Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Daniel Custance (1842–1923)

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John Daniel Custance (1842-1923), professor of agriculture, was born probably in Norfolk, England, and trained in practical and scientific farming at the Wynburn estate near Shenfield, Essex. He then studied chemistry and soil analysis and visited many experimental farms in England and on the Continent. For some years he worked on the farm of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, where he was appointed an assistant professor and later resident professor. He also became a fellow of the Chemical Society, London, and a member of the College of Preceptors, of the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. In 1876 he was one of the five British professors invited to the Imperial College of Agriculture which was then at Komaba, Japan, and later became a faculty in the University of Tokyo. He was appointed to teach agronomy at a salary of £1000; his term expired in October 1879 and was extended for a year. At Komaba he studied sheep and their diseases, sericulture, cultivation of flax, hops, tobacco and sorghum, and the manufacture of sugar. He left Japan at his own wish in September 1880 and returned to England.

In 1879 South Australian wheat-growers, faced with many problems and declining soil fertility, advocated the appointment of a well-qualified adviser 'thoroughly trained in practical and scientific farming'. Parliament agreed and made additional provision for an agricultural college and experimental farm to be established by a professor of agriculture. The South Australian agent-general in London, Arthur Blyth, was ordered to seek advice in finding a suitable candidate. Although a second choice, Custance was recommended by the principal of Cirencester and the presidents of several learned societies and supported by testimonials from 'noblemen and gentlemen'. On 1 June 1881 he was appointed professor of agriculture at a salary of £800.

Custance arrived with his family in Adelaide to find the Lands Department confused about the duties expected of him. Although appointed as adviser, he asked first for some exhausted land where he could experiment. While officials argued he visited many areas, studying soil conditions and farming practices. In March 1882 the government bought the 828-acre (335 ha) Olive Farm, near Roseworthy; it had been worked for over 25 years without manures. Custance moved into the homestead in May, started a rainfall register, analysed the soil and acquired dairy cattle, sheep and pigs to make the farm self-supporting. With a government grant of only £800 a year he could afford little labour or equipment and only one horse team, yet he planted a vineyard and orchard, and in experimental plots tested a total of 180 wheat varieties collected from five continents, 157 manurial substances and 520 types of fodder plants, including herbaceous salt bush seeds sent to him by William Farrer.

Convinced that he had found useful answers to the fall in soil fertility, Custance lectured widely to farmers' associations and clubs, advocating more extensive use of thorough cultivation, crop rotation, mineral manures and mechanical sowing. All this good advice was given with more enthusiasm than discretion in a prolonged drought. His many references to 'slovenly methods' and 'scratching the soil' were resented, especially by struggling beginners at Wasleys. Their noisy claims that Custance was unfit for his post led to a motion in parliament for an inquiry. He threatened to resign but was vindicated by members who had taken the trouble to visit his farm and the motion was withdrawn.

Roseworthy Agricultural College started on 3 February 1885 when twenty-five students began their two-year courses; although boycotted by the government the opening was well attended by parents, representatives of farmers' associations and many notable supporters. With his brother Albert as farm manager and one laboratory assistant, Custance had undertaken to lecture in about thirty subjects ranging from surveying to veterinary science. According to Albert Molineux he had 'to talk to three different classes at three different places at the same moment'. Certainly he taught more on the farm than in the lecture room, but his motto was 'Practice and Science' and he aimed at making Roseworthy 'a greater Cirencester'. Alternately thwarted, ignored and criticized by the government, he never cultivated a thick epidermis but with zeal and energy continued to do more than his duty, even conducting Sunday services when no clergy were available. In December 1886 after confusion over the appointment of external examiners he insulted the secretary of the Lands Department and was suspended. At the ceremony to present successful students with their diplomas he explained that the minister of lands had refused to sign them. Soon afterwards he was afflicted by 'a distressing illness' and granted £150 to take his family to England. In 1906, still calling himself 'professor of agriculture', he returned to South Australia as manager of C. H. Angas's estate, Broadview, near Georgetown. In 1912 he became caretaker at Collingrove, near Angaston. He died aged 81 on 14 December 1923 at Black Forest, Adelaide, survived by his second wife Edith Mary, whom he had married about 1880, and by two sons and three daughters.

Despite his stormy colonial career and eclipse by his brilliant successor, William Lowrie, Custance is remembered for establishing Roseworthy College and recommending the use of superphosphate; both had profound effects on farming methods in South Australia and far beyond.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1886, 226
  • Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1884 (47, 192)
  • Student (Roseworthy), 23 (1924)
  • 'The Professor of Agriculture', Garden and Field, vol 12, no 140, Jan 1887, pp 90-91 and vol 12, no 141, Feb 1887, pp 102-03
  • 'Roseworthy College', Garden and Field, vol 12, no 140, Jan 1887, pp 92-93
  • M. E. Mune, Information and Extension Services Among Farmers of the Partially Developed Lands of the Upper South East of South Australia (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1962)
  • Agent-General letter book, vol 19 (State Records of South Australia)
  • information from the University of Tokyo (courtesy of Japanese Embassy, Canberra).

Citation details

'Custance, John Daniel (1842–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Norfolk, England


14 December, 1923 (aged ~ 81)
Black Forest, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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