Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Mitchell (1844–1908)

by Joan Hancock and Eric Richards

This article was published:

Thomas Mitchell (1844?-1908), farmer, was born in Forfarshire, Scotland, eldest son of Robert Mitchell, farmer, and his wife Agnes, née Stewart, who migrated to South Australia with their younger children, including Robert, in 1855, leaving Thomas behind. In 1862 Thomas joined his family, farming at South Rhine near Adelaide and subsequently at Mount Crawford. Later he selected 400 acres (162 ha) at Canowie Plains, grew wheat, and did well. On 21 March 1873 he married Susan Maitland in the Presbyterian manse, Clare; they had two sons and two daughters. In 1879 Thomas moved to Eldena, a larger property near Jamestown, producing principally wheat.

Northern wheat-farmers felt that they were being exploited by collusive buyers underpaying for output and overcharging for wheat-sacks. Working on ideas derived from New Zealand, and encouraged by Albert Molineux, secretary of the government's Agricultural Bureau, Mitchell proposed a producers' union to combat the effects of depressed agricultural prices and the power of dealers. He aired his ideas at a private meeting that he chaired at Jamestown on 28 February 1888, when a committee was formed. As earlier attempts at farmers' co-operation had failed, there was considerable scepticism. Nevertheless the scheme matured: in October the South Australian Farmers' (later Co-operative) Union Ltd was floated, with a paid-up capital of under £300, ninety-four shareholders, John Pearce as managing director and Mitchell a director. Following heavy losses in the first year, directors personally guaranteed the co-operative's overdraft, and appointed Pearce paid manager. Mitchell became managing director (until his death) and travelled the countryside in pursuit of new members and agencies, in order to expand capital and increase the volume of business.

After a few precarious years the union was 'able to give farmers more for their grain than they would get elsewhere, and that is as good as a dividend', as Mitchell reminisced. In 1893 the union declared its first profit and paid a dividend of 8 per cent on paid-up capital of £3000. It thereafter expanded beyond its mid-north base and penetrated the west coast, Yorke Peninsula and the South-East. In 1895 the head office was transferred to Adelaide; a merchandise store was established at Port Adelaide. Business was diversified to include dealing in wheat-sacks, machinery and superphosphate, whose use the union promoted.

Mitchell served a term on the Belalie District Council, was a justice of the peace, and was narrowly defeated in a bid for the Burra seat in the House of Assembly in 1899, possibly because of his temperance views. He supported moderate protection, the existing land tax, Federation and religious instruction in government schools. Deeply religious, he was an elder of the Presbyterian Church for over thirty years, taught Sunday school and was secretary to the board of management. Mitchell was also a kindly and conscientious benefactor to every worthy movement at Jamestown.

When he died on 2 August 1908, after a period of illness and an operation in a local hospital, Mitchell was recognized as 'the man who founded the Union, and fought for it ever since'. His twenty years leadership had been important in establishing a vigorous co-operative with a substantial and continuing role in South Australia's rural economy. A son Robert later became a director of the union.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1890)
  • C. Hill, Fifty Years of Progress (Adel, 1938)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1908 (20)
  • Farm, Stock and Station Journal (Adelaide), June 1904, Aug-Oct 1908, June-Aug 1909, Jan 1916
  • Journal of Agriculture and Industry (South Australia), Oct 1899
  • Agriculturist and Review (Jamestown), 4 July, 10 Oct 1888, 7 Aug 1908
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 Aug 1908
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 17 Mar 1938
  • G. M. Messner, The Formation and Early History of the S.A. Farmers Co-operative Union Ltd (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1964).

Citation details

Joan Hancock and Eric Richards, 'Mitchell, Thomas (1844–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Forfarshire, Scotland


2 August, 1908 (aged ~ 64)
Jamestown, South Australia, Australia

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