An interview with a 95-year-old might be expected to concentrate on the past but that is not the case with auctioneer John A Thomson.
Ewan Pate meets him to find out more about his successful life in the ring, and out...
Although John Thomson does have a fantastic grasp of agricultural history, his conversation is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past.
In fact, it is not even strictly accurate to describe him as a retired auctioneer. Although he gave up wielding the gavel 20 years ago, he still attends the store sheep sale at Dumfries Mart every Friday and monitors the trade from his seat in the rostrum. Neither is it accurate to describe Mr Thomson as only an auctioneer, because he is also a farmer and more lately, an author.
“When I retired from auctioneering at 80 my wife suggested I should think about writing a book. It can’t have been a bad idea because I have gone on to write ten books,” he says.
The first was about smuggling on the Solway and inspired by tales he had heard from old fishermen down on the shore near his native Annan. Other books are about local history, but three of them cover the history of livestock auctioneering. The first, entitled Ring of Memories, is a highly detailed account of the development of the auction system in Scotland from the 1850s to the present day, with pen portraits of many of the characters who set their stamp on their profession.
Mr Thomson’s next book Farmers Went To Market, does the same for the dozens of markets which used to exist across Cumberland, Northumberland and Durham. A third more recent volume looks at markets from Yorkshire across to Cheshire.
It is easy to see from reading the books that Mr Thomson’s knowledge of the auction system is unrivalled. In part this is due to his inborn interest in the subject, but he has also been geographically well-located. Thomson Roddick and Laurie, the family firm, operated in Dumfries, Annan and Thornhill for many decades meaning he gained a working knowledge of the livestock trade on both sides of the English Border.
Not only that, he had a ‘political’ knowledge too through many years of work with the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers of Scotland (IAAS). He was president of the organisation in 1970-72 and through this appointment he also became a member of the Livestock Auctioneers Market Committee for England and Wales.
Mr Thomson’s time as IAAS president coincided with the move to decimalisation of the currency to be followed shortly by the move from selling by the hundredweight and quarter to the kilogram.
The old well-used ready reckoners were consigned to the bin which must have been a relief, but marts had to invest heavily in new weighbridges. In the following decades, Mr Thomson and his fellow auctioneers had to cope with numerous other pressures including the Chernobyl nuclear fall-out crisis, BSE, and foot-and-mouth disease. Each one of these demanded solutions if the auction system was to survive and, in each case, Mr Thomson was involved in finding and implementing them.
All of this came at a time when live selling of prime stock was under pressure from supermarkets who wanted to see stock procured directly to the abattoirs.
His influence in helping the industry cope with these was recognised in 2018 when he was awarded the Farmers Guardian sponsored Marts The Heart Award for Lifetime Achievement.
It has certainly been a long life, including over 50 years of active auctioneering.
He says: “I was demobbed in 1946 and it was straight away obvious I would be an auctioneer. My father, Matthew Thomson, was at the station to greet me and he told me I could sell the poultry at Dumfries the next day which I did. The next week I sold pigs. Before long I was a sheep auctioneer and that is what I concentrated on from then on.”
The Thomson family’s connection with livestock trading goes back at least six generations, the earliest three of which were drovers based in around Annan. Part of their trade was driving cattle from the Solway grazing’s to Norfolk where they were fattened for the London market.
“The journey took four weeks and never more than covering about 12 miles each day. The arrival of the railways heralded the end of droving and my forbear moved into farm management at Newbie where, in 1855, he had the adventure of taking his employer’s Galloway bull Mosstrooper to the Paris International Exhibition,” he says.
Mr Thomson’s grandfather, Provost John Thomson, was the first to move into livestock auctioneering, taking a partnership in a market in Annan before moving the business to Dumfries. Over the years the business expanded under the management of Mr Thomson’s father Matthew including buying the mart at Thornhill and regaining control of the Annan market.
The business, which had become Thomson, Roddick and Laurie through assuming partners became a force to be reckoned with in the auctioneering and farm sales world, with Mr Thomson joining his father in 1946 and his own sons John and Stuart in turn becoming partners and helping develop estate agency and building surveying departments.
The company had always been strong on farm sales with Mr Thomson disappointed” to have only sold 49 farms one year. “I hoped to make it fifty!” he said.
A major change came in 2002 when the livestock auctioneering business was sold to Cumberland and Dumfriesshire Farmers Marts, who went on to operate successfully from Longtown and Dumfries. The Thomson family meanwhile consolidated around their farming and other business interests.
Remarkably this was not however to be the end of the family’s auctioneering involvement. In 2015 C&D came under severe financial pressure and were within a week of failure when John Thomson and his sons, who were already 20 per cent shareholders took over the company.
He says: “I spoke to the banker and advised him on no account to bounce cheques to consignors. If he had done that there would have been no business left. I am glad to say that the farmers were all paid and the market carried on.”
Longtown now has a turnover of £80m and is recognised as the largest sheep market in Europe.
But livestock auctioneering remains Mr Thomson’s greatest enthusiasm. “If I had my time again, I would be an auctioneer. Live auctions are still hugely important. Without them setting the price farmers would have no idea what to ask for. I resent the way supermarkets have tried to interfere with markets.”
Asked what makes a good auctioneer, Mr Thomson says: “Well first you have to be honest to gain a reputation. Then you have to be diplomatic. You have to speak up so that people can understand what you are saying, and you need a nimble mind. But above all the secret of success is not to give credit.”
Wise words from a man who first sold in the ring 73 years ago.