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Gordon Augustus Thomson (1799–1886)

About fourteen years ago there was published in The Argus an article headed Early Australian Reminiscences, by Gordon Augustus Thomson, of Belfast, Ireland. That gentleman has now passed away. He died early yesterday morning, having almost reached his 86th birthday. When he dictated the article referred to he described himself as "a relic of the past century, having been born in the year 1799," and one who in his "course of wandering over the world had seen much of the early days of what is now Melbourne and Victoria." He first visited this land in the early part of 1836, coming over from Launceston in a small schooner which carried sheep. A few days after his arrival he witnessed the first funeral, that of a child, on a spot now traversed by Queen-street, but then close by the river's brink. There were at that time only a few huts forming the settlement of Yarra Yarra, in a wilderness covered with large trees and thick scrub. Batman's hut was perched on the hill which afterwards bore his name and was the only place of pretentious appearance, having an imitation brick chimney. A little up the bank of the River Yarra there were a few huts of "wattle and daub," in one of which a Dr. Thompson and his wife resided; with them Mr Thomson got his food, and he assisted them, as he playfully said, by acting as a "hewer of wood and drawer of water" to early Melbourne generally. The chief evidences of civilisation at that time were the fowls and tame kangaroos which wandered about the huts; and the food was principally, if not entirely, damper and Irish salt pork, with tea and sugar of course. The larder could always be replenished with kangaroo and wild fowl, so that there was abundant fare for all. Mr. Thomson remained long enough to inspect the district as far inland as where Geelong now stands, and he made sundry incursions into the dense bush. He enlarged upon the rough sketch map then in use by the Batman Company, and taking it with him to Sydney which he visited soon after, it was there published, and as a great interest was then springing up in that city about the new settlement on the Yarra Yarra, his map was eagerly consulted. As might be expected Mr Thomson had much folklore— such as it was—of those primitive days in the Australias over which he rambled at large— of the natives, of the wild white men, convicts, ticket-of-leave men, and settlers. Much that he knew must have passed away with him, for he was not given to commit his mental scraps of information to paper. Of the sale of land in those early days it will be interesting to recall one of his stories :— "On these occasions," he says, "many of which I have witnessed between the natives and Batman and the other whites, the latter enrolled themselves as a company. Documents of these transfers or sales were drawn up by a Mr Gellibrand, who had to devise a practical solution to enable the original owner or occupier to attest the deeds. Some lamp-black and grease were mixed together, and, after such explanation of the business as could be introduced into the brain of the blackfellow, we blacked his hand with the mixture and so showed him— very literally—how to afix his sign manual! I often wondered how it would be possible afterwards, had necessity arisen, to have proved this act and deed, but so far I have not heard that any difficulty has been experienced."

His voyage over here from Launceston, Tasmania, took eight or nine days. His description of the voyage was that it was very enjoyable. He made bait of the crimson lining of an old military cloak and caught such quantities of barracouta to supplement the one piece of pork which they had on board that the crew were able to salt them down and make many presents afterwards when they came ashore. Mr. Thomson treasured a card of invitation to a supper and ball given to His Excellency Sir George Arthur, the then Governor of Tasmania. This gathering he attended in Launceston in 1836. In his early travels here and elsewhere up and down the world Mr. Thomson did not carry money. "On arriving at an inn," he says, "I gave the landlord my name, told him I did not carry money and inquired if an order upon certain well-known bankers would do; and the answer was always in the affirmative, whether for shillings or for pounds. This was all the more necessary in these young Australian colonies, for in those days money did not come to hand with desirable regularity. On one occasion a letter of credit did not reach me till it was out of date, and I had some trouble about it." But Mr. Thomson's money anxieties were never very serious. He was the youngest son of one of the old county families of his native district, and was throughout life most amply provided for so that he was able at all times to maintain the good social position into which he was born. In early life he was not robust; hence his studies were not closely followed, and his taste for travel had early and life-long gratification until the arrest of years made permanent location desirable. About 45 years ago he returned to his native city, Belfast (Ireland), and erected a very fine mansion, which he named "Bedeque-house," in memory of some associations connected with family estates in a foreign country. This beautiful house had rich stores of curiosities and relics gathered in many lands. Various members of his family had seen distinguished military service. His uncle Colonel Gordon, after whom he was named, and whose heir he became, took the island of St Vincent, and died there, as Governor, after many years' residence. The late Sir Arthur Kennedy, Governor of Queensland, was a schoolmate and old friend of Mr. Thomson's. General Sir E. Selby Smith, KCMG, one of the commissioners of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, is his nephew. The family estates of Castleton and Lowood were well known to North of Ireland men. In the home country Mr Thomson often received the late Rev A. M. Henderson with whom he was acquainted in later years as the minister of Collins street Independent Church, Melbourne and to this circumstance may possibly be attributed a connexion with that congregation which ripened into an attachment under the ministry of the late Rev Thomas Jones. Mr Thomson's chief interest as a traveller was in the scenes of the Holy Land where influential introductions gave him large opportunities for observation. He has occasionally supplied illustrative facts, which have found their way into circulation and some of his descriptive remarks upon the scenery of the region round about Mount Sinai and of its weird grandeur during thunderstorms which he witnessed have afforded instruction and pleasure to his friends at many times. Mr Thomson never married and he retained to the end of his days "bachelor habits." While remaining for several years in his native country he was often solicited to take a leading part in civic and religious matters but he declined these honours. Yet he was keenly alive to what was passing in the world, and throughout life retained in full flavour, those Tory sentiments which in his early days were the prominent characteristics of the leading families of the Province of Ulster in Ireland. When he became a decidedly religious man he took an active interest in visiting the sick, and in ministering to the deserving poor in many ways, and this practical Christianity only ended with the failure of physical ability a few months ago. His early training in a wealthy home gave to his manners an influence which lent force to his pleadings and made his personal appeals more powerful. One instance of his charity may be mentioned in the case of a disabled woman whom he visited when on a tour in the Highlands of Scotland about forty years ago. Finding that she needed more than good words he promised material help, and he arranged that this should be paid as long as the sufferer lived. To benefit his health, and to do some good to those to whom he was strongly attached, he returned to this colony in 1872, to find the settlement by the scrub-covered bank of the Yarra Yarra "crowned," as he said, "by the noble city of Melbourne," and to lay his bones here." His remains will now rest in ground which he selected several years ago in the Kew Cemetery. The interment takes place to-day, the funeral leaving his late residence, Bedeque-house, Dudley-street, West Melbourne, at 2 p.m.

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'Thomson, Gordon Augustus (1799–1886)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 September, 1799
Belfast, Antrim, Ireland


7 June, 1886 (aged 86)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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