Australian Dictionary of Biography

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David Thompson (1865–1916)

by M. S. Churchward

This article was published:

David Thompson (1865-1916), engineer and manufacturer, was born on 5 December 1865 at Castlemaine, Victoria, eldest of six children of David Thompson (1828-1889), miller and later engineer, and his wife Bessie, née Caldwell, both Irish born. Within a year of his arrival in Victoria in 1852, Thompson senior and his brother James had set up as contractors, erecting iron houses in Melbourne and Collingwood. In 1855 they moved to the Castlemaine goldfields as quartz miners, machinery erectors and battery operators. Their local flour-mill, established in 1863, won an award at the 1867 Paris Exhibition. In 1875 the brothers opened an engineering works at Castlemaine to repair and manufacture gold-mining machinery; by 1888 they employed some 250 workmen in the production of a wide range of steam-engines, boilers, mining machinery, railway equipment and centrifugal pumps. After Thompson's death his partner James managed the business until 1891 when another brother John took over.

Educated locally, David Thompson junior served his apprenticeship in the family's engineering works. He assisted his father and uncles in the management of the business, but also spent much of his time supervising installation of the firm's machinery throughout Victoria. On 23 June 1896 he married Elizabeth Florence Whitehead at St Thomas's Anglican Church, Moonee Ponds, Melbourne. Between 1889 and 1908 the firm diversified into the production of heavy-duty pumping plants for the Metropolitan Board of Works and the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission; it also began production of hydraulic-sluicing and dredging equipment. By 1910 there were fifty Thompson-made sluicing and dredging plants in the Castlemaine district alone. Effectively head of the company since 1908, David became general manager when John died in 1910. Under David's direction the firm expanded into the manufacture of high-speed force-lubricated steam-engines, water-tube boilers and steam superheaters. Awarded a contract to supply twenty DD class locomotives for the Victorian Railways, Thompson & Co. (Castlemaine) Pty Ltd was floated in April 1913 with a paid-up capital of £88,333. Thompson inspected production at engineering and locomotive works in England and Germany; after his return the firm spent £63,000 extending and re-equipping the Castlemaine workshops. By 1919 sixty locomotives had been built for the Victorian Railways and another twenty-two were later made for the Commonwealth.

A member of the Chamber of Manufacturers, the Victorian Institute of Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Thompson served for many years on the Engineering Wages Board which met in Melbourne. He was an outspoken critic of excessive railway freight charges and an advocate of protective import tariffs; in 1914 he had appeared before the Inter-State Commission. Thompson took a warm interest in the welfare of his employees: he encouraged apprentices to attend classes at the local technical school, supported employees' sporting clubs, organized an annual picnic for the firm's workers, and was a playing member and president of the Thompson Foundry Band from its inception in 1886.

On 4 February 1916 Thompson died at his Castlemaine home from injuries received in an accident at the foundry. He was buried with Presbyterian forms in the local cemetery. His wife survived him. They had no children. David Thompson had developed the business into one of the largest and best equipped non-government engineering works in Australia with a maximum workforce of over 600. The family connexion ended in 1925 when the company was restructured as Thompsons Engineering & Pipe Co. Ltd. In 1974 it became a subsidiary of Borg-Warner (Australia) Ltd.

Select Bibliography

  • The Thompsons-Byron Jackson Centennial (Castlemaine, Vic, 1975)
  • A. F. Johnston, Thompsons' Engineering Works of Castlemaine (manuscript, 1975, University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

M. S. Churchward, 'Thompson, David (1865–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 14 June 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]


5 December, 1865
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia


4 February, 1916 (aged 50)
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia

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