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Thomas Saywell (1837–1928)

by Philip Geeves

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Thomas Saywell (1837-1928), merchant and developer, was born on 20 February 1837 at Radford, Nottinghamshire, England, son of George Saywell, lacemaker, and his first wife Eliza Ann. When the Nottingham lace trade declined his parents moved to France and lived at Basse-ville, Calais and Lille, where Thomas received his early education. In 1848 the Saywells and other Protestant lacemaking families returned to England but bleak prospects led them to migrate as a group in the Agincourt; they reached Sydney on 6 October.

After some time on the goldfields Saywell set up as a tobacconist in Sydney in 1863. He prospered and in 1881 was managing director when Saywell's Tobacco Co. Ltd became a public company; one of his partners was (Sir) Hugh Dixson. From 1871 Saywell also invested in coal and brick production, and success persuaded him to sell his tobacco interests and invest substantially in coal-mining and real estate. He developed the Zig-Zag Coal Co. at Lithgow and the South Bulli Colliery. He built the Bellambi jetty in 1887 at South Bulli for £40,000 and won large government contracts for coal. Later he bought and developed other south coast mines, notably the Clifton and South Clifton collieries.

In the early 1880s Saywell foresaw that the construction of the Illawarra railway would create new suburbs in the sparsely settled area south of Cook's River; he bought an estate at Lady Robinson's Beach, Botany Bay, erected the fashionable New Brighton Hotel, a public bathing enclosure described as 'the best in Australia', and other amenities including a race-course. He planned to create a model suburb and seaside resort for working-class families. In 1884 Saywell's Tramway Act granted him a thirty-year franchise for a private tramway from Lady Robinson's Beach to Rockdale railway station. On his suggestion the new suburb was named Brighton-le-Sands and he lived there for many years.

Saywell also had large land holdings at Alexandria and Redfern. He was a director of the Wickham and Bullock Island Coal Co. in the 1890s and invested in copper mines at Cobar. A New South Wales commissioner for the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, in 1887 he also represented the colony's wine industry in North America and was a successful commercial exhibitor at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.

Saywell died on 23 November 1928 at Mosman and was buried in the Congregational section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by five sons and six daughters by his first wife Annie Ellen, née Fawcett, whom he had married on 1 November 1862; she died in 1905 and he married Rebecca Elizabeth Osborne on 31 January 1906. His estate was valued for probate at over £164,000.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine Centennial History of New South Wales, vol 2 (Syd, 1888)
  • P. Geeves and J. Jervis, Rockdale: Its Beginning and Development (Syd, 1962)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Nov 1928
  • Propellor, 28 Dec 1944, 4, 11 Jan 1945
  • family records (privately held).

Citation details

Philip Geeves, 'Saywell, Thomas (1837–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 May 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

Life Summary [details]


20 February, 1837
Radford, Nottinghamshire, England


23 November, 1928 (aged 91)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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