Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Melrose, Sir John (1860–1938)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sir John Melrose (1860-1938), pastoralist, was born on 12 January 1860 at Rosebank, near Mount Pleasant, South Australia, third son of George Melrose and his wife Euphemia Medina, née Thompson. After attending Prince Alfred College he worked in a mercantile office for a year before becoming assistant manager of his father's property, Wangaraleedini, at Franklin Harbour. From 1884 he was his father's manager at Ulooloo station in the mid-north of the colony, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was a member, and sometime chairman, of Hallett District Council for the next forty-nine years. On 17 April 1886 at the Congregational Church, Glenelg, he married Emily Eliza Edhouse.

In 1894 Melrose's father died. He bought Ulooloo from the estate and began a series of pioneering stock imports: in 1895 he brought the first Dorset sheep to Australia; in 1913 the first French Percheron draughthorses; in 1928 the first Wensleydale sheep, from New Zealand. With Henry Dutton he bought the 32,000-acre (12,950 ha) station, North Booborowie, for £96,320 in 1897. He also became a director of a station in Western Australia and of Oakbank Ltd, on the South Australian border with New South Wales.

About 1898 he began to go blind. He taught himself braille and made a frame to enable him to write his own cheques. He wore small, round, metal-rimmed spectacles and developed heightened hearing and touch. The latter he used to assess his stud sheep and their wool. By 1901 he had lost all sight but still managed his property, with his daughter Margaret Lily as constant companion. He was known affectionately as 'The Blind Squatter' and occasionally contributed articles to livestock journals under a pseudonym.

In 1910 the government, following a 'land for the people' policy, bought North Booborowie and opened it for closer settlement. Melrose was a big shareholder in the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd and became a philanthropist, giving over £20,000 to causes including Burra Burra Hospital, the Royal Institution for the Blind, and, notably, in 1927 £10,000 to the Waite Agricultural Research Institute to build its first proper chemical laboratory. He desired 'to help research … with problems of any and every nature associated with the land'. In 1929 the building was named after him. The previous year he had been knighted.

In 1934 he financed his nephew, the aviator Charles James 'Jimmy' Melrose, to enter the Melbourne Centenary Air Race. Despite his disability Sir John was admired as 'an heroic figure'; somewhat crusty when young, he mellowed to a kindly, gentle, optimistic old man. Predeceased by his wife, he died on 16 September 1938 at Calvary Hospital, Adelaide, and was buried in the Anglican cemetery, Mount Pleasant. His estate was sworn for probate at £142,749. He was survived by his daughter, who married Arthur Gaynor Owen-Smythe—they managed Ulooloo till their deaths in 1970—and his son Alexander John (1889-1962) who was a member of the House of Assembly in 1933-41 and of the Legislative Council in 1941-62.

Select Bibliography

  • Marlene Richards, Hallett—a History of Town and District (Adel, 1977)
  • V. A. Edgeloe, The Waite Agricultural Research Institute (Adel, 1984)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 24 Dec 1904
  • Register (Adelaide), 20 July 1927
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 Sept 1938.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Melrose, Sir John (1860–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/melrose-sir-john-7555/text13183, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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