Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kidman, Sir Sidney (1857–1935)

by Russel Ward

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Sir Sidney Kidman (1857-1935), pastoralist, was born on 9 May 1857, probably at Athelstone near Adelaide, third son of George Kidman, farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Mary, née Nunn, who were married in St Mary's Church of England at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England, in 1848. Next year they migrated to South Australia. George Kidman died about six months after Sidney's birth. His son was educated at private schools in suburban Norwood but left home with five shillings in his pocket and riding a one-eyed horse which he had bought with laboriously acquired savings. He stole away by night and made his way to Poolamacca station in the Barrier Range where his brother George found him a job with George Raines, a landless bushman who roamed about with his stock, squatting on the unfenced runs wherever he found good feed. This 'corner' country of New South Wales later became the heartland of Kidman's pastoral empire.

The boy shared a dug-out in the bank of a dry creek with an Aboriginal known among whites as Billy. Treating him seriously as a friend and equal, Sidney learned from him tracking and other bush skills and so became a better bushman than most white adults. He learned also to admire and exploit Aboriginals: for the rest of his life he rarely travelled in the back-country, where he was most at home, without an Aboriginal guide and offsider. When Raines moved on, Kidman worked for a year or two as a rouseabout on Mount Gipps station, the site of the fabulous silver-lead-zinc discovery at Broken Hill a decade later. When he asked for a rise he was sacked, but found work as a stockman for a neighbouring shanty-keeper, German Charlie. Here he saved enough money to buy a bullock-team. Thenceforth he worked for himself and soon employed others.

Kidman contracted to cart supplies in the country between the isolated settlements at Mount Gipps, Wilcannia, Swan Hill (Victoria), Menindee, Bourke, Tibooburra, Louth and Cobar. He also drove mobs of horses and cattle, sometimes to market in Adelaide. Following the discovery of copper at Cobar in the early 1870s he set up a butcher's shop and, like James Tyson at the Bendigo gold rush twenty years earlier, made enough money to establish himself as a large squatter. In 1878 he inherited £400 from his grandfather and traded with it successfully. He increased his capital by setting up coaching businesses in western New South Wales and in Western Australia. He supplied them with horses and began providing the British army in India with remounts. He grew richer still by continually buying cattle and selling them to his brother Sackville, who conducted a large butchering business at Broken Hill.

These activities were a means to an end. In 1886 Kidman bought his first station, Owen Springs on the Hugh River, south-west of Alice Springs. Long before his thirtieth birthday he had conceived the idea of buying a chain, later two chains, of stations stretching in nearly continuous lines from the well-watered tropical country round the Gulf of Carpentaria, south through western Queensland to Broken Hill, and across the border into South Australia within easy droving distance of Adelaide. Many stations on this 'main chain' were watered by Cooper's Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina rivers which sometimes brought northern tropical rain-waters to the centre even during droughts. By the 1890s he had begun to acquire his second chain of stations strung along the Overland Telegraph line from the Fitzroy River and Victoria River Downs in the north to Wilpena station in the Flinders Ranges near Adelaide. Thus, by moving stock from drought-stricken areas to others, by selling in markets where the price was highest, by his detailed knowledge of the country, and by his energy and bushcraft he withstood the depression of the 1890s and the great drought of 1902. By the time of World War I he controlled station country considerably greater in area than England or Tasmania and nearly as great as Victoria.

By the war's end he had become a national institution, having given fighter aeroplanes and other munificent gifts to the armed forces. In 1920 he gave to the Salvation Army £1000 and a half share in one of his cattle-stations. In 1921 he gave his country home at Kapunda, the scene of his annual horse-sales, to the South Australian government for a district high school. It may have been mere coincidence that he was knighted next day. He grew richer still by bilking the government of taxes. In August 1924 the Federal treasurer, Dr Earle Page, issued a writ for recovery of £166,067. Kidman was fined £10 with four guineas costs for having failed to furnish land tax returns, the magistrate remarking with breath-taking disingenuousness that 'a heavier penalty would serve no purpose to a man in Sir Sidney Kidman's position'. Three years later, after High Court of Australia litigation, the government accepted £25,132 in settlement of his land tax debts. By this time 'Kidman' meant in fact a complex of interlocking companies, partnerships and agencies with branches in all the mainland capital cities and some country towns. Kidman and his children seem to have controlled the whole apparatus from Adelaide. In 1927 he retired.

On 30 June 1885 he had married at Kapunda Isabel Brown Wright, a schoolteacher; they had three daughters and a son. His wife taught him much and they travelled overseas four times. Kidman was six feet (183 cm) tall and well built, with an affable manner and an easy smile. He made friends readily and was a good judge of people. Like Churchill, Napoleon and some other great achievers, he could go to sleep anywhere and in almost any position. He never touched alcohol or tobacco or was profane, even his bullock teams being abused only as 'jolly tinkers'. In the Kidman country stories of his meanness still circulate today, but in fact he was a generous employer and benefactor to many institutions. His reputation for meanness sprang from his hatred of wastefulness; he was known to sack employees he considered guilty of it. His strength had been as a dealer rather than a breeder: he exploited the pastoral areas rather than developed them. In old age he suffered from increasing deafness and rheumatism, but otherwise retained his faculties unimpaired until his death in Adelaide on 2 September 1935; he was buried in Mitcham general cemetery. Kidman's estate, amounting to some £300,000, was mostly left to his family, but much went to charities.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. Brady, Australia Unlimited (Melb, 1918)
  • I. L. Idriess, The Cattle King (Syd, 1936)
  • A Hundred Famous Australian Lives (Syd, 1969)
  • Pastoral Review, 15 Jan, 16 Sept 1903, 15 Aug 1910, 16 Jan 1911
  • Observer (Adelaide), 5 Sept 1903, 17 July 1920, 4, 11 June 1921, 2 Feb 1924, 21 Mar 1925, 17 July 1926, 5 May, 23 June, 18, 28 Aug 1928
  • Catholic Press, 3 Nov 1904
  • Punch (Melbourne), 1 May 1913
  • Town and Country Journal, 27 July 1910, 22 May 1918
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 4 June 1921
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 11 Aug 1921
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 6 Nov 1930
  • Times (London), 3 Sept 1935
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Sept 1935
  • Australian Worker, 11 Sept 1935
  • business records of S. Kidman & Co. Pty Ltd 1886-1928 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Russel Ward, 'Kidman, Sir Sidney (1857–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kidman-sir-sidney-6948/text12065, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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