Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Thomas Playfair (1832–1893)

by Ross Duncan

This article was published:

John Thomas Playfair (1832-1893), by unknown photographer, 1885

John Thomas Playfair (1832-1893), by unknown photographer, 1885

City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/579 [in Lord Mayoral robes]

John Thomas Playfair (1832-1893), butcher and ships' providore, was baptized on 12 February 1832 at Earl's Colne, Essex, England, eldest son of Thomas Playfair, tailor, and his wife Mary Anne, née Arnold. He joined the navy at 12 and served as a captain's and wardroom steward. In 1859 he arrived in H.M.S. Pelorus at Sydney, where he settled after his discharge. He became a partner of E. J. Bailey, a wholesale butcher. In 1860 Bailey & Co. had shops in South Head Road and Crown Street. By 1862 he had separately opened in lower George Street as a shipping butcher. From 1863 until the 1870s he remained in partnership with Bailey's widow as Bailey & Playfair. His own enterprise prospered. Wind-jammers then provided a lucrative market for salt and fresh beef and for live animals to be slaughtered at sea.

In 1875 Playfair was elected to the Sydney City Council for Gipps Ward which he represented unopposed until 1893. A good committeeman and vigorous reformer, he battled for a better city water supply, the demolition of slums and rookeries, and improved sanitation. He achieved the widening of George Street North and the establishment in 1882 of the Homebush sale-yards at a cost of £60,000. As mayor in 1885 his unannounced inspections played a part in maintaining the standard of public cleanliness which he had earlier helped to impose. In March 1889 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly as a member for West Sydney and as a free trade supporter of Sir Henry Parkes. With limited ability as a public speaker, he rarely spoke in the House. He was defeated in the 1891 elections.

Playfair was well known for his extensive charitable work especially for the Sydney Ragged School. He also helped the Boys' Brigade and the Sisters of St Joseph's Providence. 'Everyone who knew him went to Tom Playfair for advice or help in their hour of need'. John Bullish in appearance, he was described as a 'bluff, kindly, Saxon … generous, genuine and straight'.

Playfair was married twice: first, on 7 November 1860 to Ellen, daughter of Thomas Matheson of Woolloomooloo; second, at Scots Church on 26 February 1867 to Georgina Hope, his deceased wife's sister. Predeceased by both wives Playfair died at Sydney on 15 November 1893 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by two sons of his first wife and by a son and daughter of his second wife. His estate was valued for probate at over £33,000. He had acquired much real estate in the city and North Sydney. His second son Edmund inherited the business.

In his memory a fountain was erected at the Flemington sale-yards in May 1896 and in 1960 a plaque was placed on the doors of Holy Trinity Church, Millers Point. Playfair Street and Playfair Stairs had already been named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Thomas Playfair Pty Ltd, The Playfair Story, 1860-1960 (Syd 1960)
  • Bulletin, 3 July 1880
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 16 Nov 1893
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16, 17 Nov 1893, 29 May 1896
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 18 Nov 1893
  • Sydney Municipal Council, Minutes of Committee and Council Meetings, 1875-93 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ross Duncan, 'Playfair, John Thomas (1832–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Thomas Playfair (1832-1893), by unknown photographer, 1885

John Thomas Playfair (1832-1893), by unknown photographer, 1885

City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 54/579 [in Lord Mayoral robes]

Life Summary [details]




15 November, 1893 (aged ~ 61)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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