bus Transportation. ‘Dynamic Growth of Thomas National Transport in 14 Yrs.’ 25, no. 7 (July 1961): 253, 399
  • Twin Town Times. ‘Historic Local Legend Ken Thomas Founder of TNT.’ 28 May 2015. Accessed 9 October 2020. https://twintowntimes.com.au/_/2015/05/historic-local-legend-ken-thomas-founder-of-tnt/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Twin Town Times. ‘Historic Local Legend Ken Thomas Part 2. Must Read.’ 3 June 2015. Accessed 9 October 2020. http://twintowntimes.com.au/_/2015/06/historic-local-legend-ken-thomas-part-2-must-read/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Wilcox, David. The Truckie Who Loved Trains: The Biography of Ken Thomas, Founder of Thomas Nationwide Transport. [Blackalls Park, NSW]: [David Wilcox], 2013

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sam G. Everingham, 'Thomas, Kenneth William (Ken) (1913–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-kenneth-william-ken-27102/text34654, published online 2022, accessed online 7 July 2022.

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