Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Brake (1890–1970)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

John Brake (1890-1970), agriculturist, sportsman and soldier, was born on 11 November 1890 at Horsham, Victoria, fifth of seven children of native-born parents James Hugh Brake (1853-1915), storekeeper and later politician, and his wife Barbara Stevenson, née McDougall. John was educated at Princes Hill State School, Hawthorn College and the University of Melbourne (B.Agr.Sc., 1916). His sporting record was brilliant: the champion schoolboy athlete of Victoria (1908) and a triple Blue in athletics, football and rifle-shooting at university, he was to be Australian pole-vault (Australasian record) title-holder, and an outstanding Australian Rules ruckman for Melbourne and Victoria. He was 6 ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall.

In March 1915 Brake joined the Department of Agriculture as an officer supervising field tests and research, largely at Werribee. On 12 November he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Commissioned on 1 April 1916, he served on the Western Front in the 8th Field Artillery Brigade from January 1917, eventually as adjutant. On 21 April 1918 he saw Baron von Richthofen shot down and it was later claimed that he was one of the Australians who lifted the body from the red triplane. Brake's appointment terminated in Australia on 21 December 1919. At Scots Church, Melbourne, on 19 July 1921 he married Grace Glendinning Taylor.

After running a mixed farm at Yering, in May 1924 Brake rejoined the Department of Agriculture as senior field officer. In 1926 he was appointed senior inspector and in 1934 agricultural superintendent. As a reservist, he was mobilized in September 1940 with the rank of captain (major from November) in the Royal Australian Artillery, but throughout 1941 he commanded the Melbourne University Rifles. On 9 March 1942 he was released to the department to work on food production.

In Brake's period as superintendent his division 'fostered improved cultivation methods, the use of superphosphate, subterranean clover seeding, pasture topdressing, fodder conservation, ley farming, the development of irrigated pastures, the recognition of the importance of potash and the determination of trace element deficiencies of Victorian pasture lands'. He was a member of committees investigating Mallee sand drift (1933), the tobacco industry (1934) and soil erosion (1937); the last led to sustained advice to farmers on 'retaining a dense vegetative cover'. Brake chaired the Farms Competition Association for twenty years, was Victorian representative on the Australian Barley Board, a departmental member of the Pasture Improvement League from 1931 and deputy chairman from 1935 of the Victorian Wheat Advisory Committee. He directed a staff of more than two hundred, including about seventy graduates, was responsible for five State research farms, wrote prolifically for the Journal of Agriculture, Victoria, and often broadcast to farmers. An enthusiastic educator, he used such means as the Better Farming Train and the department's mobile extension unit. On his retirement in November 1955, colleagues spoke warmly of the loyalty and affection 'J.B.' commanded.

Brake was president (1938) of the Victorian branch of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, a Presbyterian elder, a Rotarian, and a member of convocation (1933-47) and council (1947-55) of the university. For over twenty years he chaired the Victorian Football League's tribunal and in 1949-55 was chairman of the commissioners who reviewed club boundaries. Brake retired to Guildford. He died at Castlemaine on 16 May 1970. Survived by his wife and two sons, he was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Agriculture (Victoria), Thirty Years of Agricultural Production with John Brake (Melb, 1956)
  • P. J. Carisella and J. W. Ryan, Who Killed the Red Baron? (Lond, 1969)
  • Journal of Agriculture (Victoria), Apr 1940, Jan 1956
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 May 1924, 1 Feb 1934
  • private information.

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Brake, John (1890–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 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

Life Summary [details]


11 November, 1890
Horsham, Victoria, Australia


16 May, 1970 (aged 79)
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

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.