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Janet Biddlecombe (1866–1954)

by Diane Langmore

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Janet Biddlecombe, by Watt Webb, 1890

Janet Biddlecombe, by Watt Webb, 1890

State Library of Victoria, 49384806

Janet Biddlecombe (1866-1954), pastoralist and philanthropist, was born on 24 April 1866 in Melbourne, seventh daughter and youngest of eight children of George Russell, pastoralist, and his wife Euphemia Carstairs (d.1867), both Scottish born. She was educated privately by Mrs Pfund, a schoolmistress at St Kilda. Motherless from infancy, Janet was a close companion to her father and, as his last unmarried daughter remaining at Golf Hill, Shelford, Victoria, developed an interest in the property. After her father's death in 1888, she grew concerned at her brother Philip's (d.1898) inadequate management of Golf Hill. With his agreement, she assumed control of the encumbered estate and for several years struggled to restore its former prosperity.

On 7 July 1900 at Scots Church, Melbourne, Janet married John Biddlecombe, an English-born naval officer; they were to remain childless. After service in South Africa, he retired from the Commonwealth Naval Forces and worked as a jackeroo before taking over management of Golf Hill. Together, the Biddlecombes built up a Hereford stud (registered in 1906) until it became one of the leading herds in Australia. From 1924 they won prizes almost annually at the Sydney and Melbourne royal shows. Following John's death in 1929, Janet maintained the herd's pre-eminence: in 1947 her cattle gained every group prize in the Hereford section at the Sydney Royal Show. Under her direction, from a flock of some 25,000 Golf Hill also produced some of the best comeback wool in the Geelong region. A shrewd but self-effacing woman, she encouraged sound management by her knowledge and lack of interference.

Janet Biddlecombe maintained a tradition of secret philanthropy begun before her husband's death. They had financed the construction of six masters' houses at Geelong Church of England Grammar School; the school named a road after them. Mrs Biddlecombe continued to befriend the school, offering hospitality to its headmaster (Sir) James Darling, and, with the Bell family, providing a music school. She supported Shelford Presbyterian Church—built on Golf Hill land—and the Geelong branch of the Australian Red Cross Society, and sponsored the publication of a narrative of her father's life and of the papers of the Clyde Co.

In October 1953 Mrs Biddlecombe decided to sell her world-famous cattle, many of which, including Marshall Lass, Winifred, Corisanda, Marinda, Best Girl, Harmony, Cora and Oyster Girl, were descended from the elite studs of Herefordshire, England. She hoped that the herd's dispersal would improve the Hereford breed throughout the country. The auction obtained record Australian and British Commonwealth prices, and proceeds of the sale—about £125,000—went to charity.

Until the last few weeks of her life Mrs Biddlecombe retained a lively interest in the running of the property, which still carried 14,000 sheep. She died on 15 February 1954 at Golf Hill and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. Her estate, sworn for probate at £554,585, established a Golf Hill bequest for the Bethany Babies' Home, Geelong, the Victorian Association of Braille Writers and the Victorian Society for Crippled Children. Many other institutions then learned the identity of their long-time, anonymous benefactor: the Red Cross named an ex-servicemen's convalescent home after her and the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia commemorated her at its base at Derby, Western Australia. A portrait of Janet Biddlecombe by Watt Webb is held by the State Library of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Darling, Richly Rewarding (Melb, 1978)
  • W. Bate, Light-Blue Down Under (Melb, 1990)
  • Pastoral Review, 16 May 1929, 16 Mar 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Apr 1938, 11 Aug 1954
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 July 1953, 16 Feb 1954
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Oct 1953, 16 Feb 1954
  • Geelong Advertiser, 16 Feb 1954, 26 Feb 1955.

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Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Biddlecombe, Janet (1866–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Janet Biddlecombe, by Watt Webb, 1890

Janet Biddlecombe, by Watt Webb, 1890

State Library of Victoria, 49384806

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Russell, Janet

24 April, 1866
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


15 February, 1954 (aged 87)
Shelford, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Stately Homes