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Thomas Chaplin Breillat (1804–1873)

by Ruth Teale

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Thomas Chaplin Breillat (1804-1873), merchant, was born on 6 September 1804 at Sudbury, Suffolk, England, son of George Breillat, yeoman. According to family tradition his ancestors were Huguenot refugees who had been vignerons in France. In 1829 Thomas married Mary Creed in London. They emigrated to New South Wales and by way of Van Diemen's Land arrived in Sydney on 8 March 1834. Breillat immediately invested his capital with Joseph Montefiore & Co., which became known as Montefiore, Breillat & Co., and made his home adjoining their office in O'Connell Street. His interest appears to have been in shipping and trading rather than pastoral investment, and thus he escaped Montefiore's bankruptcy in 1841 with his own capital intact. He invested it in Girard's flour-mill, formerly owned by John Dickson, at the corner of Napoleon and Sussex Streets, with its adjacent wharf on Darling Harbour. One of the clerks was Frederick Dalgety.

From 1841 Breillat was manager of the Sydney Flour Co. In November 1842 he bought out the other investors and was managing proprietor till 1873. As a merchant with maritime interests, he petitioned in 1844-45 against the erection of the government wharf at 'the Circular Quay', as 'beneath the dignity and beside the purpose of Government to embark in the business of wharfage or any other private pursuit', and in particular against the reduced fees charged there. His success as a miller and the extent of his assets in Sussex Street and Darling Harbour helped to maintain his solvency in the economic depression of the 1840s.

Breillat was one of the small but very active group of local merchants who before the gold rush found by far the largest share of capital for colonial enterprises. Most of their firms were formed to provide the two important local requirements, finance and transport. Whether they were banks, insurance or transport companies, their trading operations were similar and usually short lived. Breillat's first venture of this kind was as a director of the Sydney Alliance Assurance Co. (1839); he also joined the provisional and managing committees of the Australian Steam Navigation Co., became in June 1841 a trustee of the Australian Society for Deposits and Loans, and in 1841-42 served as a Sydney director and trustee of the Australasian Colonial and General Life Assurance and Annuity Co. He was appointed chairman of directors of the Bank of Australia after it was closed in September 1843 by overspeculation in the wool boom of the 1830s. As chairman in 1845 he was sued by the English-sponsored Bank of Australasia. When the directors of the Australia decided to liquidate their mortgaged estates by means of a lottery, Breillat petitioned the Legislative Council and the Queen to allow this novel procedure. The lottery was drawn amid great excitement on New Year's Day 1849, without royal assent, and the debt to the Bank of Australasia was finally liquidated in July 1851.

The influx of capital and population with the gold rush, the elimination of less scrupulous traders and the expansion of the pastoral industry provided more commercial stability after 1850. This was exemplified by the incorporation in 1851 of the Sydney Exchange (Royal Exchange, 1875). When its foundation stone in Macquarie Place was laid in August 1853, it was suggested that the merchant class, 'an order to which the highest talent, the most cultivated intellect, need not blush to aspire', would fittingly fill the place of any projected titled order of local aristocrats. Breillat, one of the twelve foundation directors, was later chairman. Always an active member, he gave forthright evidence in 1861 to the select committee of the Legislative Assembly on the working of the insolvency law. He was also a founder of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce and its chairman in 1855.

In 1853-68 colonial banking expanded with the formation of twelve locally financed houses. The most successful of them was the Australian Joint Stock Bank, incorporated in 1853 in New South Wales and extended into Queensland in the 1860s. The colonial banks then had the lion's share of business; in first place was the oldest, the Bank of New South Wales, closely followed by the Commercial of Sydney and the Australian Joint Stock. In the latter Breillat was a founding director, served on its board in 1854-60 and 1862-65 and was chairman in 1859-60. His success in banking won him repute as a merchant 'of unimpeachable integrity'. He was also a founder of the Union Club.

In private life Breillat 'exemplified in a high degree the virtues of a Christian gentleman'. He was a regular worshipper at St Peter's Church of England, Cook's River, and represented that parish on the Sydney Diocesan Synod in 1866-73. He was also a trustee of the church lands at Enmore, in the parish of All Saints, Petersham. Two memorial windows, one to Thomas Breillat and the other to his wife, who died on 27 August 1880, were erected by his family in St Peter's, Cook's River. He died on 1 October 1873, at his home Thurnby, Newtown, leaving an estate valued at £21,000. He was survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters, the youngest of whom married Vincent James Dowling. The eldest son, George, had been killed in an accident at 37. The second, Thomas Challis, was a godson of John Challis; the third was probably godson of another O'Connell Street merchant, Robert Graham. The youngest son, Charles, was for many years an official of the Customs Department in Western Australia.

ROBERT GRAHAM BREILLAT, born on 16 December 1849 at Hereford House, the Glebe, worked briefly as a stockman on V. J. Dowling's property at Thargomindah in Queensland and then entered his father's firm as a clerk; he was a partner by 1873. Later he joined the English, Scottish and Australian Bank, and was manager of its Queen's Wharf branch in Lower George Street from 1880 until he retired late in the 1890s. In the 1900s he was secretary and accountant of William Atkins Ltd, iron and steel merchants, but retired after World War I. Like his father he was prominent in church affairs; he sat on the Sydney Diocesan Synod for sixteen years, first for Cook's River, and in the 1880s and 1890s when he lived at Johnston Street, Annandale, for All Souls, Leichhardt, where he was a churchwarden. In 1871 he married Lilly Frances, daughter of Captain John Woore of the Bengal Lancers. She had come to the colony with her sister, who later married Jesse Gregson, and with their mother, a daughter of John Dickson. When their father returned to India they were taken under the protection of Edye Manning. Robert died on 22 May 1930 at Cudgen, near Murwillumbah, survived by four sons and a daughter of his eight children.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 24
  • S. J. Butlin, Australia and New Zealand Bank (Melb, 1961)
  • H. Kolsen, ‘Company Formation in N.S.W.: 1828-1851. A Preliminary Report’, Bulletin of the Business Archives Council of Australia, vol 1, no 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Aug 1853, 2 Oct 1873
  • manuscript catalogue and newspaper indexes under Thomas Chaplin Breillat (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Breillat, Thomas Chaplin (1804–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 September, 1804
Sudbury, Suffolk, England


1 October, 1873 (aged 69)
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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