Thomas Coward was born in England on 7 July 1834, and arrived in Adelaide, in July 1840, on the ship Fairleigh. Seven years later, when only 13 years of age, he ran away from home and entered the service of Stephen King, of Gawler. After a few years, and not liking the place, or job, all that much, he left in October 1851 and sailed for Melbourne in the American brig Rattler. Being short of funds he engaged himself to work as a servant of an ex-chief constable of Victoria at Port Phillip before the separation from New South Wales.
A year later, he returned to Adelaide and shortly after, when Inspector Tolmer organized his first gold escort between Bendigo and Adelaide, Coward joined and took part in three gold escorts between Mount Alexander and Adelaide.
In later years, while reminiscing Coward said that their weapons were muzzle loading carbines, swords and holster pistols. For maximum security they would sleep during the night on top of the gold. They would make an early start for the last part of the trip to Adelaide, which went through ‘a sandy scrub, a God forsaken country without a drink of water until we got to dear old Langhorne’s Creek’. The publican there ‘must have been very short of eggs after we had left’, he said, ‘as they used to chase the fowls until they laid’.
After they had delivered the gold they would sit on the grass and hand over any letters they might have had from the diggers. Many of the women were almost wild with delight at receiving a line from their husbands, brothers, sons or lovers. There was often considerable difficulty in deciphering the names on the envelopes. ‘We had carried them so long in bad weather that the writing was almost obliterated, but bless your heart, the women could make it out.
Then when we got back to the diggings, I have seen a man with a shepherd’s pannikin three parts full of gold telling a trooper to help himself to a nugget because he had brought him a letter from his wife’. After these exiting trips, Coward was shifted from one station to another, including Kapunda. When Major Warburton received the appointment of Commissioner of Police, Coward was appointed guide to the bush stations. This was in 1853 and the following year he was promoted to the rank of corporal.
He was at Cape Northumberland, when the Jane Lovett and the steamer Young Australian were wrecked. It was his job to protect the cargo, and especially the liquor, until it was conveyed safely across the Victorian border. In 1855 he was ordered to Yorke Peninsula, whence he brought back several Aborigines charged with sheep stealing. Next, he was sent to Kangaroo Island in a boat called the Gunpowder, along with Trooper Dundas, to search for Mr Pennington, clerk to RD Hanson, the Attorney-General.
On his return he was ordered to Mount Serle, and in 1858 went with Major Warburton on his exploring expedition, when the party suffered great hardships and nearly lost their lives on account of privations. On their return, the party discovered a little nest of springs close to Mount Hamilton. Major Warburton called them 'Coward Springs' as a compliment to the zeal and intelligence displayed by Corporal Coward. For many years, Coward Springs, was the point of departure from the Great Northern railway line to Oodnadatta, and later Alice Springs, for teams and travellers going to Tarcoola.
Having survived this expedition, he was sent to Port Augusta to civilize the natives, in which he claimed to have been successful. Later it was said that very few men had acquired a more extensive knowledge of the manners, habits, language, and customs of the natives than Thomas Coward. Sixty years later, another South Australian policeman, George Aiston, would make an even larger impression with his activities and knowlege of Aboriginal Society.
While stationed at Port Augusta, and later at Angepena Police Station, he had some nardoo seeds brought to him by the Aborigines, and was the first white man to eat of the nardoo, which afterwards acquired a melancholy interest, as having for days helped to prolong the life of Robert O'Hara Bourke, and his companions, on their ill-fated expedition in 1861-2.
In 1859, while still at Angepena, he had the honor of being selected to accompany Sir Richard G MacDonnell as a guide through the north as far as the Denison Ranges near Oodnadatta, and for his services on that occasion his Excellency sent him a complimentary letter of thanks. There is also a Mount Denison in the Northern Territory, named by John McDouall Stuart on 28 April 1860. Both places were named after the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir William Denison.
Coward left South Australia in 1860 and went to New South Wales, where he was appointed Sergeant in March 1862 of the Snowy River escort, under Captain McLeary, Inspector-General of Police. In December 1862, he was sent as a first-class detective to Queensland, in search of Gardiner, the bushranger, with instructions to return overland to Sydney after discovering the man's whereabouts.
He must have liked the place as on his return he resigned his New South Wales appointment, and went back to Queensland in 1864, where he was promoted to an important position in the Native Police. In 1867 he was appointed goldfields warden and magistrate on the Palmer River diggings, where he had the difficult task of dealing with large numbers of diggers, most of them from China, on the Norman River in the gulf of Carpentaria area, at Hugheaden in 1871, at Byerstown in 1875 and Emu Creek in 1876.
While in Queensland he wrote a letter to the Advertiser in January 1878 to start an appeal for funds to benefit Mr Flood, an old explorer, who went out with Charles Sturt in 1844 but was now sick and in destitute circumstances. Later he resigned his position, and for a time retired into private life. In 1870 he married an 18 year old girl who was born in Devonshire, England, who would be his faithful companion, helper and mother of their three children for the next 35 years.
In April 1879 they were living at Sandgate Queensland where Coward applied for a publican’s licence for the Sandgate Hotel which had previously been run by William Deagon. In February 1880 the family was expanded by the birth of a son, followed by a daughter in January 1882. Coward became an Alderman but was defeated in the 1885 election by a margin of 28 votes. In 1884 he transferred his publicans license to JJ Hook.
Apart from his interest in Council affairs he also grew grapes and sold two tons of them in 1887 to the local distillery. That same year Coward was looking for gold in northern Queensland some 600 kilometres west of Townsville. His party had been financed by a Sydney syndicate. After some ten years at Sandgate he became restless again. This time he obtained the publican’s licence for the National Hotel in Brisbane from Martin Moran in July 1889.
This turned out to be a short affair as the family came back to South Australia. In 1890 Cowan was the publican of the Imperial Hotel on the corner of King William and Grenfell Streets. Later he acquired the Prince Alfred Hotel. Both hotels were managed with the help of his wife.
During the 1890s he showed a renewed interest in mining, which was not that surprising. In April 1892 he informed the Register that he had received a bag of ore samples. After assaying they showed 3,410 oz of silver to the ton. A few months later he was elected director of the Virginia Proprietary Gold Mining Company, which had its mine in the North East of South Australia. So far the mine had yielded 1,867 oz of gold worth 7,468 pounds. During November he visited the mine.
Although busy with his hotels and mining matters, he remained interested in other people’s problems as well and in January 1893 organized a meeting at his hotel to discuss a proposal to help Mrs Elder and her children after the death of her husband EJ Elder. Among those present were Captain Barkly and JB Austin. In August he offered his service to the Government to show them several places in the north where gold was to be found. He was willing to organize a party of at least five men to prospect for a month at two hundred pounds. The offer was declined.
Early January 1895 he convened a meeting at the Adelaide Town Hall to explain his ideas about the Northern Railway. When the Northern Territory Commission sat in March 1895 Coward was asked to attend and give an account of his experiences in North Queensland. Coward also pointed out that he was in favour of a land grant system to finance the building of a northern railway.
During October 1895 he organized a fund raising to pay for the burial cost of George Bates who had lived on Kangaroo Island since 1824. A month later he again wrote to the Adelaide newspapers. This time he complained about the salting of the Angepena gold mine which had done so much harm to the South Australian mining interests. He wondered if the Government, ‘after all the experiences we have had of their crooked ways, can be trusted at all to have the affair properly investigated’.
In 1899 he tried to be elected as a candidate of Port Adelaide. At a meeting he related his various colonial experiences, hairbreadth escapes from floods and his work as a bushman and peace keeper. He again advocated a railway to the Northern Territory on a land grant system. He didn’t think the Northern Territory needed to be a White Elephant.
At the same meeting he made it clear that he was against the payment of politicians and if he was elected, he would give the whole of the two hundred pounds a year to Port charities. At another meeting he stated that South Australia had not had a government worth that name for the past 15 years. After several disruptive and irrelevant questions, he was ready to walk out but was persuaded by the chairman to return.
After his defeat at the elections he concentrated on the running of his hotels with the help of his wife. In December 1904 Coward presented the Adelaide City Council with a framed plan of Adelaide, reduced from the original drawing by William Light. Alderman Johnson moved that as the plan was of great historical value, Mr Coward was to be commended for his thoughtfulness. His motion was seconded and passed.
Since his arrival at Large Bay on July 7, 1840, he had witnessed many changes in South Australia. From ordinary country studded with trees he had watched the growth and development of Adelaide. Many places where large buildings now stand were open paddocks, or were occupied by houses and buildings of very primitive character when he arrived.
On the opposite side of Waymouth Street there was a paddock for unyoking bullocks and farther down King William Street a store, with a blacksmith's shop adjacent, and the land where the AMP Society's building once stood was then adorned by a stockyard.
Thomas Coward once offered himself as a candidate for Parliament, standing for the Northern Territory electorate, but was defeated. During his life time he had lived in South Australia’s outback, the South East, Adelaide, Melbourne, New South Wales, Queensland and even America. Thomas Coward had been a respected bushman who was not only a mounted policeman, a trooper on the gold escort under Alexander Tolmer, but also an explorer, prospector, detective, mine director, Alderman, would-be politician and later a publican.
Thomas Coward died at the Prince Alfred Hotel on Wednesday 5 July 1905. His wife died on 4 May 1913 age 61. Their second son, Albert Thomas, born and raised in Wallaroo, was killed in action in France in 1917, age 21.