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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Burke, Thomas Michael (1870–1949)

by Tony Hannan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Thomas Michael Burke (1870-1949), businessman and philanthropist, was born on 30 June 1870 at Norval near Ararat, Victoria, second son of William Marcus Burke, Dublin-born miner, and his wife Mary Ann, née Florence, of Aberdeen, Scotland. After attending Norval State School and Ararat High School, Burke became a railway clerk at Spencer Street, Melbourne, in 1887. Five years later he was promoted to Ararat. There on 25 July 1898 at St Mary's Catholic Church, he married Margaret Duggan Brady, daughter of a railway inspector.

Burke was an active member of the Australian Natives' Association, becoming president of the Ararat branch in the last years of the Federal movement. He was elected vice-president of the Victorian A.N.A. in 1900-01, and chief president in 1902-03, when he led delegations to Western Australia and Tasmania to found branches there.

In March 1902 Burke became secretary of the Civil Service Co-operative Society of Victoria, and was a leader of railwaymen in their confrontation with the (Sir) William Irvine government over its wages and anti-union policies. Burke quit the railways just before the application of coercive legislation against strikers and their spokesmen, and in May 1903 he established the Civil Service Co-operative Store, Flinders Street, Melbourne, becoming manager. In 1904 he was secretary of the first 'Made-in-Australia' Exhibition and frequently spoke out in favour of protection and co-operatives. In September 1914 he stood as Labor candidate for the Federal seat of Corangamite but narrowly lost.

Following large trading losses in mid-1914 the Co-operative Store was sold in 1915. Burke then turned to the real estate business. He bought land in the depressed market of the war years, subdivided it and sold it on nominal deposit and easy terms in the immediate post-war period. His scale of operations made him one of Australia's best-known real estate agents. His advertising spread the 'new gospel' of '8d. a day' to secure a stake in an 'expanding Australia'. By 1924 Burke had diversified into finance and investment, and had set up offices in country centres as well as in Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane and Adelaide. In August 1924 T. M. Burke Pty Ltd was incorporated as a holding company with family shareholding.

The Depression caused the temporary collapse of the land market. By the mid-1930s, however, Burke had reverted to more conventional sales and the company both survived and prospered. Branches were set up in Auckland, Singapore and London. In May 1936 he handed over day to day management to his sons while remaining chairman of directors.

Burke was a member of all major Victorian racing-clubs, an owner from the 1920s of successful racehorses (including Quintus, who won the Newmarket and Standish handicaps), and president of the Breeders, Owners, and Trainers' Association of Victoria for several years. His philanthropic activities included financial support to the Melbourne University Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra and a gift of land on the summit of Mount Dandenong for a public park. His membership of the Victorian Hospitals and Charities Board in 1931-49 included terms as chairman in 1936-39 and 1944-45. He was also a member of the Victorian Council of the Australian Red Cross. He was appointed consul for Poland in 1933 and kept this post for the rest of his life.

Burke was an ardent Catholic benefactor and lay leader. In 1920 he bought Studley Hall, Kew, and gave it to the Jesuits as a preparatory school for Xavier College; it became known as Burke Hall. His large donations helped to establish Corpus Christi College, Werribee, and St Anthony's Foundling Home, Sydney; smaller gifts sustained many Catholic institutions and activities. He was first national chairman of the Knights of the Southern Cross and in 1926 presented a chalice to Pope Pius XI on behalf of Australian Catholic businessmen. He was on the committee for the National Eucharistic Congress held in Melbourne in December 1934. A member of the Australian Catholic Federation in its heyday, 1911-22, he lobbied in vain Prime Minister (Viscount) Bruce in 1928 to seek a national solution to state aid, gave the opening address in the 'Education Justice' campaign in Victoria in 1929, and was prominent in organizing the Catholic Education Congress of November 1936 in Adelaide, at which he moved the resolution to establish a Catholic Taxpayers' Association.

In 1942 Burke was appointed C.M.G. His last years were spent quietly at his home at Armadale, where he died of cancer on 16 February 1949, survived by his wife, five sons and two daughters; he was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His portrait by Max Meldrum hangs in the library of Burke Hall.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. Menadue, A Centenary History of the Australian Natives' Association 1871-1971 (Melb, 1971)
  • K. S. C., Advance Australia, Mar 1969
  • A. W. Hannan, Victorian Catholics, State Aid and Religious Instruction in State Schools, 1901-39 (M.Ed. thesis, Monash University, 1973)
  • T. M. Burke Pty Ltd records (Corporate Affairs Office, Melbourne)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tony Hannan, 'Burke, Thomas Michael (1870–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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