He first came to prominence when he was selling radios in Ontario, and
to give his customers more programmes to listen to, decided to launch
his own radio station. He then moved into newspapers, buying The
Scotsman as a salute to his Scottish ancestors, followed by the first
Scottish independent television channel. By 1966, he owned both The
Times and The Sunday Times.
On 5 June 1894, Thomson was born as Roy Herbert Thomson in Toronto,
Ontario, Canada. Thomson's father was Herbert Thomson, a telegraphist
turned barber who worked at Toronto's Grosvenor Hotel (at Yonge and
Alexander - now site of Courtyard Marriott), and English-born Alice
Maud. Thomson's family lived at 32 Monteith Street, off Church Street in
Toronto, Ontario. Thomson's paternal grand-parents were Hugh Thomson and
Mary Nichol Sylvester. Thomson's grand-father Hugh was one of ten
children of George Thomson, son of Archibald Thomson, who emigrated from
Westerkirk, Scotland to Canada in 1773. Archibald was brother of David
Thomson, first European settler of Scarborough, Ontario.
Thomson’s ancestors were small tenant farmers on the estates of the
Dukes of Buccleuch at Bo'ness, in the parish of Westerkirk,
Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Thomson's ancestor, Archibald Thomson (born May
1749), migrated to British North America in 1773, marrying Elizabeth
McKay, of Quebec. The family eventually settled in Upper Canada, but
retained a sentimental attachment to their country of origin.
During World War I, Roy Thomson attended a business college, and owing
to bad eyesight he was rejected by the army. He went to Manitoba after
the war to become a farmer, but was unsuccessful. Thomson travelled to
Toronto again, where he held several jobs at different times; one of
which was selling radios. However, he found selling radios difficult
because the only district left for him to work in was Northern Ontario.
In order to give his potential customers something to listen to he
undertook to establish a radio station. By quite a stroke of luck, he
was able to procure a radio frequency and transmitter for $201. CFCH
officially went on the air in North Bay, Ontario on 3 March 1931. He
sold radios for quite some time after that, but his focus gradually
shifted to his radio station, rather than the actual radios.
In 1934, Thomson acquired his first newspaper. With a down payment of
$200 he purchased the Timmins Daily Press, in Timmins, Ontario. He began
an expansion of both radio stations and newspapers in various Ontario
locations in partnership with fellow Canadian, Jack Kent Cooke. In
addition to his media acquisitions, by 1949 Thomson was the owner of a
diverse group of companies, including several ladies' hairstyling
businesses, a fitted kitchen manufacturer, and an ice-cream cone
manufacturing operation. By the early 1950s, he owned 19 newspapers and
was president of the Canadian Daily Newspaper Publishers Association,
and then began his first foray into the British newspaper business by
starting up the Canadian Weekly Review to cater to expatriate Canadians
living in Britain.
In 1952, Thomson moved to Edinburgh and purchased The Scotsman
newspaper. In 1957, Thomson launched a successful bid for the commercial
television franchise for Central Scotland, named Scottish Television,
which he was to describe as a "permit to print money" (often misquoted
as a "licence to print money"). In 1959, Thomson purchased the Kemsley
group of newspapers, the largest in Britain, which included The Sunday
Times. Over the years, Thomson expanded his media empire to include more
than 200 newspapers in Canada, the United States, and the United
Kingdom. His Thomson Organization became a multinational corporation,
with interests in publishing, printing, television, and travel. In 1966,
Thomson bought The Times newspaper from members of the Astor family.
In the 1970s, Thomson joined with J. Paul Getty in a consortium that
successfully explored for oil in the North Sea.
A modest man, who had little time for pretentious displays of wealth, in
Britain he got by virtually unnoticed, riding the London Underground to
his office each day. Nonetheless, he made his son Kenneth promise to use
the hereditary title that he had received in 1964, if only in the London
offices of the firm.
On 29 July 1916, Thomson married Edna Annis Irvine (1895-1951) in
Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Edna A. Irvine was the daughter of John Irvine
and Rebecca Caldwell. Thomson had three children: Kenneth Roy
Thomson (1923–2006), Irma Jacqueline Thomson (b. 20 October 1918) and
Phyllis Audrey Thomson (b. 6 July 1917).
On 22 February 1951,
Thomson's wife Edna died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
In 1952, Thomson moved to Edinburgh.
In 1976, Thomson died in London, England. A plaque was placed in the
crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.
After Thomson's death in 1976, his son Kenneth Thomson became chair of
Thomson Corporation and inherited the baronial title becoming the 2nd
Baron Thomson of Fleet. With the Thomson operations now principally
again in Canada, the younger Thomson did not use his title in Canada
though he did so in Britain, and used two sets of stationery reflecting
this dichotomy. In any case, as the peerage title he had was inherited,
it did not debar him from retaining his Canadian citizenship, and he
never took up his right to a seat in the pre-1999 House of Lords.
In the 1964 New Year Honours, it was announced that Thomson would be
elevated to the peerage as a Baron "for public services". On 10 March
1964 he was made Baron Thomson of Fleet, of Northbridge in the City of
Edinburgh. In order to receive this title, it was necessary for Thomson
to acquire British citizenship, as the Canadian government had made it
common practice since 1919 to disallow the conference of titular honours
from the sovereign on Canadians. However, the Canadian Citizenship Act
between 1947 and 1977 stated that any Canadian who became a citizen of
another country through means other than marriage would cease to be a
Canadian citizen. Thus, Thomson lost his Canadian citizenship in the
He was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE)
in the 1970 New Year Honours.
This feature documentary is a profile of Canadian press tycoon Roy
Thomson, whose single-minded attention to business brought him riches,
power, and even a baronetcy in England. A native of Timmins, Ontario,
Thomson had a tremendous career as publisher, television magnate,
financier, and owner of many newspapers, including leading London
dailies. The film is a frank study of an equally frank man at: