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Aitken, John (1792–1858)

by P. L. Brown

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

John Aitken (1792?-1858), pioneer sheepbreeder, was a Scottish farmer's son who arrived in Van Diemen's Land about 1825 and was himself farming near Oatlands in 1833-34, when he voiced proposals for joint-stock mainland squatting. On 20 July 1835, less than six weeks after John Batman returned from his first trip across Bass Strait, and the day before the schooner Enterprise began her first trip for John Pascoe Fawkner, Aitken left Launceston in the sloop Endeavour to inspect the Port Phillip country. Of the five passengers with him, the most notable was probably Augustus Morris, who became a well-known settler associated with saltbush and frozen meat, agent for Benjamin Boyd and partner with William Charles Wentworth, but was then only 15 and nominally attending the Hobart Town Academy.

Aitken returned to Launceston on 29 August, when the Enterprise first reached the site of Melbourne. On 22 March 1836 he left again in the brig Chili, apparently with W. G. G. Sams ('Mr. Sams Junr.'), representing one of Batman's Port Phillip Association, and four station hands. Some 1600 sheep were loaded at George Town. About half were lost through crowding and lack of water in a hot, calm crossing that ended on a sandbank in Port Phillip Bay, four miles (6.4 km) off shore under Arthur's Seat. After great exertions, Aitken personally carrying each from boat to beach, the rest were landed, but many then died from weakness. Within a few weeks the remnant were driven to the Yarra; thence, having been helped across by the Fawkner party, slightly west of north some twenty-five miles (40 km).

Thus, about May 1836 Aitken became the first settler in the Gisborne-Sunbury district. He joined more than one exploring expedition, and later acquired interests in other stations, but the sheltered volcanic slopes he had discovered remained his headquarters for some fifteen years. Governor Sir Richard Bourke found him there in March 1837. In 1846 Dr John Dunmore Lang stayed in his 'silvan cottage', on a hill two miles (3.2 km) from Mount Aitken, which Bourke had named, and saw in him one of the most successful colonists in the country; also a kindly man, returning help when it was needed, and befriending two of Batman's fatherless daughters.

It was said by one who knew him that Aitken married a girl (eventually a Mrs Kaye) whom he first sent to boarding school. They had several daughters, and then a son, who inherited the freehold of the Mount Aitken estate, 4000 acres (1619 ha). Most of the much larger original run was engulfed by the special survey of William Clarke. Some time after mid-1854 Aitken returned to Britain; he died in London on 21 October 1858.

For many years he was revered as the leading flockmaster of the Port Phillip pastoral period. He imported and then bred the best Saxon sheep available, at first in conjunction with Edmund and Francis Bryant of the Tasmanian midlands, but from 1839 alone. He sold his own rams at £5 in 1840, but later paid £200 for the best Tasmanian, and £250 for a Silesian. In 1842 his sheep gained half the awards at the second Melbourne Show. In 1844 his wool averaged 28d. a pound in London, or 9d. above the market. In December 1845, offering 600 'pure Saxon Rams', J. B. Kirk, a leading Melbourne agent, staged for him at Mount Aitken the first of a series of sales that became an annual attraction for scores of buyers, and made this quiet, unobtrusive, but allegedly handsome man, who was apparently older than most of his squatter contemporaries, the final court of appeal in the local sheep-world before Thomas Shaw established the cult of the Australian merino. In 1852 Aitken moved into Shaw's country when he bought the run known as Mount Elephant No. 2, west of Geelong, from John Brown, and brought up 10,000 of his Mount Aitken sheep, no doubt evicted by Clarke. He could hardly start again, and soon sold out; but fittingly John Brown's nephew, G. A. Brown, had the last word on his work: 'The improvement of the merino sheep of the country, prior to the origin of some of the studs of the 1860s, was owing more to John Aitken than to any other sheep breeder. His aim was to increase the weight of fleece and to keep up the fineness and density at the same time. This he accomplished by adding to the length of wool staple'. Aitken set a lasting example. His character may be judged from his election as one of three arbitrators between Henry Batman and Fawkner in Melbourne's first public dispute, on 2 May 1836.

Select Bibliography

  • G. A. Brown, Sheep Breeding in Australia (Melb, 1880)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 1-5 (Lond, 1941-63).

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Citation details

P. L. Brown, 'Aitken, John (1792–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/aitken-john-1694/text1827, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 September 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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