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Playfair, Thomas Alfred John (Jack) (1890–1966)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Thomas Alfred Playfair (CREER) John (1890-1966), meat exporter, soldier and politician, was born on 13 October 1890 at Millers Point, Sydney, eldest son of Edmund John Bailey Playfair (1863-1926), shipping providore, and his South Australian wife Edith Miriam, née Creer. Edmund, born in Sydney on 22 August 1863, was the second son of Thomas Playfair. Educated at a private school, he entered his father's butchery, ships' providore and meat-exporting firm in 1881 and married Edith at Watsons Bay on 8 December 1887. On his father's death in 1893 he took control of the business and in 1921 assumed the governing directorship when the firm became a limited company, Thomas Playfair Ltd. He died at his residence Kiato, Waverley, on 6 October 1926, survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, and was buried with Anglican rites in South Head cemetery. Probate of his estate was sworn at £52,100.

Thomas, who shed the Creer in his name in favour of John and was always known as Jack, was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), where he excelled at Rugby and cricket. At 16 he went to the Smithfield Meat Market in London for a year to learn the trade and on his return entered his father's business at Millers Point. In 1910 he enlisted as a gunner in the Australian Field Artillery (New South Wales); he was commissioned in November and in August 1913 promoted lieutenant. In 1912 he competed in jumping events at the International Horse Show at Olympia, London.

In August 1914 Playfair joined the Australian Imperial Force and embarked for Egypt in October. On 25 April 1915 he landed at Gallipoli as right-flank gunnery observing officer for H.M.S. Bacchante and on 30 May at Bolton's Ridge, where he was observing the Turkish battery on Anderson's Knoll, he was seriously wounded by shrapnel and evacuated to hospital. Wounded again in August he returned to Australia and in November was mentioned in dispatches. Promoted captain in April 1916 he was posted to the 26th Battery, Field Artillery Brigade, which left for England next month.

From December he served with his battery in France and Belgium and was twice more mentioned in dispatches. Promoted major in May 1917, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in June and in March next year was appointed brigade major, 4th Divisional Artillery. At St George's, Hanover Square, London, on 29 August 1918 he married Madge Hardy with whom he left for Australia in May 1919; en route he was gazetted O.B.E. After the termination of his A.I.F. appointment, he commanded the 21st Brigade, Australian Field Artillery in 1922-24, transferring to the unattached list (1924) and to the reserve of officers (1929).

After the war Playfair assumed more control of the family business as his father was ailing; he also resumed his interest in politics, having briefly been a member of Waverley Municipal Council in 1914. He became president of the New South Wales Constitutional Association, deputy president and chairman of the National Association of New South Wales (1931-32) and influential with (Sir) Sydney Snow and others in forming the United Australia Party of which he was State president (1932-39). He supported (Sir) Thomas Bavin, condemned disunity in the ranks of 'anti-Socialist forces' and vigorously opposed J. T. Lang. On 8 November 1927 he had been nominated to the Legislative Council, was elected for nine years to the reconstituted council in November 1933 and re-elected in 1942 and 1954 for twelve-year terms.

After 1926 when Playfair ('Mr Jack' to the staff) became chairman of the company, the plant was modernized and a smallgoods factory added which enabled the firm during World War II to become one of the largest suppliers of canned sausages and other lines to Australian and American troops. In July 1940 he was appointed to command the 21st Field Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery (militia) and next month was appointed artillery commander of the 2nd Division as temporary colonel. Playfair was the meat exporters' representative for New South Wales on the Australian Meat Board, chairman of the New South Wales Canning Association and member of the advisory committee to the State's deputy controller of meat; he was seconded from the army in May 1942 with the honorary rank of brigadier to serve on a committee of the Commonwealth Department of Commerce to pack meat for the defence forces.

Playfair remained chairman of Thomas Playfair Pty Ltd until the firm was taken over by the British Tobacco Co. (Australia) Ltd in 1965. He was chairman of the Perpetual Trustee Co., the New South Wales Fresh Food & Ice Co. Ltd, Waters Trading Co. Ltd., and the State advisory board of the National Bank of Australasia, deputy chairman of the Australian Gas Light Co. and a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society (1947-62), Land, Properties and Investments Ltd, and the Wilhelm Wilhelmsen Agency Ltd. While on the board of the A.M.P. Society he was one of the keenest supporters of the Ninety Mile Desert development scheme in South Australia and Victoria.

Quiet, direct, yet humble and approachable, Playfair was an active sportsman. He did much to encourage the establishment of equestrian events in Australia; like his father, uncle Alfred Donald (1871-1943) and brother Edmund Strathmore (1894-1965) he was closely associated with Sydney's Royal Easter Show and like them was a councillor (vice-president 1950) of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales. He was chairman of Shore school council in 1945-57. A keen golfer, in 1928 he led the formation of the Elanora Country Club at Narrabeen (president 1928-65) and was a committee-member of the Royal Sydney Golf Club. He was a member of the Australian and Imperial Service clubs.

Playfair died on 9 August 1966 in St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter and was cremated with Anglican rites after a service at the Garrison Church. Probate of his estate was sworn at $77,791.

Select Bibliography

  • Thomas Playfair Pty Ltd, The Playfair Story, 1860-1960 (Syd, 1960)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1966, p 33
  • Pastoral Review, 18 Oct 1966
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Nov 1927, 17 Mar 1931, 22, 26 Jan, 5 Feb 1932, 11 Apr, 17 Nov 1933, 31 Mar, 10 Aug 1966
  • Australian National Review, 28 Nov 1927.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Playfair, Thomas Alfred John (Jack) (1890–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/playfair-thomas-alfred-john-jack-8063/text14069, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 May 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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