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William Thow (1842–1926)

by J. D. Walker

This article was published:

William Thow (1842-1926), railway engineer, was born on 29 June 1842 at West Derby, Lancashire, England, son of John Thow, engineer, and his wife Mary Nicholson, née Milne. After attending schools at Carlisle, he worked under his father on the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway. William was a pupil of Alexander Allan on the Scottish Central Railway before being employed as a draftsman with Dübs Locomotive Works, Glasgow. When Allan was made general manager of the Worcester Engine Works Co., Thow joined him, became chief draftsman and worked at Crewe under John Ramsbottom. In London on 28 March 1871 Thow married a widow Agnes Noble (d.1897), née Forrester, then went to Egypt as inspector and mechanical assistant to (Sir) John Fowler.

Appointed locomotive engineer for the South Australian Railways in 1876, Thow was hampered in that colony by insufficient funds, gauge problems and political interference. He attempted to modernize and rationalize obsolete and diverse locomotive stock. On the narrow gauge he introduced, in 1878, thirty-five 'W' class, and, in 1886, 134 'Y' class engines. He was less successful on the broad gauge, but his engines included twenty-two 'Q' class of 1885 and thirty 4-6-0 'R' class of 1886; the latter formed the basis of continuing South Australian locomotive development until the 1920s.

In 1888 Thow was asked by the New South Wales government to report on its locomotives and rolling-stock. He criticized previous policy and condemned a situation which mirrored his early experience in South Australia. There were a large number of classes, often with few locomotives, and many were obsolete. Thow was appointed locomotive engineer on the New South Wales Government Railways in 1889 and embarked on a massive programme of modernization and standardization. In 1892 the first of 161 advanced P6 (C32) class passenger locomotives was introduced. The standard goods T524 (D50) class was introduced in 1896 and eventually totalled 280. The S636 (C30) class suburban tank-engines followed in 1903 and 145 were built. All three classes continued in use until the State gradually abandoned railway steam-engines after World War II. The P6 class, well to the forefront of passenger locomotives when introduced, became world famous.

The growth of the system and of traffic did not allow Thow to achieve his objectives. Far too many of the earlier locomotives remained, and twenty goods engines and twelve passenger engines were purchased from the Baldwin Co. while Thow was overseas. In 1892 he was involved in two royal commissions. The first, which inquired into alleged defects of the American locomotives, saw him in the role of expert witness rather than culprit; the second investigated charges by William Schey against Edward Eddy in which Thow was accused of belonging to a 'ring' with Eddy, Fowler and the English locomotive manufacturers, Beyer, Peacock & Co. The charges, largely political, were dismissed.

For the rest of his career Thow built up his locomotive stud, improving and standardizing the carriage and wagon stock, and creating the facilities to operate and maintain them. He gave the railways a look and character which lasted until the 1950s. The dogbox carriages, introduced for express trains, were eventually seen throughout the network and were only retired from branch lines in the 1970s. On 21 January 1901 Thow married a widow with four children, Margaret Elphinstone Simpson, née Monteith, at Elsternwick, Victoria. He retired on 13 June 1911. A member of the institutions of Civil and Mechanical engineers, London, he also belonged to the American Railway Master Mechanics' Association.

Survived by his wife, and by a daughter of his first marriage, Thow died on 10 March 1926 at his Warrawee home, Sydney, and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery; his estate was sworn for probate at £15,962. His influence on Australian locomotive development was enormous. When the trans-continental railway was completed in 1917, it was operated by a variant of his P6 class. Until the introduction of diesels, Thow's designs operated on five Australian systems.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Australian Railway Historical Society, A Century Plus of Locomotives (Syd, 1965)
  • O. S. Nock, Great Steam Locomotives of all Time (NY, 1977)
  • J. Westwood, Locomotive Designers in the Age of Steam (Lond, 1978)
  • R. G. Preston, Standards in Steam (Syd, 1985 and 1987)
  • R. E. Fluck et al, Steam Locomotives and Railcars of the South Australian Railways (Roseworth, SA, 1986)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1892-93, 5, pp 149, 543
  • New South Wales Railway and Tramway Magazine, 1 Dec 1920, p 768.

Citation details

J. D. Walker, 'Thow, William (1842–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 13 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]


29 June, 1842
West Derby, Lancashire, England


10 March, 1926 (aged 83)
Warrawee, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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