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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thompson, John Willis (1860–1934)

by R. A. Ferrall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

John Willis Thompson (1860-1934), publican and transport pioneer, was born on 3 December 1860 in Hobart Town, son of John Thompson, shipwright, and his wife Eliza, née Kelly. He had virtually no education and was first employed driving the mail-coach from Bellerive to Sorell. Later, and in partnership with his brothers, he bought the local coaching firm which then became known as Thompson Bros. The business ended abruptly with the coming of the railway to the eastern coast. On 15 October 1884 at St David's Anglican Cathedral, Hobart, Thompson married Mary Ann Dixon, née Jackson, a widow with three children; they were to have five sons and two daughters.

In 1892 he moved to St Helens, leasing and later buying the Telegraph Hotel. Thompson pioneered the development of transport services on the east coast: he soon managed mail contracts, freight, passenger conveyance, boat hiring, and fishing and tourist excursions. He kept his teams of horses, coaches and equipment in immaculate condition. About 1912 Thompson bought a number of motor cars, including two 'Noiseless Napiers', one of which travelled close to half a million miles (804,670 km) before it was taken out of service. The need for reliable operatives for his undertakings was largely filled by the members of his family.

At the age of 50 Thompson passed some of his responsibilities to his sons. By this time the St Helens Hotel, as it had become known, was one of the biggest seaside hotels in Tasmania. Though he remained active, Thompson began to be regarded as somewhat eccentric: he wandered around his domain with his eyes half-closed, seldom removing his hat or revealing his thoughts. When he did speak, it was slowly, and with deliberation. His chubby, red, weather-beaten face and deadpan expression, together with an apparent guilelessness, concealed an agile brain. Nicknamed 'Gimlet', he was a generous family man who sought to give his patrons the best value possible; he took delight in preserving his 'closeness' in everyday affairs.

Survived by his seven children and three stepchildren, Thompson died on 4 May 1934 at St Helens and was buried in the local cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £11,023.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • R. A. Ferrall, Partly Personal (Hob, 1974)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 5 May 1934
  • Examiner (Launceston), 5, 7 May 1934
  • private information.

Citation details

R. A. Ferrall, 'Thompson, John Willis (1860–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 28 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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