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Tomlinson was born in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, England, into a musical family, one of four children to Fred Tomlinson Sr and May Tomlinson (née Culpan). His younger brother, Fred Tomlinson, also a musician, founded The Fred Tomlinson Singers and performed the music for Monty Python's Flying Circus. At the age of nine he became a chorister at Manchester Cathedral, where he was eventually appointed as Head Boy in 1939. He later attended Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School and at sixteen won a scholarship to Manchester University and the Royal Manchester College of Music. He spent the next two years studying composition until in 1943 he left to join the Royal Air Force, where, although colour-blind, he became a Wireless Mechanic and saw service in France during 1944 and 1945. He returned to England in 1945 to resume his studies and graduated in 1947, receiving the degree of Bachelor of Music for composition as well as being made a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and an Associate of the Royal Manchester College of Music.

Tomlinson left northern England for London, where he worked as a staff arranger for Arcadia and Mills Music Publishers, providing scores for radio and television broadcasts as well as for the stage and recording studios. He continued his interest in the organ by taking up a post at a Mayfair church.

Tomlinson had his first piece broadcast by the BBC in 1949 and by 1955 he had formed his own orchestra, the "Ernest Tomlinson Light Orchestra". From 1951 to 1953 he was musical director of the Chingford Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society. In 1976, he took over the directorship of the Rossendale Male Voice Choir from his father, a post he held for five years, during which the choir won their class for three years in the BBC's "Grand Sing" competition. He was also the founder of the Northern Concert Orchestra, with whom he gave numerous broadcasts and concerts. He was a chief consultant for the Marco Polo Records label, and was featured a number of times on Brian Kay's Light Programme.

In 1984, after discovering that the BBC were disposing of their light music archive, Tomlinson founded The Library of Light Orchestral Music, which is housed in a barn at his family's farmhouse near Longridge in Lancashire.The library currently contains around 50,000 pieces, including many items that would otherwise have been lost.

Tomlinson and his wife Jean (née Lancaster) were married from 1949 until her death in September 2006. The couple had four children, Ann, Geoffrey, Hilary and Linda. Tomlinson's four children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren survive him

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