Page:Dictionary of National Biography. Sup. Vol III (1901).djvu/285

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

adequate representation of the various British industries, and in arranging the juries of award and appeal, as well as in the judicious investment of the large surplus that the exhibition realised. His services in these respects were rewarded by the commandership of the Bath, and by his appointment to the position of gentleman usher in the household of the Prince Consort. His connection with the Great Exhibition of 1851 led to his taking a prominent part in furthering the Prince Consort's endeavours to secure for the nation technical instruction in the application of science to industry, with which he was in full agreement. At the close of the exhibition he made a private inquiry into the state of education and technical instruction on the continent of Europe, and lectured on the subject after his return.

In 1853 the department of Science and Art was formed, and Playfair was made secretary for science, Sir Henry Cole [q. v.] occupying a similar position for art. In 1855 the department was reorganised, and Playfair was made secretary of the united departments. As secretary of the Science and Art department Playfair took a leading share in the organisation of the Royal College of Science and the South Kensington Museum, afterwards (1899) renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum.

On the death of William Gregory (1803-1858) [q. v.] in 1858 Playfair was appointed to the chair of chemistry at Edinburgh, which he occupied until 1869. On his appointment he resigned his post in the Prince Consort's household and in the Science and Art department, but was still engaged largely in public work, serving on many royal commissions, and taking an active part in the exhibition of 1862.

The various committees of inquiry and royal commissions in which he took a leading part included those on the health of towns, the herring fishery, the cattle plague, the civil service (which was reorganised on the 'Playfair scheme'), the Scottish universities, endowed schools, and the Thirlmere water scheme. But these employments did not by any means exhaust his activity. In 1869 he became a member of the commission of the 1851 exhibition, and in 1874 was appointed a member of the committee of inquiry which undertook the management of the commission's business affairs. In 1883 he became honorary secretary of this committee, and succeeded in bringing about a most important improvement in its financial prospects, which at the time of his appointment were most unsatisfactory. The surplus funds of the exhibition had been invested in land at South Kensington, part of which was utilised for residential buildings, and part to provide sites for buildings of national importance and for educational institutions. In 1883 there was a considerable annual deficit, but in 1889, when Playfair resigned his honorary secretaryship, this had been converted into an income of 5,000l. per annum, and has since considerably increased. This money was employed to found science scholarships of 150l. a year, to be held by advanced students nominated by the science colleges of this country and the colonies.

In 1868 Playfair was returned to parliament in the liberal interest as member for the universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews, which he continued to represent until 1885. On his election to the House of Commons he resigned his chair at Edinburgh (1869) and returned to London, where he henceforth resided. His influence in parliament was steadily exerted in favour of the improvement of both the education and the social and sanitary surroundings of the people. While he represented the universities, he in fact confined himself entirely to social and educational questions. A number of his speeches in parliament and elsewhere on these subjects were collected and published in 1889, under the title 'Subjects of Social Welfare.' In 1873 he became postmaster-general in Gladstone's first ministry, but the government went out of office early in the following year. In the parliament of 1880 he was elected chairman and deputy speaker of the House of Commons, a position which he held until 1883, when he resigned this very onerous office and was made K.C.B. As chairman during the period of active obstruction by the Irish members in 1881-2, he showed great tact and firmness, but his action in suspending sixteen members en bloc on 1 July 1882, although strictly in accord with precedent, was the occasion of much unfavourable comment from the press. The cabinet also declared that they could no longer support the interpretation of the rule. The persons who expressed themselves most confident of his fairness, patience, and impartiality were the Irish members themselves. The incident led indirectly to his resignation of the post.

At the election of 1885 he withdrew from the representation of the universities, and, identifying himself more closely than before with party politics, was returned as liberal member for South Leeds. That constituency he continued to represent until 1892. Playfair joined Gladstone's home rule ministry of 1886 as vice-president of the council, but left office within five months of his ap-