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Thomas Playford (1837–1915)

by John Playford

This article was published:

Thomas Playford (1837-1915), by Hammer & Co., c1901

Thomas Playford (1837-1915), by Hammer & Co., c1901

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23355903

Thomas Playford (1837-1915), politician and orchardist, was born on 26 November 1837 at Bethnal Green, London, eldest son of Thomas Playford, clerk in the Adjutant-General's department, and his wife Mary Ann, née Perry. His father had served with the 2nd Life Guards in 1810-34 and fought in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. On discharge he took up a land grant in Upper Canada but the venture was a failure. Returning to London, he illustrated and helped to prepare official regimental histories, as well as preaching for the Christian Society established by Rev. Robert Aitken. In 1844 he migrated to South Australia with his family to take up land in Adelaide bought in 1837. Thereafter, until his death at Mitcham in 1873, he was an independent minister of religion, well-known as a powerful speaker. He founded a number of 'Christian' churches in Adelaide and its environs and wrote several books on religion.

His eldest son was educated at Thomas Muggs' school at Mitcham. He wished to be a lawyer but his father said, 'I would just as soon article you to the Devil'. After farming his father's property at Mitcham for several years, he developed a fruit orchard at Drysdale, Norton Summit, with considerable success. He became an active member of the local literary and debating society and was elected to the East Torrens District Council, serving as chairman in 1862-83. He was also president of the Association of District Council Chairmen for five years, and a founder of the East End Market Co., of which he was chairman of directors until his death, except while four years in London.

In 1868 Playford was elected to the House of Assembly for Onkaparinga, but was defeated in 1871 partly because, as he admitted, 'I had said in the House that I believed the stinkwort came from Germany, and was not the only weed that came from that country'. The remark was made while jocularly pointing at a German-born member, but it was hardly tactful coming from one whose electorate included the towns of Lobethal and Hahndorf. He returned to parliament in 1875 for the neighbouring electorate of East Torrens which he represented until 1887. During this period Playford left his mark as a reforming commissioner of crown lands and immigration, holding that portfolio in February-June 1876, October 1877–June 1881 and February-June 1885. He was also commissioner of public works in June 1884–February 1885. In 1882 he travelled round the world, visiting Italy, France, Britain, the United States of America and New Zealand.

Losing East Torrens at the election of March 1887, next month Playford was returned for the far northern electorate of Newcastle. From June 1887 to June 1889 he was premier and treasurer. The most notable achievement of his government was the introduction of South Australia's first systematic tariff. The adoption of a policy as strongly protective as that operating in Victoria was mainly due to the exertions of his close friend and protégé, the radical attorney-general, Charles Cameron Kingston. They both attended the inter-colonial conference in June 1888, where Playford strongly supported moves to restrict Chinese immigration. Legislation passed during Playford's first term of office secured payment of members of parliament, at a salary of £200 a year.

At the election of April 1890 Playford returned to East Torrens. In August he formed his second ministry and held office until June 1892. He was treasurer until January 1892 and thereafter commissioner of crown lands and immigration. His government observed neutrality during the maritime strike. He visited India early in 1892 to investigate the suitability of coolie labour for limited-term employment in the Northern Territory, then part of South Australia. Nothing came of the matter. Playford was again a successful treasurer. All his budgets achieved a surplus and he substantially reduced the state debit. In June 1893 Kingston brought together the various 'liberal' groups and formed a ministry which remained in office with Labor Party support until 1899, a record-breaking term. Playford was appointed treasurer in the new ministry but retired in April 1894 to become agent-general in London. On his way to London he represented South Australia at the Colonial Conference in Ottawa.

During his term as agent-general he rearranged the office on commercial lines, overhauled the system of loan-raising on the London money market, and established a wine depot. However, he found the English climate provoked his rheumatism, pined to return to his beloved property in the Adelaide Hills and in 1898 asked to be relieved. Despite the fact that he had little taste for ceremonial functions, Playford developed a degree of diplomatic aptitude which surprised many observers; he even persuaded himself to wear court dress. His relations with the colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain were especially close but he several times declined the offer of a knighthood.

On returning home, Playford was elected to the assembly for Gumeracha in April 1899. During a vigorous debate on the electoral system, on 23 August, he observed: 'They found the good-for-nothings, ne'er-do-wells, rogues, prostitutes and vagabonds—if they found them anywhere—in the big centres of population, and if they were wise in their generation, they would not give them the same representation as perhaps the more wealthy, the more intelligent, and honourable people who lived in the country'. Half a century later, his grandson (Sir) Thomas Playford, as premier, was frequently reminded of this remark by Labor critics. Towards the end of 1899, not wishing to see the powers of the Legislative Council eroded, with several other members he crossed the floor and brought down the Kingston government. He declined to form a ministry and remained a back-bencher until his election to the first Commonwealth Senate in 1901.

Playford had always supported Federation so long as the rights of the smaller colonies were respected. With Kingston he represented South Australia at the third session of the Federal Council of Australasia, held in Hobart in 1889, and was elected president. With (Sir) John Cockburn he represented the colony at the Australasian Federation Conference in Melbourne in 1890, where he startled most of the delegates with a stinging attack on Sir Henry Parkes, imputing dishonest and insincere motives to Parkes's professed loyalty to Federation. Playford was also one of the South Australian delegates at the National Australasian Convention in Sydney in 1891, and sat on the constitutional committee. During debate on the proposal to adopt the name 'Commonwealth', he informed critics that Shakespeare had constantly alluded to England as a commonwealth. Apart from etymological matters, he was prominent in the proceedings of the convention, his major contribution being to provide the way out of the impasse between the larger and smaller colonies over the powers of the Senate on money bills—the famous 'compromise' of 1891. His absence in London prevented him from playing any part in the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897-98.

As a moderate protectionist, and with the endorsement of the conservative Australasian National League, Playford was elected in 1901 to the Senate, coming second in the poll. In the first Deakin ministry he was vice-president of the Executive Council and leader of the government in the Senate from September 1903 to April 1904. In the second Deakin ministry he was minister of defence (July 1905–January 1907) at a time when the government was beset by conflicting advice. Accepting the necessity to 'establish the nucleus' of an Australian navy, Playford was essentially concerned to meet invasion, secure ocean-going commerce and provide for coastal and harbour defence. At the December 1906 election, against strong advice, he stood as an independent Deakinite rather than an anti-socialist allied with (Sir) George Reid and was overwhelmingly rejected.

After his defeat he visited China and Japan. On returning to Adelaide, he retired to live at Kent Town and spent much of his time reading books on history and travel in the parliamentary library. Despite the affliction of gout, he nominated as the Australasian National League's third candidate for the Senate election on April 1910, but was unsuccessful. He also wrote to Deakin, imploring his old leader to work for the fusion of all anti-Labor and anti-socialist parliamentary groups.

Endowed with tremendous strength, Playford was the heaviest delegate, despite strong competition, at the 1891 convention, weighing eighteen and a half stone (117 kg); he was 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall. Deakin referred to him as 'a huge giant'. This bulk was balanced on an enormous pair of feet which became the cartoonists' delight. Playford could always draw cheers when pointing out that he would 'put his foot down' on something or other. His speeches, notable for their practical commonsense, were delivered in a forceful, blunt and not always tactful manner. There were traces of an inherent bohemianism in the way he dressed. Usually he wore undersized pantaloons and an ancient coat. On becoming Commonwealth minister of defence, he took to wearing a peaked cap, believing that it gave him a military appearance, but he 'looked like an old-time Yankee skipper. He had a delightful disregard for all forms of the House'. His straight-going qualities and integrity in political life early earned him the soubriquet of 'Honest Tom'.

Playford died at Kent Town on 19 April 1915 and was buried in Norton Summit cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £23,845. He had married on 16 December 1860 at St John's Anglican Church, Halifax Street, Adelaide, Mary Jane Kinsman who survived him with their five sons and five daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Our Inheritance in the Hills (Adel, 1889)
  • H. Hussey, More Than Half a Century of Colonial Life and Christian Experience (Adel, 1897)
  • Hon. Thomas Playford (Adel, 1897)
  • W. A. Norman, The History of the City of Mitcham (Adel, 1953)
  • D. Nicholas, The Pacemaker (Adel, 1969)
  • W. Crocker, Sir Thomas Playford (Melb, 1983)
  • H. O. Browning, 1975 Crisis (Syd, 1985)
  • E. H. Hallick, Toilers of the Hills, G. C. Bishop ed (Norton Summit, SA, 1987)
  • R. L. Reid, ‘ “Honest Tom” Playford’, Adelaide University Magazine, 1962
  • South Australiana, 9, no 2, 1970
  • Australian Magazine (Sydney), 1 Mar 1908
  • Register (Adelaide), 30 Dec 1871, 20 Apr 1915
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 20 Apr 1915, 20 May 1925
  • Fighting Line, 15 May 1915
  • Observer (Adelaide), 28 May 1927, 25 May 1928
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 27 May 1937
  • Memoirs of the Rev. Thomas Playford and Thomas Playford (privately held).

Citation details

John Playford, 'Playford, Thomas (1837–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Playford (1837-1915), by Hammer & Co., c1901

Thomas Playford (1837-1915), by Hammer & Co., c1901

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23355903

Life Summary [details]


26 November, 1837
London, Middlesex, England


19 April, 1915 (aged 77)
Kent Town, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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