THOMPSON, William George (1863–1953)
Senator for Queensland, 1922–32 (Nationalist Party)

William George Thompson, businessman and soldier, was born on 2 March 1863 at Lurgan, Armagh, Ireland, the son of William, fencing contractor, and Isabella, née Campbell. The family migrated to Rockhampton when William was fourteen months old. After attending Rockhampton North State School Thompson started work as an office boy with the wine and spirit merchant, W. Jackson. He attended night classes and by the age of twenty was chief clerk. In 1881 he was involved in the formation of a second branch of the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society at North Rockhampton, becoming foundation secretary for three years. He set up his own business, W. G. Thompson and Company, bonded warehousemen, in 1886, supplementing warehouse work with secretarial, accounting and auditing services which brought him into contact with influential central Queensland business and civic figures. He became an alderman of the North Rockhampton Borough Council and served as mayor in 1890. By 1897 his firm had expanded to include Felix Clewett (later MLC) as a partner. Thompson was secretary of the Rockhampton General Hospital and Jockey Club and an auditor of the flourishing Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company. He was a partner in a 12 000-head cattle station and, on his own account, chairman of directors of Rockhampton’s largest butchering business.[1]In 1889 he joined the Queensland Mounted Infantry as a private. He read widely on military subjects, excelled in examinations for promotion and wrote a paper on the role of mounted infantry that was published by the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin. He served as captain in charge of troops at Clermont during the shearers’ strike of 1891. In 1897 he accepted an invitation to join the Queensland Mounted Infantry contingent that went to London to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Two years later he interrupted a prosperous business career to volunteer for the Boer War. He was commander of a Rockhampton detachment that was farewelled, at the School of Arts on Christmas night 1899, with cheers for the Queen, Thompson, and his soldiers. He was subsequently commander of Queensland’s 2nd Mounted Infantry Contingent and awarded the Queen’s Medal with three clasps. In the closing stages of the conflict he was appointed magistrate of the High Court of Pretoria, once a Boer stronghold, where, with his two colleagues, he administered martial law.

On returning to Rockhampton Thompson married Mary Ellen (Nellie) Bancroft, with Presbyterian forms, at St Andrew’s Manse on 17 August 1901. He resumed his business activities while continuing as a commander of Light Horse. He was responsible for five regiments based from Lismore to Innisfail. In 1909 he helped to revise the Light Horse manual. By 1913 he was a brigade commander. He volunteered for field service for World War I but was rejected on account of age. However, for twelve months he trained troops at the Enoggera army base near Brisbane, and for a further year or so, served in the AIF’s overseas transport service, commanding troops to and from England on four voyages.[2]

Thompson was part of a generation of Australian military men who sought parliamentary office as Nationalists after the formation of the Nationalist Party in 1917. A Brigadier General, his reputation was enhanced by his membership of the Rockhampton Chamber of Commerce and the Central Queensland Employers’ Association. In 1918 he unsuccessfully contested the Queensland state seat of Keppel as a Nationalist candidate after endorsement by the Returned Soldiers’ and Patriots’ National Political League.

Thompson’s political baggage included an ill-concealed dislike of trade unions. An upsurge of industrial conflict across Australia in the early 1920s included what the Labor newspaper, the Daily Standard, described as an almost year-long lockout of workers at the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company, whose directors included Thompson. In a leaked transcript of his comments at a closed employers’ conference in Brisbane early in 1922 Thompson was reported in the Daily Standard as saying: ‘If you have a few regulars it is wonderful what they can resist. I have seen 500 men in the shearers’ strike held up by 75 mounted infantry men’. Thompson’s remarks were widely circulated and his political opponents dubbed him ‘Shoot-’em-down Thompson’.[3]

The death of the Nationalist John Adamson in May 1922 caused a ‘long-term casual vacancy’ in the Senate. When Thompson was nominated, Labor’s James Stoppard, the member for Mount Morgan, called out derisively: ‘Shoot low’. Thompson’s nomination failed; the Labor Party had the numbers and appointed one of its own—the Daily Standard’s editor, John Valentine MacDonald.[4]

At the federal election in December, the Nationalist Party endorsed Thompson to run for the Senate. He opened his campaign in the Rockhampton School of Arts on 23 November. He began with the disclaimer: ‘I am not a politician’, which provoked the retort: ‘You never will be’. Another interjector called ‘What were you in the ’91 strike—a sly grog seller or a scab?’ Thompson denied the Daily Standard allegations that he was party to a conspiracy to raise an employer-funded private army to quell strikes. His defence included the admission that he had advocated ‘measures for the protection of life and property from acts of mob violence arising out of strikes or revolution, by armed force if necessary’. Nevertheless, he made much of the ‘anticipated violence’ of the 1912 tramway strike and referred approvingly to the part played by special constables from the country and some Boer War officers in containing disorder.

After speaking in Rockhampton, Thompson campaigned in north Queensland and Brisbane. The charge of extremism plagued him. That the Daily Standard’s John MacDonald was his rival for a Senate seat ensured wide publicity for any anti-Thompson material. There were also misgivings on the Nationalist side. The Morning Bulletin in Rockhampton warned that the task of combating extremism in the Labor Party was compromised if the Nationalists tolerated extremists, and there were attempts to develop an anti-Thompson Nationalist Senate ticket. Despite such public disquietude Thompson was elected. The campaign to keep him out of Parliament failed, partly because his pre-election claim that ‘he had ever been a just and good’ employer stood uncontradicted.

Thompson was sworn in the Senate on 28 February 1923. His electoral victory (in which he had defeated MacDonald) meant that he had won (in accordance with the newly amended Senate Election Act) the remainder of the casual vacancy previously held by MacDonald vice Adamson. His Senate term thus extended from 16 December 1922 until 30 June 1926.[5]

In his first speech, in which he moved the Address-in-Reply, Thompson depicted a chaotic international environment with the Pacific as a contested zone. For Australia’s security he advocated Empire defence, increased British immigration and the development of north Queensland, particularly through the sugar industry. Conscious of the potential threat of Asia and its neglected economic opportunities, he suggested that the British usage ‘Far East’ be discarded for the geographically more accurate ‘Near North’. He urged the subdivision of Queensland into southern, central and northern states and similar workable divisions in ‘other great States’. He discussed the potential of radio to improve the quality of life in rural areas, and urged the rationalisation of Commonwealth and state bureaucracies and the use of the Queensland precedent in national bankruptcy legislation. Commonwealth bankruptcy law was enacted in 1924.

In 1925 Thompson reduced his business commitments to devote himself to political and community work. During the federal election campaign of that year he spoke at meetings in twenty-five centres from Brisbane in the east to Cunnamulla and Winton in the west and Proserpine in the north. People came from up to seventy miles to cheer or jeer. In Blackall he was alarmed to find himself shouted down by self-proclaimed communists who appeared to have the sympathy of the audience.

Thompson brought to the Senate a business and central Queensland perspective. He contributed to the development of legislation on sea transport and on bankruptcy, although with the latter he was frustrated early in his term because of his unfamiliarity with Senate procedure. The fate of the struggling Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company was a constant concern. He included trade unionists in the blame for a disastrous underground fire in 1925 and the company’s subsequent liquidation.[6]

Industrial relations figured prominently. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Bruce–Page Government’s efforts to reform Australia’s complex system of overlapping industrial awards and jurisdictions, his zeal strengthened by the belief that the nation was ‘truly a union-ridden country’. He was outraged by the ‘communist revolutionaries’ he discerned in the labour movement, describing two Queensland critics of the Government’s Conciliation and Arbitration Bill as ‘out-and-out Communists’, an appellation that would have been proudly accepted by at least one of his targets, Fred Paterson, subsequently Australia’s only Communist parliamentarian. In 1928 Thompson toured North America as an Empire Parliamentary Association delegate, where he discovered in Canada and California ‘industrial utopias’. At the 1929 federal election Thompson’s reputation for extremism was revived. In Rockhampton, while campaigning for local candidates, he was forced to abandon the hustings by heckling and cries of ‘Where’s your gun?’ After the election he accepted that the Government’s assault on federal arbitration was the main cause of its downfall.[7]

Thompson was a conscientious senator who attended regularly and rarely missed divisions. Throughout his tenure he tried to improve Commonwealth bankruptcy legislation. Indeed his frustration in this mission impelled him to seek improvement also to Senate committee processes in order to draw more readily on the expertise and experience of senators. In July 1930 he was appointed to the controversial Senate Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill on which Labor senators refused to serve.[8]

Although placed at the top of the Senate ticket for Country–Progressive–National Party candidates, Thompson was defeated at the 1931 federal election. He resumed civic and business activity, helping to found the Rockhampton Club and serving as president of the Rockhampton Chamber of Commerce from 1933 to 1943. He was chairman of the Bluff Colliery Company and the Central District Coal Board. He was vice-chairman of the Rockhampton branch of the Red Cross Society. In 1939 he was made a Swedish knight with the Royal Order of Vasa in recognition of decades of service as vice-consul for Sweden in Rockhampton. He played bowls after a sporting life of polo, rowing and tennis. For a quarter of a century he performed in an amateur orchestra. Thompson’s energy, talent and respect for established institutions fitted him, despite humble origins, to seize the varied opportunities offered by a Queensland provincial city. He spent his last years in Sydney, where he died at the Home of Peace, Petersham, on 7 March 1953, and was privately cremated. His wife Nellie and daughter Eerste survived him. General Thompson Park in North Rockhampton, where his ashes were interred, remains to preserve the memory of one of central Queensland’s most distinguished citizens.[9]

Rodney Sullivan

[1] Lorna McDonald, ‘Thompson, William George’, ADB, vol. 12; Information provided by Delyse Ramm, Rockhampton office, Education Queensland; Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 10 Mar. 1953, p. 3, 25 Mar. 1961, p. 3; D. Carment and  F. Killion (eds), The Story of Rockhampton Hospital and Those Other Institutions Administered by the Rockhampton Hospitals Board 1868–1980, Rockhampton, Qld, c. 1980; CPD, 27 July 1923, p. 1723.

[2] Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 7 Apr. 1897, p. 4, 25 Dec. 1899, p. 5; P. L. Murray (ed.), Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1911; Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 14 Aug. 1909, pp. 6, 10; Thompson, W. G.—Boer War Dossier, B4418, War Service Record, B2455, NAA.

[3] Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 26 Feb. 1918, p. 6, 27 Feb. 1918, p. 6; National Leader (Brisb.), 1 Feb. 1918; Brisbane Courier, 20 July 1914, p. 7; Daily Standard (Brisb.), 15 Feb. 1922, p. 7; CPD, 10 Mar. 1926, p. 1435.

[4] QPD, 11 July 1922, pp. 133–4.

[5] Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 24 Nov. 1922, p. 6, 9 Dec. 1922, p. 8, 16 Dec. 1922, p. 8; Brisbane Courier, 18 Nov. 1922, p. 7; Senate Registry File, A8161, S265, NAA.

[6] CPD, 28 Feb. 1923, pp. 10–12; Brisbane Courier, 10 Nov. 1925, p. 10; CPD, 28 Aug. 1924, pp. 3682–4, 4 Mar. 1927, pp. 115–16, 5 Dec. 1929, pp. 763–4, 12 Dec. 1929, p. 1138, 13 Mar. 1929, pp. 1090–1.

[7] CPD, 13 June 1928, pp. 5964–5, 13 Mar. 1929, p. 1070, 8 Feb. 1929, pp. 122–7; Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 16 Oct. 1929, p. 11.

[8] CPD, 5 Dec. 1929, pp. 745, 762–4, 14 May 1931, p. 1909; Senate, Journals, 16 July 1930; CPP, Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill, report, 1930.

[9] Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 19 Dec. 1931, p. 15, 10 Mar. 1953, p. 3, 19 Jan. 1940, p. 9, 25 Mar. 1961, p. 3.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 353-357.

THOMPSON, William George (1863–1953)

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1922–32

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on the Discharge of Warrant Officer J. R. Allen from the Australian Military Forces, 1923

Printing Committee, 1923–32

Select Committee on the Case of Mr J. T. Dunk, 1924

Joint Select Committee on Commonwealth Electoral Law and Procedure, 1926–27

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1926–32

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1929

Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill, 1930

House Committee, 1931–32