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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Darling, John (1852–1914)

by H. S. K. Kent

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

John Darling is a minor entry in this article

John Darling (1831-1905), merchant and grain exporter, was born on 23 February 1831 in Edinburgh, into a family originally from Duns in Berwickshire. Admitted to a George Heriot free school in Edinburgh, John left at 11 after his father died. He was apprenticed to an Edinburgh typefounder and remained with the firm until October 1854. Seeing little prospect of advancement, he decided to follow friends to South Australia. Early in 1855 he arrived at Adelaide in the Achilles with his wife Isabella, née Ferguson, and two sons. After brief employment in a general store and two years in a bakery, Darling tried to set up as a contractor; at a well-chosen site on the Glen Osmond Road he also built a small general store which his wife managed. The contracting failed and he joined the Adelaide firm of Giles & Smith, grain and flour merchants. Darling became its manager but after five years transferred to R. G. Bowen's wheat and grain store in Waymouth Street.

In 1867 Darling took over Bowen's business and noted that in his first six weeks he cleared as much as he had earned in three years as an employee. In 1872 he took his twenty-year-old son, John, into partnership and changed the firm's name to John Darling & Son. With branches in South Australia's wheat belt the firm acquired interests in many agricultural properties and flour mills, bought grain from growers and exported extensively to eastern Australia. When Victoria became self-supporting in grain Darling turned to the international market. He travelled overseas in 1871 and was soon shipping cargoes to many European ports. In the 1880s he lived for some years in Melbourne where he founded another main office and, after a second visit to America and Europe, became known as the 'Grain King', the biggest shipper of wheat from Australia. By 1890 the firm also had immense interests in flour-milling and shipping together with a large London office managed by his son Charles. Darling could justly claim: 'I carried grain and flour on my back for 12 years. I have since then carried grain and flour on my brain for over 35 years'.

Consistent with the ethics of many self-made men, Darling conscientiously served his stint in the South Australian parliament. In the assembly he represented West Adelaide in 1870-71 and again in 1876-78 after a break for health and business reasons. He represented Yatala in 1878-81 and Stanley in 1885-87; he served in the Downer government as commissioner of Public Works in 1885 for four months only, resigning because of press criticism. In 1888-97 Darling represented North District in the Legislative Council. Throughout his political career Darling described himself as 'a moderate Protectionist'. Although he seldom spoke his words carried weight and his unrivalled knowledge of agriculture and trade proved valuable to many select committees and royal commissions.

Darling was a generous supporter of many philanthropies, and as an active member of the Independent and Baptist Churches helped their missions, worked as a lay preacher and served on committees. Proud of his Scottish origin he was a member of the Adelaide Caledonian Society and its chief in 1892-94. Through his son Joseph, he became interested in cricket and helped to found the Adelaide Oval. Darling died in Adelaide on 10 April 1905, leaving an estate worth £67,500, most of it to be invested in a trust fund for his wife and children, and the remainder to charities and favoured employees.

His eldest son John Darling junior was born on 24 January 1852 in Edinburgh. He took over the management of his father's firm in 1897 and continued to extend its business, becoming known as the 'Wheat King' of Australia. As an active member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Shipowners Association, the South Australian Employers Union and the Australian Employers Federation, he foresaw the clash with trade unionism, especially on the waterfront, and fought with undiminished zeal for freedom of contract long after the strikes ended. In 1892 he became a director of Broken Hill Pty Co. Ltd and was chairman of directors in 1907-14.

Like his father, Darling served in the South Australian parliament, representing East Torrens in 1896-1902 and Torrens in 1902-05. He was also a generous supporter of the Baptist Church and many philanthropic movements. He died in Melbourne on 27 March 1914 and was buried in Adelaide, survived by his wife Jessie, daughter of the merchant, Alexander Dowie, and by four sons and five daughters. His estate, valued at £1,694,500 was reduced by a third in death duties, and the remainder, apart from special legacies, was placed in a trust fund for his family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe, History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adelaide, 1901)
  • T. Gill, History and Topography of Glen Osmond (Adelaide, 1905)
  • H. E. Hughes, Our First Hundred Years: The Baptist Church in South Australia (Adelaide, 1937)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 30 May 1903, 15 Apr 1905
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Mar 1914
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 May 1968
  • information from the Baptist Church in South Australia
  • private information.

Citation details

H. S. K. Kent, 'Darling, John (1852–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]


24 January 1852
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


27 March 1914
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence