Thomas Dyson: The Canny one

When Thomas Dyson was a young boy, he shot the son of his father’s main business rival in the head. After that, his fortunes could only improve…
Wheelwright, house builder, real-estate mogul, furniture manufacturer, poultry breeder, entrepreneur— Thomas Dyson was all of these things. Like his father, he was a success at most of his endeavours. Unlike his father, his success mostly endured.

Thomas was the first child of James Dyson and Jane to be born after Jane’s first husband was no longer on the scene, but some years before his parents finally tied the knot. Perhaps it was to avoid the word “bastard” scrawled across his official birth certificate (as was the custom of time), his parents did not bother to apply for such paperwork. Nevertheless, Thomas Dyson was born in Perth on 15 January 1855.

He was not immune to the scandal and tragedy that dogged the family name, but perhaps because he got his own personal downfall out of the way at such a young age (young even by Dyson standards) he was able to better weather the later catastrophes that befell the wider family; insulated by both physical distance and also (perhaps) a lesser set of personal failings than his hapless parents, brothers and sisters. While he was more than capable of being a bloody idiot, Thomas was probably the most lucky Dyson of his generation at his chosen endeavours, and his family life appeared to be mostly a happy one. Thomas, essentially, was the non-dysfunctional one of the clan.

The greatest event of moronic stupidity in his life he committed when he was thirteen. It was the year 1867 and the family fortunes were on the rise. His father was fast becoming one of the largest employers in the colony on the back of a growing business empire—the core of which was supplying timber and other building supplies—plus shopkeeping, a butchers and bakers, market gardening and horse trading. With such economic clout his father could no longer be socially ignored. Now treasurer for such societies as the Oddfellows and a rising member of the Sons of Australia Benefit Society, a seat on the Perth Municipal Council beckoned as the highest civic appointment someone with James Dyson’s background could ever hope to aspire to. Then his teenage son shot the much younger child of a probable business rival in the head at near point-blank range with a rife.

It was somewhat beside the point that the rifle was loaded with a blank charge and the eight year old Benjamin Mason junior seemed to have escaped with naught but a severe blow to the side of the head and powder burns. If Thomas’s intention was to scare the living daylights out of the young kids who accompanied him on his hunting expedition into the wetlands that still sprawled to the north of the Perth township, he well and truly succeeded. Police Magistrate Edward Wilson Landor was not impressed. The only thing that saved young Thomas from a gaol sentence was the absence in the Colony at that time of any juvenile detention facilities. Thomas was confined to a cell for 24 hours before being returned to the court, and Landor saved his harshest language for Thomas’s father, whom he lambasted for “allowing little boys to go out shooting” in the first place. He then surrendered the lad into the custody of that same father.

What happened next is not in doubt. Only the timing of “when” remains obscure. Most of Dyson’s sons by his second marriage were placed into apprenticeships for some mechanical trade at a fairly young age. There were at least two blacksmiths, two print compositors— so Thomas was apprenticed to a wheelwright. Those other sons often completed their apprenticeships at locations some distance away from Perth, such as Champion Bay (Geraldton) or York, but Thomas was sent (or exiled, if you prefer) much further than that. His apprenticeship was most likely served in Geelong, in the colony of Victoria.

An unrepresentative photograph of Geelong, Victoria taken by the author, 2017

It was in that city that his future wife was born on 3 August 1857. Miss Margaret Wilkinson was the daughter of Thomas, a hat maker (deceased) from Cumberland in England, while her widowed mother was an Irish force of nature called Catherine (known as Kate). The youngish couple married on 15 February 1879 in the Anglican Church of St Luke, Emerald Hill (which was an early name for South Melbourne).

The new Mrs Dyson lied about her age on her marriage certificate, presumably to smooth over the fact that Margaret was not quite 21 at the time. This must have been a subterfuge for administrative simplicity, for as future events would demonstrate one did not cross the iron will of Thomas’s new mother-in-law lightly. But all the evidence so far suggests that Thomas did get on well with his new extended family and his marriage was a loving and successful one. They had six children together—all boys—at various locations around the Melbourne metropolis between 1879 (near exactly nine months after they wed) and 1888 (which was also the year Thomas’s father died).

Independent (Footscray, Vic. : 1883 – 1922) Saturday 28 July 1888 p2
Independent (Footscray, Vic. : 1883 – 1922) Saturday 28 May 1892 p2

Thomas may have been trained as a wheelwright, but his success at business came as a house-builder and real-estate agent operating in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray. One of the more appealing aspects of Thomas’s story (we’ll get to the less appealing bits eventually) is how his wife gave every appearance of being an active, equal— perhaps more than equal— participant in the family’s business affairs. Many commercial properties were in her name alone, as was much future newspaper advertising. Mrs Margaret Dyson’s properties did, however, have an unfortunate tendency to keep burning down.

While during the 1880’s Thomas might have been insulated from the family’s implosion of fortune back in the west, he could not escape the whiff of scandal that being linked to a disreputable family could bring— however in this instance Thomas had married into the scandal. William John Henry Wilkinson was his brother-in-law. In 1880 William married Miss Ellen Teresa Bradford. Five years hence, in 1885 (at the urging of his mother), Wilkinson, then a government telegraph clerk, instituted divorce proceedings against his wife on the grounds that he had been under-age at the time of their wedding and did not understand what he was doing. In 1880 William had been only seventeen and his bride-to-be eight years his senior. William, (like his elder sister) had lied on his marriage licence.

The Argus, Saturday 3 October 1885 p9
Launceston Examiner Saturday 7 November 1885 p1S
Launceston Examiner Saturday 7 November 1885 p1S

The continent-wide moral panic was vocal and furious. The idea that someone might end a marriage because they were merely young and stupid struck a chord with everyone across the continent stuck in a loveless marriage because the option to legally end it simply wasn’t there. The anger focussed on the young man for daring to think he could get away with what so many must have thought of, but dared not do. There was a strong stink of misogyny to the whole proceedings: He was held in contempt for the power his mother seemed to exert over him— probably also his failure to dominate a much older wife. William Wilkinson was not granted his divorce. Further more, his case was discussed in the Victorian Parliament as the Postmaster-general recommended he be sacked from government service. Finally he was charged with perjury— for lying on his marriage certificate. But even worse scandal was to follow: By a jury of his peers William Wilkinson was acquitted on that charge.

Williamstown Chronicle, Saturday 16 January 1886 p2

This was where Thomas Dyson came to notice. In early 1886 the family had been living in Footscray for about twelve months. One day William and Thomas’s mother-in-law paid a visit. Outrage that she has to live next to someone with scandalous in-laws was one provocation too many for his next door neighbour Mrs Scott. The offensive language charge she brought against Dyson was dismissed, however, when it finally reached court. (In case you were wondering, a “Poll” is a type of cow.)

Thomas Dyson (unlike the rest of his clan) tended to win his court cases either as plaintiff or defendant.

At the end of 1889, Dyson was listed as provisional director for a new company: The G. M. Pickles’ Melbourne and Suburban Carriage Company (Limited)— a similar style of business to that which his younger brother Drewy was then conducting back in Perth. Thomas’s involvement with (and possibly the company itself) was short lived. The last years of the 1880’s and the first years of the 1890’s was a time of economic depression in the eastern colonies. Meanwhile, back in the West, a gold-mining boom was getting underway, and the population of Perth was expanding like never before.

Thomas’s transfer back to Western Australia was a gradual process between 1893-1896. He finally occupied property on the west end of Murray Street, not far from his mother’s well-established brothel. He maintained relationships with at least some of his siblings during his long exile, most notably sisters Mary Jane (Jacky) and Mabel Grace Dyson, who he must have housed in Footscray during 1892, given that the address where Mabel gave birth to an illegitimate child (who was then adopted by their other brother Drewy) was only a few blocks away from his home.

Part of William Victor Dyson’s Victorian birth certificate. The Victorian bureaucrats were not wimps—unlike their Western Australian counterparts.
Independent (Footscray, Vic. : 1883 – 1922) Saturday 22 December 1888 p3

The long period of transition to the west might have been to avoid disrupting Thomas’s children’s education in Victorian schools, but eventually all the family was living in Perth, including at least one of Margret’s brothers (but not the infamous one). Their initial address was on George Street (a lost street of Perth) off Hay Street. There are advertisements for Thomas offering seeds for sale, and then recruiting an interior decorator, but by October 1893 the Dyson family were definitely established back on Murray Street and Thomas was advertising household furniture for sale.

The Daily News, Saturday 5 February 1898 p5

At some stage during the late 1890’s Thomas Dyson, from premises on Murray Street, was not just buying and selling furniture but manufacturing it in  as well. He might have been the first large-scale manufacturer of furniture in Western Australia, (but this might also just be family propaganda). He was considered a significant enough manufacturer in the Colony that he was invited to speak to at a Perth Town Hall meeting on the impact Federation (of the Australian colonies) would have on trade. Dyson’s position was that the abolition of the tariff between the colonies would have no adverse effect at all and was in favour. Offering an opposing view was Mr James Pearse, who owned a large boot factory in North Fremantle. He stated that he would immediately have to close his factory if Federation went ahead (The Pearses then made a fortune selling boots to the army during the Boer and Great Wars, and the factory remained open to the 1960’s ).

The West Australian, Monday 16 July 1900 p8

Not Thomas Dyson [SLWA 9689B/118]
There was also what might have been more than just friendly commercial rivalry with his younger brother, Drewy. The two shared obsessions with animal breeding— both were contestants (and judges) for dog and poultry shows in Perth. They were both similar physically, much to the chagrin of the victim of Drewy’s more volatile tongue, when he dragged Thomas by mistake into court instead:

“Yes, myself and brother are very much alike, only the brother is better looking”

Thomas quipped.

Thomas might have shared the same wry sense of the ridiculous as his brother, but he also had a streak of arrogance, or verging on bloody-mindedness, that could land him in serious trouble.  He was lucky in August 1899 not to be imprisoned for contempt of court when he told his fourteen-year-old son Gilbert not to front the magistrate for throwing stones in Wellington Street. It was only Margaret’s intervention on behalf of both recalcitrant father and son that saved the day. He also had the seemingly innocuous habit of driving his work-cart through King’s Park at the end of the day to unwind… just because. It is hard to work out who was being the more bull-headed on this occasion—The Perth city council passed a bye-law specifically targeting Dyson for doing this. Thomas escaped a court-imposed fine on a technicality.

Something interesting happened around the turn of the nineteenth century within Thomas’s family circle: If Thomas did not himself actively retire, the family businesses were now being fronted by his wife and several of their sons, particularly James and Percy Dyson. Oldest son Harry was a pearler, then a publican up in the town of Broome in the north-west of the State (now part Commonwealth of Western Australia).

The Daily News Friday 26 July 1901 p3

The last decade-and-a-half of Thomas’s life was punctuated by several family tragedies that may have contributed to his own end. His mother died down the road from where he lived in August 1899. How close Thomas was to his mother is not recorded, but she left nothing to him in her will. Then in July 1901 his seventeen-year-old son Frederick, who was in training to be a jockey, was killed in a gruesome riding accident at Belmont. First on the scene was horse trainer George Towton, who cradled the dead boy in his arms. Several years later, Thomas’s brother Septimus (not to be confused with Thomas’s own son of the same name) would marry Towton’s widow—so it was very much a family tragedy.

The West Australian Tuesday 26 March 1912 p1

In March 1911 Gilbert died, aged 25. It had been a long illness, and to his funeral came his uncles Joseph and Drewy, and his aunt Jacky, to whom Gilbert may have been especially close. Joseph Dyson himself was dead within a year.

Thomas Dyson died at his home at 535 Murray Street on 22 July 1914. He was 59 years old. He was buried in the Methodist portion of the Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth by the undertaking firm of C. H. Smith & Co. (Founded by the former husband of his sister Hannah, who divorced her and remarried!) in the same plot occupied by his sons Frederick and Gilbert. His wife Margaret eventually joined him there in 1938,  They had the good fortune to be interred in a corner of Karrakatta that is (for the time being) immune from the renewal process that will shortly obliterate the monuments of most of his children and wider family.

The grave of Thomas, Margaret, Frederick and Gilbert Dyson in Karrakatta Cemetery, WESLEYAN section AA no. 0238

Thomas was canny to the last.