Ray Herbert Thomson
Paper Chaser 1894-1976

The creation, development, and success of the international Thomson organization is one of the most remarkable commercial achievements in the twentieth century and perhaps in the entire history of business in the Western World. By the mid 1990s this corporation – an enterprise involved with newspapers, specialized information, publishing, and leisure travel – had annual revenues of over eight billion dollars. It was engaged in a variety of business activities, particularly the publishing of newspapers in North America and a wide range of information and publishing products throughout the world. This vast commercial group grew initially from the hard work, experience, and business abilities of one man – Roy Thomson.

Born in 1848, George was the eldest child of George Chaffey and Ann Marie Leggo of Brockville, Canada West (Ontario). George Chaffey Sr. had established a shipbuilding operation in Brockville before venturing to Kingston in 1859. The precocious George Jr. attended the esteemed Kingston Grammar School for only a short time. His first love, engineering, could not be satisfied in school, therefore, by the age of 14 he was apprenticed as a marine engineer on Lake Ontario steamships. George then learned administrative skills in Toronto at the bank of his Uncle Benjamin Chaffey. There in 1869 he married Annette, the only daughter of Thomas McCord, the city chamberlain. In the decade of the 1870s, he formed, with his father, a partnership that specialized in building shallow-draught steamers for the Great Lakes and Ohio River trade.

Roy Herbert Thomson once said that he liked anything that glitters. A newspaper reporter retorted: “Newspapers don’t glitter, sir!” Lord Thomson quipped: “ No, but their balance sheets do!” By the time he relinquished the massive Thomson empire to son Kenneth, Lord Thomson of Fleet was one of the world’s most successful newspaper publishers of this century. [Photo, courtesy The Toronto Star]

In 1878, George Sr. was enticed to join a Canadian settlement in Riverside, California, where the Santa Ana River irrigation scheme had earlier been established. George Jr. followed a younger brother, William Benjamin (1856-1926) to the settlement in 1880, and they formed a partnership based on the success they had witnessed within the irrigation scheme. They purchased land and water rights on the Cucamonga Plain (presently in San Bernardino County), designed extensive irrigation colonies, and planned towns at Etiwanda and Ontario based on the sale of blocks of land serviced by a mutual non-profit irrigation company. Their vigorous plans included innovative techniques in irrigation management: their model colonies were featured at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1902. George also invested in electric lighting and telephones in California, and as president and joint engineer of the Los Angeles Electric Company, he made the southern California city the first in the United States to be lighted by electricity.

In 1885, a future Prime Minister of Australia, Alfred Deakin, chairman of a royal commission on water supply in Victoria, Australia, visited Ontario, California, and met with the Chaffeys. Excited by the challenge of droughts and deserts on the other side of the Pacific, George visited Melbourne in 1886, hastily told William to sell their California interests, and made plans for huge irrigation colonies in the Murray River valley at Mildura in Victoria and at Renmark in South Australia. The Chaffeys ran into serious problems trying to plant an individualist Californian model in the deserts of Australia, but these colonies eventually were successful and the brothers today are considered largely responsible for the development of Australia’s fruit industry.

Encumbered by debts and royal commissions (Chaffey Brothers Limited went into liquidation in 1895), George Chaffay left Australia in 1897, returning to California to invest in subdivision ventures near Los Angeles, irrigation projects, and banking partnerships, the latter with his son Andrew. One of George Chaffey’s greatest accomplishments was diverting the waters of the Colorado River to irrigate a portion of the desert he named Imperial Valley, today one of the richest agricultural areas of the western United States.

Lord Thomson of Fleet (left) shares humorous moment with rival Canadian Publisher, Lord Beaverbrook, on the occasion of the latter’s 85th birthday in London, England, 1964. [Photo, courtesy The Toronto Star]

In an article, “Brockville Boys at Home and Abroad,” published in 1914 in the Brockville Recorder, the reporter editorialized: “Thirty years ago, a stretch of desert, covered by cactus and sagebrush, inhabited only by quail, jackrabbits and their kind: today the beautiful, smiling town of Ontario, hundreds of freight cars bearing away the golden harvests of the orchards and the product of the town’s factories. Ontario is the ‘model colony’ – the pride not alone of San Bernardino County, but all of Southern California. How was it done? Irrigation and enterprise. And who did it – the Chaffey brothers, Brockville boys.”

George Chaffey was a pioneer in agricultural technology, designing irrigation systems that altered the landscapes and prospects of Pacific rim settlements in both California and Australia. He and his younger brother were innovators whose far-reaching efforts made possible the agricultural revolution that opened vast arid areas for agriculture and allowed food to be grown throughout the year and transported to areas that could not sustain year-round growth. He grew up fascinated with the study of engineering on the lush north shore of Lake Ontario and is credited, along with his brother William, with founding several communities in some of the driest regions of the world, the most important of which are Ontario, Mildura, and Renmark. William, who remained in Australia until his death in 1926, is remembered as an Australian pioneer. Statues of him stand today in both Renmark and Mildura. George died in Ontario, California, in 1932, one of the most significant planners and developers in American west coast history. It is fitting that the Chaffey name survives in Ontario, Canada, at a lockstation located on one of the greatest engineering achievements in its day, the Rideau Canal. Chaffey’s Locks was named for Samuel, a great-uncle of George and William.
Larry Turner