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Alexander Richard (Alex) Tolmer (1914–1998)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published online in 2024

Alex Tolmer, c.1948

Alex Tolmer, c.1948

David Tolmer

Alexander Richard Tolmer (1914–1998), army officer, toy manufacturer, and philanthropist, was born on 17 August 1914 at Broome, Western Australia, youngest of four children of South Australian-born Herbert Alexander Tolmer, master pearler, and his wife Lottie, née Deeble, born in Victoria. He was a grandson of Alexander Tolmer (1815–1890), adventurer and former South Australian police commissioner (1849–53). Alex began his education at Broome State School before boarding at Queen’s College, North Adelaide, where he won prizes for chemistry and for cricket in 1928. Following his father’s early death in 1929, he left school and joined his older brothers cray-fishing off Kingston, South Australia. The family moved to Melbourne during the Depression, where Alex found various ways to support himself, his mother, and his sister and her children. He sold whistling tin kettles door to door and eventually became sales manager for the paper bag company Wrappings Pty Ltd.

Having joined the Citizen Military Forces in February 1939, Tolmer transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 2 July 1940 and was commissioned on 25 November. Brown-eyed, fresh-faced, and ‘small, cheeky and dynamic’ (Dunstan 1998, 14), he married Victorian-born Norma Merlin Bennett, a clerk, on 8 January 1941 at St Peter’s Church of England, Brighton Beach. Deployed in March to Rabaul, New Britain, Mandated Territory of New Guinea, with the 2/22nd Battalion, the main component of Lark Force, he was one of only 335 who survived the Japanese assault of January 1942 and avoided captivity, escaping to Queensland.

Tolmer was treated for malaria then posted to the 49th Battalion, with which he took part (July to December 1942) in the Papuan campaign. He was mentioned in despatches for exceptional service between December 1941 and September 1942. On 6 December 1942 he was wounded while supervising the relief of an American unit on the Sanananda Track. The next day, with all other officers in his company killed or wounded, he reorganised the troops under heavy fire and led them in overcoming several Japanese machine gun posts. Promoted to captain on 11 December, he was awarded the Military Cross for these actions, his citation declaring him ‘a pattern for all junior leaders’ (NAA B883). He performed instructional duties in Australia, before serving in New Guinea with the 2/4th Battalion (November 1944–January 1945) and then with the 1st New Guinea Infantry Battalion (as a major from 1945). Repatriated in September, he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 16 October.

After the war, Tolmer moved into toy manufacturing, initially in partnership with his friend John Brent, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer. In 1955 he set up his own business, Alex Tolmer and Associates Pty Ltd, trading as Toltoys. The company focused on novelty toys and licensing imports from the United States of America and became a leading manufacturer of toys in Australia.

A natural salesman, with a great sense of fun and a love of children, Tolmer was an early pioneer of television advertising for toys and a successful promoter of crazes, the most notable of which involved the hula hoop. In 1957 the use of bamboo hoops was popularised by a Sydney physical education teacher. Approached by the head buyer of Coles Variety Stores, which was struggling to meet demand, Tolmer created a high-density light-weight plastic version and sold nearly half a million hoops in Australia. He then took the product to the United States, where the Wham-O Manufacturing Company sold more than eighty million hoops in 1958. Wham-O paid no royalties to Tolmer for what it deemed a generic product, but it made a charitable donation to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne at Tolmer’s request.

Tolmer had a knack for tapping the marketing moment, from Hopalong Cassidy outfits to Beatle wigs, from superballs to monster bubbles. To market his polyethylene toys, with characteristic flair he enlisted the professional wrestler and showman Chief Little Wolf (Ventura Tenario) to demonstrate they were ‘guaranteed unbreakable.’ Quite the showman himself, Tolmer enjoyed playing chauffeur in his own white Rolls Royce, notably to Barry Humphries’s alter ego, Dame Edna Everage. Beneath his playfulness and sound business acumen lay a generous heart: Tolmer gave to many charities, including Legacy, the War Widows’ Guild, the Sun Toy Fund, and the Royal Children’s Hospital. During the Vietnam War he donated fifteen thousand toys to be distributed by Australian troops to South Vietnamese children.

In 1969 Tolmer sold a 75 per cent controlling interest in Toltoys to the American company General Mills Inc. for $1 million. He continued as managing director until 1975, then retired to Main Beach, Queensland, where he dabbled in real estate and property development. Survived by his wife and their three children, he died of Parkinson’s disease on 27 March 1998 at Ashmore, Queensland, and was cremated. On the day he died he was inducted into the newly formed Australian Toy Association Hall of Fame, honoured as an exceptional toymaker and promoter who had nurtured many in the industry, not least his own son David, who was similarly honoured in 2020.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Toy Stories: Memoirs of the Toy Trade in Australia. Vol. 1. Melbourne: Australian Toy Association, 2005
  • Davis, Brian. Eulogy given at A. Tolmer’s funeral, 31 March 1998. Unpublished manuscript. Copy held on ADB file
  • Dunstan, Keith. ‘Alexander R. Tolmer: Toy Man.’ Age (Melbourne), 7 April 1998, 14
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX35754
  • Tolmer, David, and Margot Tolmer Baillie. Personal communication
  • Walsh, Tim. Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Tolmer, Alexander Richard (Alex) (1914–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tolmer-alexander-richard-alex-33664/text42126, published online 2024, accessed online 14 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alex Tolmer, c.1948

Alex Tolmer, c.1948

David Tolmer

Life Summary [details]

Birth

17 August, 1914
Broome, Western Australia, Australia

Death

27 March, 1998 (aged 83)
Ashmore, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

Parkinson's

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.

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