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Ernest William Tomlinson (1871–1947)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published:

Ernest William Tomlinson (1871-1947), engineer, was born on 5 December 1871 at Old Radford, Nottinghamshire, England, son of Edwin Tomlinson, iron-turner, and his wife Esther, née Pearson. In 1884 the Tomlinsons migrated with their eight children in the Lady Douglas to Perth, where Edwin established the Phoenix foundry. After serving an apprenticeship (1885-92) to a fitter and turner with the family firm, Ernest spent a few months in New Zealand, studying at Wellington Technical School. From 1892 he worked at the Western Australian Government Railways locomotive workshops. With his brother Edward, he established in 1896 the engineering firm of Tomlinson Bros. At St Brigid's Catholic Church, West Perth, on 15 October 1902 he married Charlotte Robinson.

The firm soon became Western Australia's largest engineering works. A major project was to manufacture iron for the William Street (Horseshoe) bridge, constructed in 1903-04. Ernest Tomlinson spent seven months on the Pilbara coast in 1908, attempting to salvage the wrecked steamer Mildura; once, when supplies ran short, he sailed alone to Onslow for provisions, taking two days and two nights. During World War I he wanted to secure a share of the munitions industry for Western Australia. From designs communicated from England, he manufactured a prototype eighteen-pound (8.2 kg) shell and is said to have taken it to Essington Lewis in Melbourne. Asked whether his company could produce the shell at reasonable cost, the fiery Tomlinson retorted: 'look, I made the damn thing'. He secured the contract. Acquiring the site of a vegetable market at the eastern edge of Perth's central business district, he persuaded other firms to lend their machine tools for the duration of the war, and replaced them or returned them in good order afterwards. He was also responsible for selecting munitions workers for service in England, and acted as a consultant to the wartime minister for defence, Senator (Sir) George Pearce. In 1920 he was appointed O.B.E.

Tomlinson was a leader of the local business community in the interwar years. A founding member of the Perth division of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, he was chairman of Plaimar Ltd and A. T. Brine & Sons, and a director of Plaistowe & Co. Ltd and Hadfields (W.A.) Ltd. Edward retired from Tomlinsons in 1929, but Ernest remained governing director until his death. Tomlinsons began to manufacture steel products. Assisted by his two sons, Ernest was respected as a strict but fair employer. His main recreations were yachting and motorboating. A trim, white-moustached figure in blazer and whites, he was commodore (1926-46) of the Perth Flying Squadron.

During World War II Tomlinson served on the State board of management for munitions production. With the East Perth site restricted from growing, he reluctantly accepted his sons' proposal that the firm purchase 16 acres (6.5 ha) at Welshpool, adjoining the Commonwealth government's munitions works. The move to the new site was in the planning stage when Tomlinson died on 12 January 1947 at Subiaco. He was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. His wife, and their two sons and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • V. H. Colless, Men of Western Australia (Perth, 1937)
  • West Australian, 14 Mar 1904, 14 Jan 1947
  • private information.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Tomlinson, Ernest William (1871–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 December, 1871
Old Radford, Nottinghamshire, England


12 January, 1947 (aged 75)
Subiaco, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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