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John Cran (1848–1935)

by J. G. Nolan

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CRAN FAMILY: Robert (1821-1894), John (1848-1935), James (1850-1922) and Robert (1856-1940) were sugar manufacturers in central Queensland. Robert senior was born on 6 August 1821 at Towie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of John Cran, farmer, and his wife Jean, née Petrie. He married Elspeth Winks at Aberdeen in 1847 and John, the eldest of their nine children, was born there on 14 January 1848. The family migrated to Queensland in 1849.

Cran was a stockman at the Albert River in 1850. He was at Lagoon station, Myall Creek, in 1856 and next year was employed by Robert Tooth on Jondaryan station. He was at Pikedale, near Warwick, as a superintendent in 1861, and became manager of Tooth's boiling-down works and abattoir on his property at Yengarie near Maryborough in 1865. It soon became a beef extract plant and Cran became a partner with Tooth and others in a firm known as Tooth & Cran. John, Robert junior and other members of the family became sub-managers in the Yengarie plant which soon won a sizeable export trade.

When sugar-growing started round Maryborough in the mid-1860s, the beef extract plant was adapted by experiment to sugar refining, thereby avoiding the consequences of increasing cattle prices. Yengarie superseded most of the pioneer sugar-makers, taking the juice from local crushing mills through a network of pipes. It was probably one of the first plants in the world to apply to cane the double carbonation process, used hitherto only for beet sugar.

When two of the Tooth family withdrew in March 1872, the firm became Robert Cran & Co. During 1880 it was accused of allowing excessive mortality among employed Melanesians by poor feeding, bad water, overwork and absence of proper care for the sick. Despite ten per cent mortality in 1879-80, the accusation was denied by the firm and the matter was not pursued.

When rumours reached the neighbouring town of Bundaberg that Crans were seeking other localities for investment, a leading businessman published an invitation in the Bundaberg Star in March 1875 for the establishment of a refinery which would help the district to change from maize to sugar-growing. John Cran and his brother Robert surveyed the district in April 1876 and were impressed by the rich volcanic soil of the Woongarra scrub. They returned next year to assess cane supplies and decided to open a plant. John Cran launched the building programme in June 1878. Financing the initial investment of about £310,000, mainly from Victoria, took time and in the interim some growers unsuccessfully approached the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Robert Cran senior went to England for machinery late in 1880, and in 1882 a ball hosted by the Cran family launched the Millaquin refinery. Within a decade it was unable to handle all the local production; by 1887 there were five new crushing mills, including one owned by Cran Bros and Frederic Buss, and twenty new plantations in the district.

The sugar industry underwent radical structural changes in 1890-1915 and the Cran properties were mortgaged to the Queensland National Bank. Flood damage and the financial crisis of 1893, followed by the transition to white labour, upset the solvency of the firm, and in 1896 the bank foreclosed. Robert senior died of pneumonia at Millaquin on 16 December 1894 and was buried in Bundaberg general cemetery with Presbyterian forms. His estate, valued for probate at £223,540, was left in trust for his family.

John was head of Robert Cran & Co. until 1896. In 1902 he joined Buss in launching the Farleigh Estate Sugar Co. Apart from his position as a director, he took little part in management and lived in retirement. Initially prosperous, the company suffered severely from the disruptive effects on the industry of World War I; when it went into voluntary liquidation in 1926, John Cran stayed on the board of the co-operative which succeeded it. He was a justice of the peace in 1886-1919, an enthusiastic Freemason, and a member of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Bundaberg; but much of his private time was devoted to local government. Unmarried, he died in Bundaberg on 24 September 1935, was buried in Bundaberg general cemetery and left an estate valued for probate at £52,489.

James was born at the Albert River on 28 July 1850 and joined his father in Yengarie while young. On 21 June 1876 at Tamworth, New South Wales, he married Jane Irving; they had five children. When the others went to Millaquin, he stayed to manage Yengarie and, when it finally closed down, he began sugar-planting at Duncraggan near Bundaberg as a partner in Buss, Williams & Cran. He was later on a plantation called Mon Repos. He died at Maryborough of bronchitis on 22 April 1922 and was buried in Maryborough cemetery. He was widowed about three years before his death and his estate, valued for probate at £3922, was left to his unmarried daughter.

Robert junior was born at Lagoon station, Myall Creek, on 4 May 1856. Employed initially as a clerk by the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney, he left soon to join the family enterprise and managed Yengarie for a time. When it was lost he mustered sufficient capital to move to Sydney in 1903 and set up as a sharebroker. On 6 April 1887 at Brisbane, he had married Annie Mary, daughter of Sir Charles Lilley. Another brother, Alexander, married her sister. When Robert died on 16 December 1940, he left a well-established business which still survives and an estate valued for probate at £39,992.

Inclined to be dour, the Crans were not prominent public figures but were involved in local government. John, James and Alexander were members of the Woongarra Divisional Board—John was a member in 1885-96 and chairman in 1886-87 and 1890-94; his brothers were members in 1902. James was a member of the Tinana Shire Council in 1912-15 and chaired it in 1916-17. All the principal members of the family served on the Antigua Divisional Board in 1880-99.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Y. Walker, The History of Bundaberg (Brisb, 1890)
  • N. Bartley, Opals and Agates (Brisb, 1892)
  • G. E. Loyau, The History of Maryborough and Wide Bay and Burnett Districts from the Year 1850 to 1895 (Brisb, 1897)
  • H. Turner, Rural Life in Sunny Queensland (Bundaberg, 1955)
  • C. T. Wood, Sugar Country (Brisb, 1965)
  • Farleigh Co-operative Sugar Milling Association Ltd, Golden Jubilee, 1926-76 (Mackay, 1976)
  • J. Nolan, Bundaberg History and People (Brisb, 1978)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1880, 1, 71 and 2, 409
  • Australian Sugar Journal, 6 Jan 1922, 8 July 1926, 10 Oct 1935, Sept 1975
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 21 Jan 1941
  • Bundaberg Star, 17, 19 Mar 1875
  • Bundaberg Reporter, 6 Mar 1888
  • Brisbane Courier, 19 Dec 1894.

Citation details

J. G. Nolan, 'Cran, John (1848–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 January, 1848
Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


24 September, 1935 (aged 87)
Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

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