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A Visionary Servant of the People

By: Ms Prue Walker, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 28 Nov 2013

Edward Deas Thomson - the ideal public servant.

Cartoon of Edward Deas Thomson

 © image from the 'Illustrated Sydney News', 4 February 1854, NLA Newspapers

I’ve been reading about the very early days of the Museum and the many and varied characters who were involved with the collection during that time, and the one who stands out for me is Edward Deas Thomson.

After the accident that caused the death of William Holmes, the collection was moved to central ground floor rooms in the Legislative Council Building in Macquarie Street.  These two rooms and a corridor were later combined into what is now known as the Sir Henry Parkes Room.  In 1831 that was where Edward Deas Thomson worked as clerk to the Executive and Legislative Councils. Despite the heavy workload associated with this dual role, he gradually assumed responsibility for the collection, although its daily care was carried out by his messenger, William Galvin, with the assistance of John Roach.

He began with a request for a daily supply of coal so that ‘a fire should constantly be kept up’ to keep bird specimens dry. He continued to interest himself in the financial requirements for the preservation of the existing collection, and also its future expansion. But his interest was much more visionary than day to day maintenance. He wrote to the Colonial Secretary:

'I would also take the liberty of suggesting that the Institution be called the "Australian Museum", and placed under the management of Trustees, to be nominated by His Excellency the Governor’.

The Museum had previously been known as the Colonial Museum, or sometimes the Sydney Museum, but the Australian Museum had a nice ring to it. It was appropriate at the time as New South Wales was the only colony, but the name did cause some jealousy when other colonies were established.

George Bennett had taken over responsibility for the Museum by 1836, when the collection was moved out of the Legislative Council Building, but Edward Deas Thomson retained his interest until his death.

When a Committee of Superintendence for the Museum was set up in 1836, he was a member for the entire life of the committee. In 1853 the Committee of Superintendence was replaced by a Board of Trustees and Edward Deas Thomson served as a member of the Trust until 1856. He subsequently served as Chairman of the Trust in 1861, 1864, 1865, 1867 and from 1869 until 1872.

But his concern was not confined to the Museum. He served as Colonial Secretary for nearly 20 years and was a member of the Legislative Council from 1837 until his death. After his retirement as Colonial Secretary he became vice-chancellor, and later chancellor of the fledgling University of Sydney.

According to Percival Serle in his 1949 Dictionary of Australian Biography ‘He was the ideal public servant, well-educated, capable, loyal, honest, calm and tactful….’, and he was also a man of vision.