J.O. & J.R. Wicking Trust

When John Wicking died in 2002, he and his late wife Janet left behind a great philanthropic legacy, which in so many ways has brought and will bring an immeasurable benefit to the Australian people, in research grants for dementia study, vision impairment, micro surgery - and invaluable gifts to the Arts. Here, we look at the people behind the people who left this generous legacy.



John Oswald Wicking, the only son of Mr and Mrs George W and Jeannie Wicking, of Balwyn, Victoria, and Janet Ramsay Tompson, the only child of Mr and Mrs Walter H and Margaret "Madge" Tompson, of Toorak, Victoria, announced their engagement on the 5th May, 1941. The newly engaged couple already understood the difficulties of separation.

The engagement announcement indicated Lieutenant John Wicking was on active service overseas. With the declaration of war in Europe in 1939, he had enlisted early in the AIF.

Little could the young couple have realised that even more desperate times lay ahead. Life was about to hit them some severe blows and any plans they may have had to marry in the near future would have to be postponed for quite some time.

Janet was just 21 years old, and John was 23.

Janet's mother Margaret Thomson Tomson (née Ramsay), was known to all as Madge.

Madge was one of nine children born to John and Margaret Ramsay (née Thomson) who emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1878.

Through the family, Madge had strong connections to Melbourne, Victoria - and Tasmanian - society.

One of Madge's brothers, who died long before Madge's daughter Janet was born, was Hugh Ramsay (1877-1906), a portraitist who had in 1900 sailed for Paris, where he had spent two years following his muse - painting.

After travelling from Paris to London in 1902, to discuss Nellie Melba's portrait, Hugh was diagnosed with tuberculosis, so for his health's sake he returned to Australia.

From 1902 while at home convalescing he would occupy himself by painting his sisters' portraits.

One of these paintings was of nineteen-year-old Madge, from whom the resulting portrait takes its title, Madge.

The Sisters (1904), is a particularly intriguing painting in the context of this article. The young woman you will find sitting on the left is again Madge - and her 'sister' is, according to the Queensland Art Gallery notation, a compilation of the initial languid pose of Jessie Ramsay's body - and in the completed painting has one aspect of another sister - Nell Ramsay's head.

Hugh died two years after completing The Sisters and Jessie, who had also contracted tuberculosis, would die four years later.

Meanwhile, Madge's older brother William (1868-1914), whose headstone in the Melbourne General Cemetery simply reads: In Loving Memory of William, Loved husband of Annie Ramsay, who died at Essendon, 4th September, 1914, aged 46 years. 'The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away' does not reflect the impact this man had made on his own generation and on generations to come, with a household product, in many ways insignificant yet quite important.

William had dabbled for a time in Real Estate with his father John when he left school, but a trip to New Zealand saw him meet and marry Annie Elizabeth Meek in 1901. This union would be the catalyst to change everything. On his return to Australia he set up a partnership with an ex-pat Scot, Hamilton McKellar.

The men would trade as Ramsay & McKellar. They had from hereon found the road to a fortune, albeit a rocky road to begin with, as this and other products were hawked around Melbourne by William with a horse and cart. His demographic? Farmers and the need for them to protect their boot leather!

There was money to be made - from polish - boot polish - Kiwi Boot Polish, named thus in deference to William's wife Annie's homeland. Although William died in 1914, the product had already gone on to to be used by armies - Australian, British and American - and by housewives - and eventually millions of people around the world to protect footwear - and get that extra special spit-n-polish-shine on their boots-n-shoes.

In the beginning competition was fierce from the other manufacturers though, until Kiwi came up with something innovative - when an edge was gained with the introduction of dark tan - a product which included a stain to restore colour to leather while the polish preserved it. Other colours would later follow. The men had it made.

McKellar left the company. William's father John then travelled as the company representative to the United Kingdom in 1912, to establish the Kiwi brand there. William followed the next year, to take the brand further, into Europe. By means serendipitous, this venture established a readily recognisable and enduring icon for New Zealand, in the kiwi, the flightless bird depicted on the polish-tin lids.           

After Williams early death aged 46 in 1914, his father John became chairman of directors and his brother James, managing director of the Kiwi Polish Co. Pty. Ltd, the result of the amalgamation of the British and Australian companies. William, however, sadly hadn't lived to realise the enormity of his humble venture.

Upon John snr's. death William's widow Annie took over as chair of the company, eventually having her two young sons join her. John would come aboard the firm in 1921, becoming managing director, and his brother James, would come in later, in 1926, to work as a consulting chemist.

And now to the Tasmanian connection: William's brother John Ramsay (1872-1944), had become a doctor and was the first 'Launcestonian' and the first medical practitioner to be knighted.   

To celebrate their brother John's investiture by the Governor-General Lord Gowrie in the New Year Honours of June 1939 elevating him to a knighthood, Miss Nellie Ramsay and her sister Madge (Mrs Walter Tomson) entertained a few close friends at the Hotel Windsor in Melbourne to mark the occasion. Among others, Madge's daughter and Sir John's niece Janet Tomson was in attendance.

Sir John Ramsay, K.B., C.B.E., C. of St. John, M.B., M.S., F.R.A.C.S. died at his Launceston home in February, 1944. His obituary resonated loudly of his lifetime achievements, his 50 years as a medical practitioner. With a few months spent practicing in New Zealand the remaining 48 years were spent in Tasmania. He was a teacher, a pioneer in surgery, especially in the treatment of the then prevalent hydatids cyst. Moving into private practice, he retained his association with the hospital in an honorary capacity, as consulting surgeon and during his time the LGH (Launceston General Hospital) had an enviable reputation as a training school. Sir John designed and built St. Margaret's Private Hospital (St. Vincents). He became competent in pathology, and particularly in xray work. The first operation to 'restart the human heart after it ceased to beat', was credited to him. A cricketer, he had played for Tasmania against Victoria, North against South (Tasmania), and at some time played for South Essendon (Victoria). In keeping with his Scottish heritage, he was a keen golfer, president of the Tasmanian Aero Club, a keen tennis player and a billiardist. Among many other things he was a Rotarian, having been president twice in Launceston - and he was a director on the board of the Kiwi Polish Co.

On the 22nd July, 1920 Madge Ramsay had married Walter Henry John Griffiths Tomson. Janet was their only child.

Madge, again following the Scottish predilection for golf, was a keen and successful player.

Madge had visited her older brother Sir John in Tasmania on several occasions.

The Tompson family also supported the public appeals made by the LGH, being known to donate funds for the purchase of items needed for the efficient running of the hospital.

Madge supported the likes of the Gentlewomen's Aid Society, the Lady Northcote Free Kindergarten, was president of the RACV Women's Golf Circle, was a captain of associates of Victoria Golf Club, and later president. She supported the Red Cross.

A vital woman who enjoyed embroidery, knitting and tapestry, her work would find its way to the Children's Hospital in Melbourne, or she would judge such work at shows.

On the 22nd of May, 1941, after a week's illness and just 17 days after her daughter Janet had announced her engagement, Madge, aged 57, was dead.

 With the tragic loss of her mother, the theatre nights, the whirl of engagements, the visits to Tasmania to visit Uncle John dimmed for this young woman - and her fiancé was fighting overseas, having been posted to Egypt, and then on to Crete.

What more could happen?

It wasn't long before further bad news arrived.

Firstly came word from Crete that fiancé John was listed as missing.

Then a simple personal notice placed in The Argus by John's parents, Mr and Mrs George Wicking, advised their missing son had been found and was well.

It eventuated he had been taken to Germany as a prisoner of war.

What was Janet to do...

Meanwhile, John's father George, who was an author of detective, murder and mystery novels, continued to write while he and his wife, Jeannie, waited for news of their son.

George had had some success with publications with Angus & Robertson, with titles such as Boom-time Gold (1936), Bales of Trouble (1937), The Glory Box Mystery (1937), The Mysterious Valley (1938), Menu [manuscript] (1939), Galleon's Gold: a Romance of Buried Treasure (1940) - and again, Bales of Trouble, published by the Braille Writers' Association of Victoria (1943).

The Argus of 2nd March, 1940 wrote: 'Mr Wicking is one of the band of Melbourne authors who is trying to wean the Australian reading public from the imported 'popular' novel. He has several adventure stories to his credit, and should please his admirers with Galleon's Gold'

Janet threw herself into activity, helping with the Red Cross parcels that would be sent to servicemen in different fields of conflict across the globe.

Three years would pass and in December 1944 she was still helping pack parcels for the Red Cross. The Argus ran a story, telling of the hard work that had begun in chilly July and was ending in a heat wave that year. The parcels would be distributed far and wide, to soldiers in Victoria (Australia) hospitals, to sailors in sick bays at sea, to service personnel in New Guinea, or even to the old diggers still suffering from their injuries acquired during the Great War.

The women packing the parcels worked on an assembly line, with some folding the cartons in readiness for the socks and handkerchiefs, toothbrushes, bottles of barley sugar and so on. When the boxes came to Miss Janet Tomson, she inserted razor blades and stationary into each one.

Some parcels were prepared especially for servicewomen. These included little extras, like eau de cologne.

16,000 parcels went out from this small endeavour taking place on the top floor of Red Cross House in Melbourne in 1944.

1944 proved to not be a happy year for Janet.

For some time her father, Walter, had been working as a Chartered Accountant in Collins Street, Melbourne. Life had been good. Walter liked big game fishing. He'd caught a 308 lb swordfish off Eden in the summer of 1940, telephoning the news after the catch to say it had taken him an hour and forty minutes to land the fish.

Among the many things he was involved with before his wife Madge, Janet's mother had died he had in February 1941 been appointed as a new member to the board of management of the Victorian Association of Braille Writers.

Nothing is ever easy, and when there's a war on, there's only one thing to do - enlist. It is not clear at this point if active service was seen, but Janet's father Walter Tomson enlisted in the Australian Army on the 16th August, 1942, taking the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He would be discharged on September 12, 1944.

However, two months after his discharge, Walter Tompson, too, was dead. He had died aged 54 on the 14th November, 1944. He did not live to see his daughter married.

At the beginning of the year her Uncle John had died, and now at the end her father had gone. Another severe blow for Janet.

Meanwhile, precious information about John's progress as a prisioner-of-war was relished, no more so than when word got through that he had managed to study while incarcerated.

The following was published in The Argus, 3rd January, 1945: 'Mr and Mrs G W Wicking have been advised by the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants that their son, Lieutenant J O Wicking, now a prisoner of war in Germany, has passed the institute's examination in commercial law.'   On 6th January, 1945, the Army News, Darwin, published he had passed 'examinations in commercial and company law, having previously qualified while a POW in accountancy and auditing'. These credits would stand him in good stead when he returned to civilian life, whenever that might be, especially considering John had left school at a young age during the Great Depression, to help his family, by getting himself a job.

It wasn't until the 21st May, 1945, The Argus was able to post news of the returning servicemen who had been repatriated from Germany to England and who were then brought back to Australia. After four years, Lieutenant John Wicking's name was listed among those returning home. What hardships would he have suffered after he had made three failed attempts to escape?

Finally, on the 1st August, 1945, Janet with her man returned to her side married in the Littlejohn Memorial Chapel, Scotch College, Melbourne.

John went on to become a director on many company boards, including as chairman of the Nicholas Kiwi Ltd, while also being a grazier on a property in Euroa, Victoria.

Janet died in 1996 aged 76. After her death, John in 1998 donated to the National Gallery of Victoria four of her evening gowns made by La Petite of Collins Street. One, The Age newspaper reported, made circa 1955, 'would have cost thousands of dollars'.

Madge, the portrait of Janet's mother painted by Uncle Hugh, was given after her death to the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, while the portrait, The Sisters, had been purchased in 1921 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

A portrait of a young girl painted by Hugh Ramsay while in Paris, Jeanne (1902), and which prior to her death had been on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria from Janet Wicking, was due to be auctioned by Sotherby's Melbourne auction house. It's estimated value had been $1m. In a last minute change of heart, John Wicking directed the painting be withdrawn from sale and taken as a gift to the National Gallery of Victoria. He had feared the painting may have left the country when sold.

John Wicking died aged 84 in 2002.

The Potter Museum of Art had benefited from the Wicking legacy, being given the opportunity to exhibit some of the vast art collection, including twenty-five works by Hugh Ramsay before its dispersal to other venues in Victoria, Tasmania and Canberra.         

Vision Australia, in whose Heritage Gallery hangs an oil painting of John Wicking by William Dargie, in their honouring of both John and Janet Wicking, mention that the couple were inseparable. They had been significant supporters of the blind, or those who are vision impaired, providing moral and financial support to the formerly named Association for the Blind.

The O'Brien Institute, who indicate the hummingbird is an 'apt symbol for the miniature and precise world of microsurgery', have benefited from the perpetual Wicking Trust.

The Wicking legacy, through John Wicking's Will, is designed to provide funding to bring 'benefits for the blind or visually impaired, the aged or for persons suffering from Alzheimer's disease'.

And so we come full circle, to the opportunity given to mature-age students here in Tasmania who were aged between 50 and 79 in 2012. Under the auspices of the Wicking Foundation: The Wicking Dementia Research Education Centre and the Univesity of Tasmania via the Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project, for the participants this involved their studies, and bi-annual cognitive brain function testing as part of the research project.

Here at this moment we take time to congratulate all those students in Tasmania who took the challenge and went into or back to university studies, for their accepting the challenge of sharing their progress through the foundation's research programme, and for staying the course to reach their goals. Well done and congratulations to all.

Adapted from an article written by Rose Frankcombe for Stylus,

SWWT's newsletter, February-March, 2012









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