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Bull, John Wrathall (1804–1886)

by H. J. Finnis

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

John Wrathall Bull (1804-1886), by unknown photographer, c1880

John Wrathall Bull (1804-1886), by unknown photographer, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 984

John Wrathall Bull (1804-1886), agent, farmer and author, was born on 23 June 1804, in St Paul's Cray, Kent, England, the son of Rev. John Bull, incumbent of St John's, Walthamstow, Essex. After some years of dairying in Cheshire, he moved to Cranfield in Bedfordshire, where he applied successfully as farmer and shepherd for a free passage to South Australia. In the Canton he arrived in Adelaide with his wife and two infant sons in May 1838. He set up as a land and stock agent, and representative of absentee landholders. In the depression of the early 1840s he took up farming in the Mount Barker district, on three sections acquired soon after arrival. For some time he also owned a sheep station near Rapid Bay, named Bowyer after his wife. In 1852 he visited the goldfields of Victoria, and next year returned to South Australia where he became manager of a farm formerly held by Osmond Gilles at Glen Osmond.

Bull was one of the earliest settlers to become interested in mechanical harvesting. By experiments in December 1842 he discovered that heads of wheat were less wastefully swept off with beaters than cut off. He produced a skeleton model of a harvesting machine which, with fifteen others, was exhibited before a meeting of the Adelaide Corn Exchange committee in September 1843. The committee reported that it 'did not feel justified in recommending it for general adoption'. Bull's was the only model to embody the novel principle of a horizontal projecting comb, and revolving beaters driven by a belt from the carriage wheels. He claimed that John Ridley had approved the principle and embodied it in the harvesting machine that he produced soon after the exhibition. It would appear to be undoubted that Ridley built the first machine and that Bull originated the stripping principle which was the operative factor in its success.

The rival claims of Bull and Ridley to the title of inventor of the stripper were the subject of long controversy. In 1843 Ridley had the limelight and Bull was more interested in using wheat for fattening sheep before they were boiled down for tallow, a topic of rural economy that he expounded in three long articles in October in the Adelaide Observer. The controversy was revived after 1875 by proposals to establish a Ridley chair of agriculture in the new University of Adelaide. Supported by influential friends and by mechanics who had made the original harvesting machine, Bull petitioned parliament in 1880 for a grant in recognition of his invention. After long inquiry he was given £250 in 1882 'for services in improving agricultural machinery'.

Bull was active in the volunteer militia movement and was lieutenant in command of the companies at Mitcham and Glen Osmond. His wife died on 25 February 1882, aged 86, and he died at College Park on 21 September 1886. Of their ten children, only two survived him, one of them a farmer at Wallup, Victoria. Bull's Early Experiences of Colonial Life in South Australia (Adelaide, 1878) first appeared as critical but rambling reminiscences in the South Australian Chronicle. Revised and enlarged by the addition of some imprecise colonial history, the work was republished in Adelaide and London in 1884.

Select Bibliography

  • Register (Adelaide), 22 Sept 1886
  • G. L. Sutton, ‘The Invention of the Stripper’, Journal of the Department of Agriculture of Western Australia, vol 14, no 3, Sept 1937, pp 94-247.

Citation details

H. J. Finnis, 'Bull, John Wrathall (1804–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 October 2016.

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

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