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Joseph (Joe) Thompson (1838–1909)

by Clive Turnbull

This article was published:

Joseph (Joe) Thompson (1838-1909), bookmaker, was born on 6 March 1838 in London, son of Samuel Solomon, tobacco manufacturer, and his wife Jessie, née Levi. He used the surname Thompson when he shipped before the mast in 1854 bound for Australia. At Sandridge, Victoria, he deserted ship by hiding in an off-loaded water-cask; he went to the diggings but after a year at Ballarat went back to the sea. On returning to England he found that his parents had gone to America and he worked his way to Sydney. By 1857 he was back on the Victorian goldfields, first at Ballarat and then at Ararat and Pleasant Creek.

Thompson claimed in 1903 that he had first started to make a book at Ararat in 1857; other sources make it 1861 when he went to Beechworth races. He made a handsome profit on doubles and bought a 'flash crimean, knee boots, spanking new cabbage tree [hat], and a crimson sash around the waist with tassels hanging on each side'. After winning and losing large sums at New South Wales country meetings and in Sydney, he returned to Melbourne and at the 1862 spring meeting operated on the Flemington hill. Despite heavy losses on The Barb and Tim Whiffler in the 1860s, his shrewdness and adaptability soon made him a leader of the ring; with the encouragement of F. C. Standish he gained official acceptance. After winning £17,000 on Lapdog in 1870 he began to work at country meetings, always coming to town for the principal races. He also owned and had interests in horses, including King of the Ring, which was his name for himself although he was better known as 'the Leviathan'; Argus Scandal, named after the newspaper that had criticized him; Don Juan, winner of the Melbourne Cup in 1873; Romula, St Albans and Mentor. Out of his winnings on Don Juan he built Don Juan House in Albert Street, East Melbourne—its 'furniture and adjuncts came to something fabulous'—and he entertained there lavishly.

In 1884 he visited England and was 'treated like a prince'; in 1889 he decided to work there. He left Melbourne in the Arcadia on 8 March and the Australasian wrote that 'though his thatch is more snow-like than it was a few years ago, he is still possessed of wonderful energy, and has the additional advantage of more than £100,000 behind him. His mellifluous voice will be missed'. In January-February 1903 he returned to Australia aboard the Ophir and was much fêted among old racing friends. In several long interviews to the press he described his rise on the English turf: he fielded five days a week in England, went to Paris for the Sunday races and returned to London for settling on Monday. Stories about him featured huge wagers, hampers of delectable food, unlimited champagne and practical jokes.

Thompson's other sporting interests included sculling and boxing which he shared with his brother Jack, who had joined him in Australia about 1869 from the American ring. In 1879 the Thompson brothers promoted the Foley-Hicken fight; they also successfully lobbied the Victorian government to pass legislation enforcing glove fighting according to Queensberry Rules. Another brother Barnett (Barney) worked closely with Joseph from the late 1860s and accompanied him on both trips to England in the 1880s.

On 3 March 1909, when returning from a health trip to South Africa, Thompson died at Funchal, Madeira, leaving his wife Rose Maria, née Barnett, whom he had married at Fitzroy on 12 February 1868, three daughters and a son John. He had invested in Melbourne city property and left an estate in Victoria sworn at a gross value of £23,450.

Select Bibliography

  • Tip and Top, The Life of Joe Thompson (Melb, 1877)
  • ‘Vigilant’ (ed), Australian Sporting Celebrities (Melb, 1887)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • A. Joseph, A Bendigonian Abroad (Melb, 1892)
  • T. Haydon, Sporting Reminiscences (Lond, 1898)
  • S. Griffiths, Turf and Heath (Melb, 1906)
  • J. M. Christie, The Reminiscences of Detective-Inspector Christie, related by J. B. Castieau (Melb, 1913?)
  • J. Scobie, My Life on the Australian Turf, F. H. Hart ed (Melb, 1929)
  • K. Roberts, Captain of the Push (Melb, 1963)
  • Australasian, 15 Nov 1873, 12, 19 Jan 1884, 2 Mar 1889, 17, 31 Jan 1903, 6, 13, 20 Mar 1909
  • Table Talk, 18 Mar 1887
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Mar 1909
  • Bulletin, 11 Mar 1909.

Citation details

Clive Turnbull, 'Thompson, Joseph (Joe) (1838–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 May 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]

Alternative Names
  • Solomon, Joseph

6 March, 1838
London, Middlesex, England


3 March, 1909 (aged 70)
Funchal, Madeira, Portugal

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