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Currie, John Lang (1818–1898)

by J. Ann Hone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

John Lang Currie (1818-1898), pastoralist, was born on 17 November 1818 in the parish of Yarrow, Selkirkshire, Scotland, son of William Currie, tenant of Howford, and his wife Henrietta, née Lang. He was educated at the local grammar school and at 21 set off to join his cousins, Gideon Scott, Thomas and William Lang, in Australia. Currie arrived at Port Phillip early in 1841 but as he had contracted typhoid fever his first weeks with his cousins at Saltwater (near Bulla) were miserable.

For a time Currie was in charge of large shipments of cattle to New Zealand. He saved money and in 1844 borrowed to become a pastoralist in his own right. With an old school friend, Tom Anderson, Currie bought for £750 the 32,000-acre (12,950 ha) Larra run near Camperdown and 1500 sheep. No water was then visible and, as Currie later recounted, one could in that year walk from Larra to Geelong without treading on grass. However, he saw a similarity between the Howford country and his new run and had faith in his judgment, vindicated in 1845 when springs broke to the surface and have flowed ever since.

Currie's first years at Larra were hard; wild dogs attacked his flocks and the labour shortage was worsened by the discovery of gold. With energy and ingenuity he developed traps to catch the dogs and secured the services of six 'good, honest Scotchmen and hard workers' who had arrived in the Marco Polo. In the first year Larra produced only eleven bales of wool but Currie had already started improving his flocks. In 1844 he began his stud with Saxon merinos from Van Diemen's Land, then bought sheep from Edward Barker and James Riley of the Western District. In 1848 and 1849 he culled his flock and added ten merino rams from Camden stock, taken to Port Phillip by William Campbell. Currie regarded the Camden sheep as the foundation of his flock and in the next decade used a continuous supply of Camden rams. He often wrote to Sir William Macarthur, sending him samples of wool and seeking his advice. However, it was to Thomas Shaw senior that he turned for most help and advice. Currie also experimented with Saxon and Rambouillet sheep but did not like the results and cleared them out.

The 1860s saw the establishment of the Larra lustre merino. The distinguishing features of the wool were its length, fineness and glossy appearance. Always a successful show entrant (he had won first prize for merinos at the first Skipton Show in 1859) Currie in a decade rivalled the Learmonth brothers. In the early 1860s Currie made known his views and aims through the Melbourne Economist; within ten years the success of the Larra lustre merino made his point for him. Currie's devotion to developing the Australian merino and his successes were widely acknowledged. At the 1870 Skipton Show the judges declared that his flock showed a density of wool unequalled in Victoria. In London a bale of Larra wool was declared perfect, but Currie did not rest on his laurels. In 1877 he wrote that by 'judicious selection the peculiar character of the Larra merino will attain a much higher development than it has yet reached'. At the 1881 sale of Larra rams Currie obtained the exceptional average of 152 guineas for thirty rams. Rams from these sales went all over Australia, to South Africa and to the United States of America. Currie remained one of the best merino breeders in Australia in the 1880s. However, as the practice of artificially feeding and housing show animals spread, Currie became disgusted and finally ceased to exhibit.

The method and zeal which Currie applied to sheepbreeding he also extended to the improvement of his estates. At Larra he carried out massive drainage projects and successfully broadcast eucalypts on hundreds of acres. The number of sheep at Larra increased from 6161 in 1846 to 34,277 in 1879. The woolshed was built in 1860 and the fine bluestone homestead begun in 1869. In 1850 Currie acquired the 14,300-acre (5787 ha) Mount Elephant run. In 1864 he unsuccessfully claimed compensation for permanent improvements on leases which he had taken up nine years earlier and which had been sold to selectors after the land was thrown open under the 1862 Land Act. Undeterred, he bought the 17,000-acre (6880 ha) Titanga estate in 1886 and in 1889 the 20,000-acre (8094 ha) Gala estate. By the mid-1890s he owned 80,000 freehold acres (32,375 ha) in an area which was described as the finest sheepwalk in the world and on which he ran 100,000 sheep. Currie also had pastoral interests in New South Wales, and in 1881 bought Telemon station, 22,084 freehold acres (8937 ha), 165 sq. miles (427 km²) held under pastoral lease and 19 sq. miles (49 km²) held under grazing right, near Hughenden, Queensland.

Unlike some other Western District pastoralists, Currie had no desire to seek election to the Legislative Council, though his friends thought him 'in every way a fit and proper person to represent the Western Province'. However, he was an original member of the Camperdown Road Board, a member of the Hampden and Heytesbury Road Board and in 1863 was elected to the Shire Council. He was a justice of the peace and an elder of the Presbyterian Church and in 1878 gave £500 to Ormond College, for he believed one must give 'in spite of the state of the country for the sake of those who have to come after us'. He later gave substantial sums to Presbyterian and other charitable institutions in Victoria.

Currie was a shareholder and chairman of the Victorian Woollen and Cloth Manufacturing Co. formed in 1865. The first piece of cloth made at this first Victorian woollen mill was of Larra wool and Currie had a suit made of it. In 1879 he became director of the Australian Frozen Export Co., the first formed to export meat to England. He was also a director of the Australasian Mortgage and Agency Co., a sponsor of the Skipton Sheep Show and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Currie travelled widely in Australia and New Zealand seeking information on the land and its potential. He became an authority on a variety of subjects and the owner of an extensive Australiana collection. He returned to Scotland several times and was shipwrecked in 1871 and again in 1874. He leased Osborne House in Geelong but by the late 1870s had made Melbourne his town base and had built Eildon, Grey Street, St Kilda, where he died on 11 March 1898, widely mourned. He left an estate of £479,000 to his wife Louise, daughter of James Stewart Johnston, and his surviving children, five sons and three daughters. His sons, John Lang and Charles Sibbald, took over Larra, and a daughter married Richard Grice.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, Pastures New (Melb, 1930)
  • Pastoral Review Pty Ltd, Pastoral Homes of Australia, vol 3 (Melb, 1931)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Australian Families, vol 1 (Melb, 1941)
  • W. R. Brownhill, The History of Geelong and Corio Bay (Melb, 1955)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • J. R. Oman et al, Brown's Water Holes: History of Lismore 1840-1960 (Geelong, 1961)
  • J. Hetherington, Witness to Things Past (Melb, 1964)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1864, 396
  • Warrnambool Standard, 22 May 1880
  • Camperdown Chronicle, 12 Mar 1898
  • Pastoral Review, 15 Apr 1898, 15 Dec 1909
  • Currie papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • manuscript catalogue under J. L. Currie (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Ormond College correspondence (Ormond College Archives).

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Currie, John Lang (1818–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/currie-john-lang-3304/text5031, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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