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Thomson, Florence Alice (1864–1938)

by Fiona Lane

Florence Alice Thomson (1864-1938), pioneer motorist, was born Florence Alice Vardon on 3 December 1864, in Umballa, Bengal, (Ambala, Haryana), India, the daughter of Englishman Stafford Willard Vardon, who was stationed in India with the 98th Regiment of Foot, and his wife Mary Jane nee Russell.

As a young woman Florence was a student at The Training College for Teachers of the Deaf in Ealing, London. The College was established in 1878 by Benjamin St John Ackers and instructed the trainee teachers, most of whom were woman, to teach lip reading. After graduating, Vardon travelled to Australia. In 1888 she began employment in Melbourne, Victoria, with the organisation then known as The Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, in St Kilda Road.

In 1892 Vardon resigned her position at the Asylum and moved to Adelaide where she married dentist, Benjamin Thomson on 10 September 1892. Ben Thomson provided dentistry free of charge to the deaf community in rural South Australia as well as running his business on North Terrace in Adelaide. Florence and Ben did not have any children.

Living on North Terrace in the early 20th Century, Florence Thomson took an interest in motor cars, teaching herself to drive. In 1904, following her husband’s successful attempt to drive from Adelaide to Melbourne the previous year in a motor car, Thomson, accompanied by a chauffeur-mechanic, drove a 5 horsepower Beeston Humberette over the same route, becoming only the second person and the first woman to do so.

In 1905 she travelled by boat to Sydney to compete in the Sydney to Melbourne Dunlop Reliability Trial, successfully driving a new 6 horsepower Wolseley between the two capitals. Thomson was the only female entrant and completed the challenging 572 mile course, where many of her male counterparts did not.

Thomson was an early member of the Automobile and Motor Cycling Club of South Australia, participating in runs and competitions from its inception in 1903 with her male counterparts.

She was a friend and supporter of overland adventurer and pioneer bicyclist and motorist Francis Birtles, corresponding with him and accommodating him at her North Terrace home during some of his journeys.

As well as assisting her husband in his practice, Thomson held the position of Secretary of the Ladies Committee for the Deaf and Dumb Mission in Adelaide for over forty years. She continued to teach lip reading throughout her life to those who could not hear and was an active member of the Australian Ladies Kennel Club, breeding and showing prize winning Pug dogs.

In 1933 Thomson supported the move, along with other pioneering South Australian motorists, including Murray Aunger, to implement driving tests for motorists. The Adelaide Advertiser often sought Thomson out for her opinion on current day motoring issues. She was happy to give her point of view. In 1935 Thomson and her husband won £1000, being the second prize in a state lottery. Generous, not only with her time and expertise, but also her good fortune, the couple shared their windfall with their dental nurse, Miss B. O. Solomon. 

Florence Thomson died in her home on North Terrace, Adelaide on 28 January 1938. She was cremated, as was her wish, and her remains were interred at the West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide. In her will, dated 15 August 1932, Thomson left a large share portfolio to numerous organisations including the Deaf and Dumb Society, the children’s hospital, and the RSPCA. She also left four hundred pounds, shares, and many of her personal belongings, including her “wearing apparel,” to her live-in maid, Elizabeth Ida Rogasch.

Following her death, Thomson was honoured with the naming of the “Florence Thomson Memorial Wing” at the Angas Home for the Deaf in Parafield. The wing was opened by Lady Muriel, wife of the South Australian Governor, Sir Malcolm Barclay-Harvey on 20 October 1939. 

Select Bibliography 

  • Advertiser (Adelaide SA 1903-1939)
  • Argus (Melbourne, Vic 1888-1892)
  • Findmypast.com.au. British India Office Ecclesiastical Returns- Births & Baptisms.
  • Genealogy SA. Marriage Registration Database. Online Database Search (genealogysa.org.au) South Australian Registrar of Birth, Deaths and Marriages.
  • News (Adelaide, SA 1929)
  • Probate Registry. Supreme Court Probate Registry of South Australia. Will of Florence Alice Thomson.

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Citation details

Fiona Lane, 'Thomson, Florence Alice (1864–1938)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-florence-alice-32607/text40469, accessed 3 July 2022.

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