Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Plummer (1831–1914)

by Ken Stewart

This article was published:

John Plummer (1831-1914), journalist, was born on 3 June 1831 in Prince Street, London, son of John Plummer, staymaker, and his wife Elizabeth, née Lowe. Brought up in poverty near Whitechapel, he was left deaf and crippled by 'a fever'. He taught himself to read and became interested in pictures and graphic design, but had to give up evening classes at Spitalfields School of Design when in 1853 unemployment forced the family to move to Kettering, Northamptonshire. Father and son found work in a staymaking factory.

In 1858 Plummer campaigned vehemently against the Northamptonshire Shoemakers' Union for challenging the employment of one of his brothers, and published a pamphlet, Freedom of Labour. Burnt in effigy by the shoemakers, he was encouraged by Lord Brougham. Despite a thirteen-hour working day he wrote, without reimbursement, hundreds of items on 'self help', Manchester school economics, workers' co-operatives, the evils of unions and strikes, social conditions, and literature. His Songs of Labour (1860) were moral admonitions, workmen's ballads, polemical diatribes (as in 'Scab! Scab! Scab!') and personal laments; it included an autobiographical sketch. He was granted £40 by Lord Palmerston from the Royal Bounty Fund and gained the attention of Charles Dickens and other notables. J. S. Mill, who made his library available to him and gave him books, benefited from his practical working man's experiences.

On 19 November 1860 Plummer married Mary Ann Jenkinson at Thorpe Malsor. For about eighteen years he worked in London on numerous magazines, almanacs and trade journals, founded and edited the London Figaro, lectured, and published tracts. In 1863 in Sydney G. F. Wise, impressed by Plummer's tract on worker co-operatives, persuaded John Fairfax to retain him as English social affairs correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald; in 1867 Wise engaged him to promote emigration in London.

Plummer arrived in Australia in 1879 to represent British exhibitors at the Sydney International Exhibition. Finding Australians 'self reliant but not mutually reliant', he settled quickly into colonial journalism. Expert in graphic design, he edited and improved the Illustrated Sydney News and other papers; worked for several years on the Australian Town and Country Journal; lectured and published on technical education and applied arts, and was drawing master at Fort Street Training School in 1881-90. His prolific contributions to major American, British and Australian newspapers ranged from the beauty of Nature to 'the blight of socialism'. He wrote numerous guidebooks, many for Thomas Cook & Son.

Proud of his home, Thorpe Malsor, Northwood, overlooking the Lane Cove River, and connexions with the beau monde, Plummer promoted himself as a colonial exemplar of 'self help'. Irrepressible, enterprising and compassionate in his support for community improvement, he assisted the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children, Randwick, and the Petersham Juvenile Association, was president of the Sydney Bethel Union and secretary of the Anti-Pollution of Air and Water League. He joined and lectured to the New South Wales Alliance for the Suppression of Intemperance, the Independent Order of Good Templars, the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, the Australian Economic Association and the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. He collaborated with union leaders to explore the practicalities of co-operatives. A British Israelite, he also belonged to the Japan Society, the (Royal) Art Society of New South Wales, the local Royal Society and the New South Wales Institute of Journalists.

Predeceased by a daughter, Plummer died in Royal North Shore Hospital on 9 March 1914, and was buried in the Anglican section of Gore Hill cemetery. He was survived by his wife, who had private means, and by two sons.

Select Bibliography

  • M. D. Hill (ed), Our Exemplars, Poor and Rich (Lond, 1861)
  • F. E. Mineka and D. N. Lindley (ed), The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill 1849-1873 (Toronto, 1972)
  • St Leonards Recorder, 16 Aug 1879
  • J. Plummer, Poems, Essays and Sketches, 1854 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. S. Mill letters to J. Plummer (University of Melbourne Library).

Citation details

Ken Stewart, 'Plummer, John (1831–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 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

Life Summary [details]


3 June, 1831
London, Middlesex, England


9 March, 1914 (aged 82)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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