Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir William Farmer (1832–1908)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Sir William Farmer (1832-1908), retailer, was born on 1 July 1832 in England, the third son of Samuel Farmer of Moor Hall, Belbroughton, Worcestershire, and his wife Elizabeth, née White. In 1848 he joined his uncle Joseph in Sydney.

Joseph Farmer was born on 26 June 1814 at Halesowen, Worcestershire, son of William Farmer and his wife Mary, née Walters. Joseph and his wife Caroline, née Harley, had reached Sydney as bounty immigrants in the Royal Saxon on 31 March 1839. In September his wife opened a dressmaking and millinery shop, and a year later Joseph, who had been a farmer, set up as a draper opposite the Victoria Theatre in Pitt Street. He opened a branch at Parramatta and in 1843 acquired new premises. He was interested in racing and in 1845 won three races with his own horses at a drapers' charity meeting. In 1848 the business was temporarily leased to Price & Favenc until William arrived to learn the trade. In the 1870s Joseph returned to England and on 22 November 1890 died at Chapel Hill House, near Margate, Kent, survived by two sons and two daughters. His estate in New South Wales was valued at £33,600.

In March 1854 William took control of the firm in partnership with William Williams and Francis Giles. Two years later they had seventeen employees. In the next forty years the Farmers had many partners: in 1860 Richard Painter succeeded Williams and Giles, and in 1865 John Pope (1827-1912) joined the firm which was styled Farmer, Painter & Pope. By 1866 William Farmer and Painter held two runs, Minore and Geary, in the Bligh and Wellington districts; they still held them in 1871. Painter had retired in 1869 and J. & W. Farmer & Pope became Farmer & Co. Over the years the firm expanded and branched out from drapery. In 1874 George Fitzgerald and W. Seaward (d.1894) were admitted as junior partners and Farmer returned to England to live at Ascot Place, Berkshire. On 5 January 1897 Farmer & Co. became a public company; Farmer was chairman of directors until his death. His last visits to Australia were in 1894 and 1907.

Farmer became a lieutenant of the City of London and in 1890-91 was sheriff of London, in 1895 high sheriff of Berkshire and in 1898 master of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners. In 1891 he was appointed knight bachelor. He died on 8 July 1908 at Peterley Manor, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, predeceased by his wife Martha, née Perkins (d.1901), whom he had married on 26 January 1864 in England, and survived by one son and three daughters. His estate was valued for probate at over £41,000.

For over a century Farmer & Co. was a leading innovator in Australian retail trading and an important Sydney commercial and social institution: in 1866 it encouraged the Saturday Half Holiday Association and later became the first business house in Australia to close at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. In 1923 the company received Australia's first commercial broadcasting licence and broadcast as 2FC (Farmer & Co.).

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Sept 1840, 28 Jan 1843, 15 Jan 1912
  • 'Obituary: Sir William Farmer', Times (London), 10 July 1908, p 13
  • Sydney Mail, 15 July 1908
  • Bulletin, 18 Jan 1912
  • Evening News (Sydney), 30 May 1925
  • business records (Farmer & Co. Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Farmer, Sir William (1832–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 July, 1832


8 July, 1908 (aged 75)
Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England

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