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James Henry Thomas

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James Henry Thomas (1826-1884)

1885 Obituary [1]

THE HON. JAMES HENRY THOMAS, J.P., Director of Public Works, Commissioner of Railways, Member of the Executive Council and of the Legislative Assembly, Perth, Western Australia, was born in London, March 2, 1826.

He was the fourth son of Mr. William Thomas, of Berners Street, Oxford Street, and was educated at the University College School. Having completed his education, he was articled to Messrs. Evans and Sons, mechanical engineers, who were famous for their good work and for making thoroughly efficient workmen. After serving his time, he was appointed to superintend the erection of the gun machinery manufactured at Messrs. Evans’ works, for the arsenal of Trubia, in Spain. Here he was engaged for about two years, and during this time acquired a sound knowledge of the French and Spanish languages. In supervising the erection of the gun-machinery he acquitted himself to the entire satisfaction of the Spanish Government. On his return to England he was selected to be the Engineer to the Imperial Gas-Company’s works at Vauxhall, which post he held for several years. This appointment, however, did not offer sufficient scope for his ambition. He accordingly resolved to push his fortune in the colonies, embarking for New South Wales in the ill-fated “Sarah Sands.”

After remaining in Sydney nearly a twelve month, occupied in desultory work, he was appointed in 1853 Engineer to the notable Fitzroy dry-dock, which was hewn out of the solid rock of Cockatoo Island, situated in the centre of Sydney Harbour. In superintending the carrying out of this great work, his natural self-confidence and readiness of resource stood him in good stead; for in colonial works of this magnitude, where recognised appliances are not always at hand, rough and ready methods have frequently to be devised; moreover, the dock had to be executed by convicts, who had, with considerable difficulty, to be drilled and instructed in their work. More than once his life was in danger from convict machinations. The basin of the great dock was blasted by the usual means, but when the dock entrance had to be cleared below water, other means had to be resorted to. The petards ordered for the purpose had not arrived. A number of oil-cans were therefore collected and roughly converted into torpedoes; with these the mouth of the dock, in spite of adverse predictions, was forced, the Fitzroy dock completed, and the caisson placed ready for the opening ceremony. This work occupied Mr. Thomas until 1857.

His next appointment was in the Railway Department of New South Wales, first as Inspector, and finally as Director of all the railway-lines in the colony. In this capacity he had the control of all the trains that conveyed H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh to various points in New South Vales.

In 1872-3 Mr. Thomas passed some months in England in connection with domestic affairs. Of his voyages from, and back to, Australia, he published on his return to Sydney, a short but interesting account. About twelve or eighteen months after his return to the colony, finding that an engineer was required to carry out extensive works at Perth, Western Australia, he competed for and obtained the appointment under the first administration of his Excellency Sir William Robinson in 1876. He was thus established in what was to prove the most important field of his labours. Here he was successively gazetted Director of Public Works, Commissioner of Railways, justice of the peace, member of the Executive-Council and of the Legislative Assembly. His duties were, indeed, manifold ; he had to design and superintend the erection of lighthouses, public edifices, and to plan and superintend the carrying out of the railway and telegraph lines. As one of the Commissioners for Western Australia for the English section at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, he had the honour of receiving a medal, accompanied with an autograph letter from and a photograph of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.

But his duties were too onerous, and manifold, even for a constitution such as his. His health gradually gave way ; a second voyage to England was had recourse to as a remedial measure ; this appeared to have restored him, but on his return to Perth and to his numerous duties his health again broke down. A voyage to Sydney was then tried, and was thought to have thoroughly reinstated him, but it was unavailing. His friends began regretfully to perceive that he was doomed. Still, with usual courage, he bravely held on to his duties till he fainted in his place in the Legislative Assembly, whence he was borne to the home he was never again to leave. He died on the 16th July, 1884. On Mr. Thomas's death becoming known the House immediately adjourned, the Colonial Secretary and the Commissioner for Crown Lands both uttering warm tributes to his memory. On the day of the funeral the public offices were closed, and the hushed aspect of the town testified to the great respect in which he was held.

Mr. Thomas was elected a Member of the Institution on the 14th of January, 1879.

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