Thursday, July 18, 2013


Australia's oldest family business

Australia's oldest continuous family business is a farm in Tasmania, 26km north of Hobart on the Jordan River, would you believe, which is a tributary of the Derwent not far from the Museum of Old and New Art, Tassie's new big thing.
The farm has been operated by direct descendants of a passenger on the First Fleet, Daniel Stanfield , since 1808, which makes it 18 years older than Lionel Samson & Sons, the Perth merchant business that everyone thought was the oldest family business. In fact it turns out the oldest is Summerville Farm, which is now in the hands of the seventh generation.
And if you think it's tricky keeping a farm in the same family for seven generations, you'd be dead right. Part of the legacy of Jim Thompson, the 76-year-old sixth generation patriarch, to his two sons Walter and Peter, is a load of debt, in part from buying out his brother and partly from previous ancestral buyouts.
Farm successions are always difficult. Traditionally the oldest son gets the homestead block and the others get paddocks or cash, and that's what happened with Jim and his siblings. His older brother Robert got the homestead block, Jim got paddocks and their two sisters got paid out.
Robert stayed ten years and then sold up; Jim bought some of the farm but not all.
It started with the young Daniel Stanfield who arrived on the First Fleet and then spent ten years on Norfolk Island before heading to Van Dieman's Land to get a 310 acre selection on some beautiful fertile land.
It was a successful farm supplying chaff to Hobart and the Stanfields had seven children and all of them were set up with bits of the farm. Jim Thompson's great great grandmother was Maryanne, who married David Reynolds at the age of 17 and he got a 28 acre piece of the Stanfield farm with a 2-bedroom cottage as the dowry. It was called Summerville.
Unfortunately David drowned in the Derwent River before too long, and Maryanne married again, to one William Lamprill, and they had a son, William Lamprill II, who became a very prosperous member of Tasmanian society. And William II begat Henry, who begat Ila, who married Robert Thompson.
Ila's sister, Laura, also died young and her part of Summerville Farm – by now up to 3000 acres – was put on the market: Ila and Robert bought it for 24,000 pounds, which was a lot of money in those days – about $7 million in today's money.
Robert Thompson, Jim's father, died at the age of 55, in 1955, and the assets were split four ways, with Robert and Jim splitting the farm until Robert sold and Jim became the only Daniel Stanfield descendant still farming on the Jordan River.
Summerville Farm is now 2000 acres and is one of about 1000 Tasmanian farms growing poppies for the global drug industry. Glaxo Smith Klein started the Tasmanian poppy business in the 1960s to provide reliable supplies of opiate alkaloids for codeine and morphine around the world.
It has become a valuable cash crop and one of the mainstays of the Tasmanian economy, as well as being a crop that would surprise the Stanfields and Lamprills, if not have them spinning in their graves.
As well as poppies, the Thompsons grow legumes and run a few merino sheep and cattle. The farm grosses about $500,000 and costs are $350,000, including water, fertilizer and interest on the debt of a bit more than $1 million, which has doubled over the past ten years.
So the Thompsons aren't getting rich on Australia's oldest continuous family business. They're battlers, and Walter and Peter are not wealthy heirs. Their plan, for the moment, is to keep farming the place as a partnership.
Mind you, Summerville is starting to be surrounded by houses these days, since it's only 25 minutes from Hobart, and a lot of the neighbouring farms have been sold to subdividers. That's certainly a possibility for the Thompson property, and Walter and Peter are currently talking to the council and town planners about what might be done.
In the meantime Walter, being the oldest, got the homestead block, and Peter has bought another 10 acre block with a house on it closer to Brighton. Jim has retired to Newtown in Hobart.
They have five children between them. Will Summerville Farm make it to the eighth generation? Hard to say, but they are proud of being Australia's oldest family business. Wouldn't want to hand the title back to the Samsons now would they?


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