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Thomas Walker was, during his lifetime and at his death, widely praised as a great philanthropist. He was variously described as ‘the Peabody’ of NSW and as a ‘Man of Ross’. Such designations comparing him to other famous philanthropists were underlined by his very large bequest given to build a convalescent hospital which came to bear his name. At his death, quoting Horace Mann, one tribute to Thomas recorded that
‘the soul of the truly benevolent man does not seem to reside much in his own body. It migrates into the life of others, and finds its own happiness in increasing and prolonging their pleasures, in extinguishing or solacing their pains’. Such a soul had Thomas Walker.
How philanthropic was the soul of Thomas Walker and how much did he migrate into the lives of others? While some attention has been given to his life, there has been little work done on that for which he is principally remembered and for which he attracted glowing praise: his philanthropy. Thomas was born on May 3, 1804, the elder son of James Thomas Walker, merchant, and his wife Anne, née Walker, of Perth, Scotland. His birthplace is usually said to be at Leith, Scotland, and he was certainly baptised in the church at South Leith on July 29, 1804, nearly three months after his birth. According to his marriage certificate, which is unlikely to be incorrect as Thomas himself probably supplied the information, he was actually born in England. It would appear that at the time of his birth Thomas’ parents were resident there and later returned to Leith where Thomas was baptised.
Thomas came to Sydney in April 1822 on the Active when he was 18 years of age and brought some family capital with him as, on his arrival, he deposited £2000 in the Bank of New South Wales. He joined his uncle William’s business, Riley and Walker, and by 1829 was a partner with his uncle and Joseph Moore in the firm of William Walker and Co. Later, his younger brother Archibald, who had arrived in the colony in 1832, joined the partnership and both Thomas and Archibald remained as partners in the firm until 1843. Archibald returned to England, but Thomas remained in the colony and upon retiring from the company kept some of his capital invested with it. William Walker and Co had wide business interests as merchants, ship owners and pastoralists, and was a largely successful and profitable business which negotiated the uncertainties of colonial economic life and conditions. The depression of the 1840s was a particularly difficult time for the company and by 1849 Thomas had become insolvent. That he, by the time of his death, had the wealth he had was a remarkable achievement and business recovery which was assisted by the diversity of his financial interests. (more…)