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Ridley, John (1806–1887)

by H. J. Finnis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Ridley (1806-1887), by Ida Robins Perrin, 1887

John Ridley (1806-1887), by Ida Robins Perrin, 1887

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6960

John Ridley (1806-1887), miller, inventor and preacher, was born on 26 May 1806 at West Boldon, near Sunderland, Durham, England, the son of John and Mary Ridley, who were cousins. His formal education was little more than that of a village school, but it was augmented by an insatiable love of books and a remarkable memory. Although baptized into the Church of England he came early under the influence of Wesleyan Methodism. He began preaching at 18 and at 23 was a recognized local preacher in the Sunderland circuit. At 15 he took over the milling business that his mother had managed since his father's death in 1811. After his mother's death in 1835 he married Mary Pybus, the daughter of a boarding school proprietor at West Boldon.

In 1839 Ridley left for South Australia in the Warrior with his wife and two children. Soon after arrival he lost a child through her clothes catching fire. He took over the flour-mill of the South Australian Co., installed a Watt's Beam steam engine, and began growing wheat on land he bought at Hindmarsh. With shrewd foresight he predicted that the heavy spending of Governor George Gawler would bring depression and force colonists into rural production. When this happened he let his Hindmarsh farm and, as he toured the settled districts in search of grain for his mill, made many more land purchases. By 1843 the wheat crop threatened to expand beyond the capacity of the small labour force to harvest it. When a prize was offered in September for designs of harvesting machinery, Ridley did not compete because he was already building a reaper based on a woodcut in J. C. Loudon's An Encyclopaedia of Agriculture (3rd ed., London, 1835). Tested next month his machine failed; rebuilt with combs and beaters that swept off the heads of wheat, it was tried on his tenant's crop and proved successful, reaping seventy acres (28 ha) in a week at 5s. an acre. Next year he planned the manufacture and improvement of his harvesting machine; in 1845 he made seven and within five years over fifty were operating in the province and others had been exported. Although it was claimed that the machine was invented in principle by John Wrathall Bull, none disputed that Ridley was its first practical producer. In 1844 he was awarded a special prize by the Agricultural and Horticultural Society and in 1858 he was thanked by the South Australian parliament for a service that had helped to make possible the vast increase of wheat-growing in the province.

Ridley's returns from the harvesting machine were substantial but meagre compared with the dividends from his original shares in the Burra copper-mine, his flour-mill and his land investments. He left for Europe with his family on 18 March 1853 in the steamer Melbourne and after lengthy travel on the Continent, settled in England to devote his eccentric enthusiasm to invention and religion. At his own cost he had printed tens of thousands of copies of sermons and tracts that appealed to his principles and distributed them widely to grateful and ungrateful recipients. He was also an energetic lay preacher and made many gifts to evangelical churches and missions. Tall, spare and dignified, he was a venerable figure, particularly when his dark abundant hair whitened with age. He died in London on 25 November 1887.

His altruism and passion for practical improvement were sincere, and meant more to him than his own financial success. His self-reliance made him eschew government rewards in South Australia, where his memory is honoured by the Ridley memorial scholarship at Roseworthy Agricultural College, memorial gates to the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society's showground at Wayville and the electoral district of Ridley.

Select Bibliography

  • A. E. Ridley, A Backward Glance (Lond, 1904)
  • G. L. Sutton, ‘The Invention of the Stripper’, Journal of the Department of Agriculture of Western Australia, vol 14, no 3, Sept 1937, pp 193-247.

Citation details

H. J. Finnis, 'Ridley, John (1806–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ridley-john-2590/text3553, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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