Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Waddell (1854–1940)

by A. R. Buck

This article was published:

Thomas Waddell (1854-1940), by unknown photographer, 1900s

Thomas Waddell (1854-1940), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23514823 [detail]

Thomas Waddell (1854?-1940), pastoralist and premier, was born in Monaghan, Ireland, son of John Waddell and his wife Ann, née Mossman. The family migrated in 1855 and settled at Lake George, New South Wales, where John became a grazier. Educated at Goulburn High School, at 15 Thomas worked as a shop assistant and was clerk of petty sessions at Collector in 1876-80. An awakening interest in business took him into horse- and cattle-dealing; in partnership with his brother George, he soon took up Mileela, Wyuna Downs and Wangamana stations in the far west and spent five rough years managing them. The brothers sold out in the boom of the 1880s.

In 1887 Waddell topped the poll for the Legislative Assembly seat of Bourke; next day parliament was dissolved and he had to contest the seat again (successfully). In February he moved to Sydney and on 27 May at Christ Church St Laurence married Elizabeth James, a 19-year-old from Orange. Waddell combined an active political career with numerous business activities. He acquired new pastoral interests in the outback, including Fort Bourke station with (Sir) Samuel McCaughey whom he later bought out.

Having held Bourke in 1889, Waddell lost the seat in June 1891, but regained it four months later, defeating Donald Macdonell at a by-election; thereafter he represented Cobar (1894-98), Cowra (1898-1904), Belubula (1904-13) and Lyndhurst (1913-17). A Protectionist and an advocate of Federation, he served as colonial treasurer under (Sir) John See in 1901-04, but wished that his old friend (Sir) Joseph Carruthers 'were a member of our cabinet'.

Tall and grave, Waddell had to cope with the State's finances at a time of severe drought and won respect in the House. His tight financial policies enabled him to reduce the deficit in the 1903 budget which gained reluctant praise from the Opposition. He was generally regarded as a 'useful lieutenant' who lacked the strength of character to be a leader. When See resigned as premier in June 1904, he favoured W. P. Crick as his successor. The governor, Sir Harry Rawson, indicated that he was not prepared to send either for Crick who had been 'drinking to excess' at Executive Council meetings, or for B. R. Wise whom Rawson regarded as able but unreliable. After canvassing his colleagues, See reported that Waddell was marginally favoured over John Perry. Waddell formed a ministry on 17 June, but inherited a divided party; Crick and Wise declined to serve under him and the government was soundly defeated by the Liberals who formed a ministry under Carruthers on 30 August.

Retaining only twelve seats, Waddell remoulded the Progressive Party from the remnant of the Protectionists. The party disintegrated after May 1907 when Waddell accepted the post of colonial secretary under Carruthers. (Sir) Charles Wade became premier in October and Waddell again became colonial treasurer. He reduced income tax and repealed stamp duty, but the government was embroiled in contentious industrial relations and land legislation; Labor won the election in 1910. A member of the Farmers and Settlers' Association, Waddell was one of eleven Liberals who formed a country faction at the 1913 elections. In April next year he was involved in early moves to found a State country party which he saw as the first step towards a 'united front in opposition to the overbearing tyranny of unionism and Socialism gone mad'. In 1917 he was nominated to the Legislative Council.

As a founder in 1918 and first chairman, Waddell was closely associated with the McGarvie Smith Institute which controlled the production of anthrax vaccine. He was a director of the City Bank of Sydney, Queensland Insurance Co. Ltd and Modern Lighting Ltd, and chairman of the Austral Malay Rubber Co. Ltd and the Commonwealth Wool & Produce Co. Ltd. A long-standing opponent of government intervention in the economy, Waddell frequently wrote to the newspapers, criticizing government spending and taxation, and advocating selling off the railways; appearing before the basic wage inquiry in 1921, he opposed higher wages. He belonged to the Australian Club, enjoyed shooting, played chess and handled a billiard cue 'with some skill'. In 1933 he did not stand for election to the reconstituted Legislative Council.

He died at his Ashfield home on 25 October 1940 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife, three sons and four daughters survived him. Waddell had identified with the individualism of bush life; though his strong views were not always accepted, it was said that 'his word is taken when another politician's oath would not be believed'.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, New South Wales), Oct 1928
  • Catholic Press, 20 Sept 1902, 29 Jan, 1 Oct 1903, 16 June, 18 Aug 1904
  • Town and Country Journal, 3 July 1907
  • Fighting Line, 19 Aug 1913
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 Aug 1913
  • Land (Sydney), 1 May 1914
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Oct 1915, 29 June, 17 Sept 1921, 1 Jan 1931, 26 Oct 1940
  • See papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 418/32, f218 (microfilm, copy at National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

A. R. Buck, 'Waddell, Thomas (1854–1940)', 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

Thomas Waddell (1854-1940), by unknown photographer, 1900s

Thomas Waddell (1854-1940), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23514823 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


Monaghan, Ireland


25 October, 1940 (aged ~ 86)
Ashfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

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Key Organisations
Political Activism