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John Rae (1813–1900)

by Nan Phillips

This article was published:

John Rae (1813-1900), by unknown photographer

John Rae (1813-1900), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 31796

John Rae (1813-1900), public servant, author and painter, was born on 9 January 1813 at Aberdeen, Scotland, son of George Rae, banker, and his wife Jane, née Edmond. Educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and Marischal College, University of Aberdeen (M.A., 1832), he was articled to a firm of solicitors then continued his law studies and literary interests in Edinburgh. Deciding to migrate to Australia in 1839 he became secretary and accountant to the North British Australasian Loan and Investment Co., and arrived in Sydney in the Kinnear on 8 December. Because of unwise land investments the company had almost expired by December 1843.

Sydney's first municipal council meeting was held on 16 November 1842 with a part-time town clerk, C. H. Chambers. Rae, who had declined a similar position in Melbourne, became the first full-time town clerk on 27 July 1843 at a salary of £400, reduced to £300 in December. He was required to be secretary, administrator and chief adviser to the council; he was also legal officer, pioneering the interpretation of the Sydney Corporation Act, and the framing of by-laws and regulations. With substandard office accommodation and inadequate staff, Rae faced a major programme designed to overcome long and serious civic neglect, with the council short of funds, subject to press and public criticism and plagued by 'the fetish for investigation by select committees'. In 1850 the Legislative Council amended the Sydney Corporation Act and provided funds for a specified works programme. In 1843-50 Rae made valuable reports, and at an 1854 inquiry he was regarded as the only constructive witness on public health administration. That year he published a comprehensive index of the Act and amendments.

In 1852 (Sir) Charles Cowper sought another select committee into the state of the council. Rae supported the appointment of a city commission, and in December 1853 three commissioners were appointed: G. Eliott as chief, F. O. Darvall, and Rae who took over the office routine. The commissioners worked hard on an extensive programme, but again they could not satisfy press or public. Charges of mismanagement and neglect led to more select committees and highly debatable reports, but in 1857 the Legislative Assembly decided to dismiss the commissioners and return to a corporation. Rae stood for election to the new council but lost and did not run again. Refusing an inspectorship for warehouses, he sought compensation for his curtailed commissionership or an equivalent appointment.

On 25 July 1857 Rae became secretary to the railway commissioners at a salary of £550; in 1859 he also became accountant under Commissioner B. H. Martindale. On 15 January 1861 Rae was appointed under-secretary for public works and commissioner for railways at a salary of £800. As commissioner he served under seven different ministers, including J. Sutherland; he supported J. Whitton and wanted a standard gauge throughout the colonies. By 1878 many lines had been built and politicians were seeking extensions in their electorates, but Rae was not amenable to pressure. The increasing volume of traffic had outgrown the original administration and he was succeeded as commissioner on 29 January by C. A. Goodchap, but continued as under-secretary for public works. He had not received additional salary for his dual post but parliament later showed its appreciation of his work by voting him a gratuity of £800. Rae's annual reports had included a profit and loss account, the first for any railway system; they received international recognition. Granted leave of absence on full pay to go overseas for twelve months from March 1879, Rae visited America and Europe where, as in England, he was well received and given a free pass on all railways; the Germans provided a special train and staff.

In 1880 Rae also became chairman of the Board for Public Tenders (Works). As a witness before an inquiry into the civil service in 1872, he wanted to improve working conditions and strongly supported the service as a career training school. He clung to office until 31 March 1889, retired on a pension of £543 14s. and became a member of the Civil Service Board at a salary of £1000 until his final retirement in 1893. As an important and impartial public servant Rae had contributed much to the evolution of responsible government through all the turmoil of eighteen ministries. The press gave him the affectionate tag of 'The Admirable Crichton'.

On his arrival in Sydney Rae had become interested in the new Mechanics' School of Arts and in 1841 lectured on 'Taste', 'The English Language', and Robert Burns. In 1842 he wrote the letterpress for J. S. Prout's Sydney Illustrated, issued as a single publication in 1844. While town clerk he wrote a long 'serio-comic' poem about the first mayoral fancy dress ball, given by J. R. Wilshire. In 1853 he published The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Rendered into English Blank Verse; with Explanatory Notes. Self-taught, he printed and bound his Gleanings from my Scrap Book in two separate series which appeared as one volume in 1869, with a third part in 1874. His last literary work was the editing and publication in 1898 of Thirty-Five Years on the New South Wales Railways, a biography of John Whitton. A keen bibliophile, he had a catholic library of over 2000 volumes.

Rae was also a talented amateur artist. He painted water-colours of Sydney streets which earned respect. He taught himself photography and used it to record details for later paintings and his camera obscura contributed to his panorama of Sydney Harbour. He also produced large panoramas of Wollongong, Newcastle and part of the Murray Valley. His 'sketches of colonial scenes in the olden time' were sent to the Calcutta Exhibition in 1883 and to the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, in 1888; they gained very favourable comment. In 1900 the Bulletin praised his keen artistic perception and considered his collection of views of old Sydney as one of the best extant; twenty-six are now in the Dixson Gallery, Sydney. Perhaps his best-known work was his water-colour in 1850 of the turning of the first sod for the first railway.

Rae both wrote and painted for his own pleasure and his quiet sense of humour is revealed in his work. A man of high principles and integrity he was unobtrusive and retained his preference for urban life. Active in retirement, he owned the Peoples Palace and a natatorium and was a director of the Australian Gaslight Co. On 17 December 1845 he had married Elizabeth Thompson (d.1877); in 1854 he built his home, Hilton, in Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst. He died on 15 July 1900 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery, survived by four sons and two daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £60,987.

Select Bibliography

  • Dept of Railways, The Railways of New South Wales 1855-1955 (Syd, 1955)
  • D. S. Macmillan, The Debtor's War (Melb, 1960)
  • H. E. Maiden, The History of Local Government in New South Wales (Syd, 1966)
  • F. A. Larcombe, The Origin of Local Government in New South Wales 1831-58 (Syd, 1973)
  • F. A. Bland, ‘City government by commission’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 14 (1928)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Nov 1842, 28 July, 1 Aug 1843, 9 Jan 1899, 16 July 1900
  • Sydney Mail, 14 Jan 1899
  • Bulletin, 21 July 1900
  • K. W. Knight, The Development of the Public Service of New South Wales 1856-1895 (M.Ec. thesis, University of Sydney, 1955)
  • I. M. Laszlo, Railway Policies and Development in Northern New South Wales 1846-1889 (M.A. thesis, University of New England, 1956)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Nan Phillips, 'Rae, John (1813–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Rae (1813-1900), by unknown photographer

John Rae (1813-1900), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 31796

Life Summary [details]


9 January, 1813
Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


15 July, 1900 (aged 87)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.