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Sir Robert Kyffin Thomas (1851–1910)

by Suzanne Edgar and S. Cockburn

This article was published:

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Sir Robert Kyffin Thomas is a minor entry in this article

Robert Thomas (1781-1860), newspaper proprietor, was born in November 1781 on a farm, Rhantregynwen, at Llanymynech, on the border of Shropshire, England, and Montgomeryshire, Wales. At 21 he established a printing, bookselling and law stationery business in Fleet Street, London. On 18 January 1818 he married Mary Harris (1787-1875) at Southampton; they had seven children. Mary wrote poetry some of which was distributed among her friends as 'Serious Poems' in 1831.

Attracted by Edward Gibbon Wakefield's ideas, in 1836 Thomas bought 134 acres (54 ha) of land in the proposed province of South Australia for £81. On 18 June, with his friend George Stevenson as editor, he printed in London the first number of the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register. Preceded by their eldest son Robert, who was on Colonel William Light's staff in the Cygnet, Thomas and his family embarked in the Africaine and reached Holdfast Bay on 10 November. He printed Governor (Sir) John Hindmarsh's proclamation of the province of 28 December. After living for a time in tents and a rush hut, in March 1837 he bought nine more prime town lots, moved to Hindley Street and established a general store, stationery and printing business. Using a Stanhope hand press Stevenson and the Thomas family produced on 3 June the first colonial edition of the newspaper, announcing a firmly independent policy; with much difficulty because of the death of a compositor and staff shortages, it became a weekly by 1838. Already Thomas, who was making bricks on his country sections, was 'perfectly infatuated with this country', but his wife was very homesick. They befriended the Aboriginals, witnessed a corroboree and planned to print a native dictionary. In 1838 they issued the South Australian Church Hymn Book, arranged by Rev. Charles Howard.

Still short-handed, Robert Thomas & Co. published in 1839-42 the first four copies of the Royal South Australian Almanac. In 1839 they announced a further newspaper, the Port Lincoln Herald and South Australian Commercial Advertiser, although their first venture, from 22 June called the South Australian Register, had not yet succeeded in paying its way. In 1840 Thomas joined the Literary & Scientific Association and Mechanics' Institute and the Association For The Prosecution of Felons. That year the paper's circulation reached 900 and Thomas, with a staff of twenty-one, bought two new Columbian presses and paid £800 for the rival Adelaide Chronicle and South Australian Advertiser. The Register, critical of Governor George Gawler's economic policies, in September strongly attacked him again for ordering the execution without trial of two Aboriginals suspected of murdering some settlers. As a result, on 11 November the firm lost all government business, worth about £1650 a year, to the fiercely competitive Southern Australian; Thomas claimed that he had been authorized by the British government to do their printing, but he had no written proof. A visit to England to protest was unsuccessful and in 1842 he returned to Adelaide, became insolvent and sold the Register to James Allen for £600. In May The Adelaide Chronicle and South Australian Literary Record had ceased to appear. In January 1841 he had opened a new commercial exchange and reading room.

In 1845-52 Thomas was an inspector of weights and measures for the government. On 1 July 1860, aged 78, he died of congestion of the lungs in his home, Rhantregwnwyn Cottage, Hindley Street. Governor Sir George Grey had described him as an 'earnest, able, energetic pioneer … of great natural ability and singular force of character'. He was survived by three sons and two daughters and by his wife, whose valuable account of settlement, the Diary and Letters of Mary Thomas 1832-1866 was edited and published by her grandson E. K. Thomas in 1915. His estate was sworn for probate at £2000.

His second son William Kyffin was born on 4 November 1821 in London and educated at a Rickmansworth boarding-school before being apprenticed to Leighton and Murphy, Fleet Street printers, for six months. During the voyage to South Australia he had scarlet fever but reached Kangaroo Island on his fifteenth birthday and helped his father print the early issues of his newspaper. In 1837-42 as overseer of the printing office he was 'very useful and industrious'. In 1843-53 he farmed at Nailsworth, spending several months at the Victorian goldfields in 1852. On 24 May 1853 with Anthony Forster, E. W. Andrews and Joseph Fisher and others he bought the daily South Australian Register, and its weekly counterpart, The Adelaide Observer. Next year the paper was moved to Grenfell Street and William resumed sole control of the printing department which was converted to steam; a four-feeder Hoe press was added in 1870. He continued as a principal proprietor of W. K. Thomas & Co. publishing the Register, The Adelaide Observer and the Evening Journal for the next eight years.

In 1863 William had been an elected councillor for Grey Ward and in 1864 failed to become mayor of Adelaide; he was a lieutenant in the First Adelaide Rifles and in 1866 became a justice of the peace. He was a quiet genial family man who moved to Glenelg in 1875 for his health. One of the founding members of the Flinders Street Baptist Church, he was its secretary for many years. He died of heart disease and dropsy on 4 July 1878, and was buried in the West Terrace cemetery, survived by his wife Mary Jane, née Good, six daughters and three sons. His estate was sworn for probate at £8000.

Robert Kyffin, eldest son of William Kyffin and Mary Thomas, was born on 19 August 1851 at Nailsworth near Adelaide; he was educated at John Lorenzo Young's Adelaide Educational Institution before joining the staff of the family paper in 1869. He worked first in the printing department and learned stenography on the reporting staff, concurrently attending Union College, which became the University of Adelaide in 1876. On 6 January he married Amelia Bowen; they had four daughters and three sons. In 1877 he became the principal joint proprietor of the South Australian Register, and as chief of staff he also edited the Adelaide Observer. A parliamentary reporter, he was in charge of the Hansard branch until 1882, when he became general manager of the South Australian Register which became the Register in 1901.

An ardent Freemason and a justice of the peace, Robert was president of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australian Branch, in 1900-03, and of the Adelaide Chamber of Commerce in 1906-07. He visited England in 1884, 1902 and 1909 when he was elected chairman of the overseas delegates to the Imperial Press Conference in London; on 31 January 1910 he was knighted for his work at the conference. An Anglican, he played a leading role in many charitable and cultural organizations, and was responsible for a collection in the Adelaide Art Gallery illustrating the art of newspaper sketching.

On 13 June 1910 Sir Robert died of stomach cancer in his home, Ardington, North Adelaide. He was buried in the North Road cemetery and survived by his wife (d.1922), three sons and four daughters, one of whom, Nora, was a proficient violinist. His estate was sworn for probate at £38,202. His sons Reginald Kyffin (d.1914) and Geoffrey Kyffin carried on their father's share in W. K. Thomas & Co. with John Finlayson, Sir William Sowden and their uncle Evan Kyffin Thomas. In 1893 the Australasian edition of the Review of Reviews had said 'The Register … always … held itself aloof from … political parties … it has given to some of the dominant politicians of the day the suggestions … for many of their edicts. It has ever been broadly liberal … a fighting paper from the beginning'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bonwick, Early Struggles of the Australian Press (Lond, 1890)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1908)
  • G. H. Pitt, The Press in South Australia 1836 to 1850 (Adel, 1946)
  • Register (Adelaide), 18 June 1836, 3 June 1837, 11 Jan, 18 July, 12, 19, 26 Sept, 14 Nov 1840, 16 Jan 1841, 6 Aug 1842, 2 July 1860, 5 July 1878, 14 June 1910
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 July 1878
  • Observer (Adelaide), 6 July 1878
  • Daily Herald, 14 June 1910
  • Australasian, 18 June 1910
  • W. J. Sowden, Our Pioneer Press … A History (State Records of South Australia)
  • Robert and Mary Thomas papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • Colonial Secretary's letters (State Records of South Australia)
  • registry of insolvencies, GRG 66/1/1 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar and S. Cockburn, 'Thomas, Sir Robert Kyffin (1851–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 August, 1851
Nailsworth, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


13 June, 1910 (aged 58)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (stomach)

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.

Key Organisations