Thomas Beckett was one of seven children of a London pharmacist. As a young man he went to Edinburgh to study medicine gaining his qualification in 1880. He spent the next five years as a ship’s surgeon before embarking for a new life in Australia with wife Kate Henrietta Beckett (nee Lawrence) and young son George, born a year after their Westminster wedding in 1883. On 15 June 1885, sailing as the surgeon on the Port Phillip, 26-year old Thomas arrived in Australia. His family travelled with him but left the ship in Melbourne on 6 June while he continued his duty on to Sydney before being discharged and travelling back to join them. The Becketts added to their numbers with Helen Rose (known as Nellie) arriving that same year while the family were staying in Prahan.
Now a family man Thomas set up his first medical practice in the central-north Victorian town of Charlton where Annie Maud was born in 1888. Sadly she died 8 months later and it was two years before the next Beckett child Lawrence came along. Thomas was an ambitious, progressive physician and a committed member of the community. While the family lived in Charlton he held the rank of Captain in the Victorian Militia. In 1891 the family sailed back to England for a visit before returning to Melbourne. Their last child Kathleen was born in May 1892 at their new cottage at 91 Westbourne Grove. Northcote at the time was a suburb of elegant houses and grand Victorian municipal architecture. Set on Ruckers Hill they surveyed the city from far enough away to provide a leisurely lifestyle for the booming middle and gold wealthy classes. The Beckett family was going up in the world when they moved opposite the Town Hall to the double storeyed attached townhouse at 180 High Street. The house called Alma provided the children with a backyard in which to play and entertain neighbourhood friends. Thomas Beckett was a keen amateur photographer and documented family life in pictures of the children holding tea parties, playing with their dog Barrie, boxing, and woodworking. His collection of domestic and local photographs of Northcote was donated to Museum Victoria and feature on their website.
The Becketts moved in 1905, to be closer to the areas where Melbourne’s big medical institutions were establishing. During the pre-WWI years of 1906-1912 Thomas’ time was divided between Chelmer the gracious family home at 340 St Kilda Road, South Yarra and his practice at 472 Albert Street, East Melbourne. Also around this time too the girls Nellie and Kathleen followed their father into medicine becoming nurses stationed at Alfred Hospital and around the medical institutions of East Melbourne. Nellie sailed with a nursing friend to San Francisco in 1911 and quite likely both would have been caught up in service to The Great War.
Thomas Beckett’s legacy to Melbourne’s medical advancement occurred in radiology. Along with friend Frederick John Clendinnen (1860-1913) he pioneered the use of x-ray in private practice. Skilled in electrical mechanics and woodwork Beckett built his first spark x-ray apparatus including batteries, cabinets and tables in his Northcote home around 1900. This ingenuity and dedication won him a place as head of the X-Ray Department at the Alfred Hospital from 1901 to 1908.
Beckett’s next move was to Nicholson Street, Fitzroy where he lived from 1913 to 1933. This was his final private practice as his health has suffered from long term exposure to x-rays. The last fifteen years of his life were spent in pain with the eventual loss of an arm, fingers and the tops of his ears to radiation. The house at number 132-134 Nicholson Street (now Mary Glowrey House) still bears the doctor’s name in the leadlighting over the door. Thomas Beckett died in 1937.
England and Wales Free BMD Marriage index 1837-1915
New South Wales, Australia, Unassisted Immigrant Passenger Lists, 1826-1922
California Passenger and Crew List, 1893-1957
Museum Victoria Collections & Research
Death index Victoria 1921-1985 : index to deaths in Victoria. Melbourne : Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. 1998.
Northcote Leader (Melbourne), Newspaper, Northcote 1882