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Wilfrid Coad Thomas (1904–1991)

by Jacqueline Kent

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Wilfrid Thomas, by June Mendoza, c.1983

Wilfrid Thomas, by June Mendoza, c.1983

National Library of Australia, 6227916

Wilfrid Coad Thomas (1904-1991), broadcaster, radio producer, actor, singer, and company director, was born on 2 May 1904 in London, the only son of Arthur Wilfrid Thomas, a Welsh journeyman carpenter, and his wife Winifred Annie, née Coad. In 1912 the Thomas family migrated to Sydney. Wilfrid was educated at Summer Hill Public and Petersham High schools. He left at fourteen and took a series of clerical jobs, working for United Artists and Shell Oil Co. of Australia Ltd. Possessing a good bass baritone voice, Thomas enjoyed opera and performed in amateur concerts, his first professional appearance being in Handel’s Messiah at the Sydney Town Hall in 1922. In the following year he joined radio station 2FC where he acted, sang, and read news bulletins. His encounter with the microphone was ‘a case of love at first sight.’(Thomas 1958, 24). Radio fees allowed him to study singing at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music.

When Thomas was twenty-one Dame Nellie Melba overheard him rehearsing and invited him to tour Australia with her as a supporting artist, but the tour was cancelled when she became ill. Nevertheless, this invitation gave him the confidence to embark on a musical career. As a member of the Westminster Glee Singers, he toured Australia, Asia, and Africa (1930-32). When the tour finished in London, he sang with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He appeared at a number of venues including the Royal Albert Hall and the London Palladium, and with artists such as Noel Coward, Geraldo, Jack Hylton, Ivor Novello, and Carroll Gibbons. On 3 May 1933 at the register office, Paddington, London, he married Margaret Edwards, a dancer who performed under the name Margo Lineart. The marriage did not last.

In 1938 Thomas joined the International Broadcasting Co. and was sent to Canada and the United States of America to write and produce shows. In New York, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s director of music, William James, offered Thomas a position in Australia as an ABC celebrity artist. Returning to Sydney in 1940, he compèred Out of the Bag, starring Dick Bentley and Joy Nichols, sometimes broadcasting from army camps. In March 1941 he hosted the After Dinner Show. Later renamed The Wilfrid Thomas Show, it featured music, travel, documentary, and interviews with celebrities from many parts of the world. His famous sign-off line, ‘This is Wilfrid Thomas thanking you for having me at your place,' was initially considered vulgar by the ABC.

The ABC appointed Thomas its first federal director of light entertainment (1943-44), a position ‘accentuated by the introduction of the Forces Programme’ (Inglis 2006, 112). Working with the American forces in the South-West Pacific, he presented artists such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Joe E. Brown, Larry Adler, John Wayne, and the Artie Shaw band. He took part in experimental television programs, made gramophone records, composed songs, and wrote the lyrics for ‘Rose, Rose I Love You.' Based on a popular Chinese song, it was recorded by Frankie Laine and later featured in the 1971 movie The Last Picture Show.

From 1950 Thomas lived in London and worked freelance, mainly for the BBC.  He made regular visits to Australia. He was chairman (1977) of the Guild of Travel Writers; president, Independent Film Group (1945-50); patron, League Against Cruel Sports; committee member, National Society for Handicapped Children; member, Royal Institute of International Affairs; ethics counsellor for Actors Equity; chief savage (1946) of the Savage Club (Sydney) and life member, Australian Musical Association.

The Wilfrid Thomas Show had been recorded in London from 1950. It was broadcast in Australia and elsewhere until 28 December 1980, becoming one of the longest running radio programs in the world. Its final episode was ‘poignant, for after nearly forty years the master of the radio magazine still had vitality and polish, and gave old listeners the feeling that both he and they were immortal’ (Inglis 2006, 424).

An advocate of racial tolerance, Thomas had been sent to Europe by the ABC in the early 1950s to describe the plight of displaced persons. He was a great admirer of the British documentary maker John Grierson, and believed strongly in the role of mass media to promote international understanding. He had ‘the appearance of a mischievous leprechaun’ (Doherty 1952, 12), and his use of radio was imaginative and innovative. Thomas’s interviews with European refugees helped prepare Australians for the government’s great post-war immigration program. In 1976 he was appointed AO for distinguished service to the media, and in 1982 he was created a Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic for service to Italian refugees. On 9 January 1978 at the register office, Westminster, London, Thomas married Bettina Ronda Dickson, an actress with whom he had lived for many years. Survived by her, he died childless, in St Charles Hospital, Kensington, on 16 August 1991. A portrait of him by J. Mendoza is held by the National Library of Australia.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Doherty, Frank. ‘Wilfred Thomas Comes Into Our Homes.' Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September 1952, 12
  • Inglis, Kenneth, S. This is the ABC. Melbourne: Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd, 2006
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7562, Papers of Wilfrid Thomas
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ’Mr Wilfrid Thomas in Sydney,' 21 February 1940, 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Australians Returning,' 24 February 1940, 12
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Savage Club Elects Officers,' 15 April 1946, 5
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘A.B.C. Award,' 27 July 1962, 3
  • ‘139 receive Order of Australia,' 21 January 1976, 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Column 8,' 11 January 1982, 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Wilfrid Thomas, 87, dies in London,' 17 August 1991, 11
  • The ABC Weekly. ‘Now Noted Radio Entertainer Wilfred [sic] Thomas Returns,' 2 March 1940, 22
  • The ABC Weekly. ‘This in the man who entertains you,' 18 September 1943, 3
  • The ABC Weekly. ‘ Wilfrid Thomas Reviews Australia’s Radio Set-Up,' 2 February 1946, 11
  • The ABC Weekly. ‘Wilfrid Thomas Offers . . . An Oriental Travelogue,' 27 July 1946, 6
  • The ABC Weekly. ‘Who IS This Man Thomas?’  5 May 1951, 4
  • The ABC Weekly. ‘Wilfrid Thomas,' 26 November 1958, 8
  • Thomas, Wilfrid. Living on Air: Some Memories of Wilfrid Thomas. London: Frederick Muller, 1958

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jacqueline Kent, 'Thomas, Wilfrid Coad (1904–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2015, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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