Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Pearce (1840–1910)

by Nancy Robinson Whittle

This article was published:

John Pearce (1840-1910), teamster, farmer, carrier and administrator, was born on 8 February 1840 at South Molton, Devon, England, eldest son of John Pearce, wool-comber, and his wife Mary Ann, née Kelly. He arrived in South Australia with his father in 1849. While finding their feet and waiting for Mrs Pearce and her daughters, father and son worked at herding cattle near Adelaide. Next year the family left for the mid-north, where the two Johns joined the bullock teamsters on the Gulf Road, carting copper ore from Burra Burra to Port Wakefield.

After his marriage to Margaret Letitia Emily Kelly at Mintaro on 9 February 1861, Pearce farmed at Saddleworth. Poor seasons and red rust had discouraged him by 1868 and he returned to picking up contracts for carrying, dam-sinking and fencing in the colony's northern pastoral country, while living in tents with his wife and four children.

By late 1871 he could afford to take up virgin farming land at Caltowie when that area was opened to credit selection. From the back of a wagon driven by his 9-year-old daughter, Pearce sowed his first wheat, by hand, next autumn. He prospered—as much as any small farmer could in that harsh environment—and became known for his imagination, enterprise and hard work. He was the first in the region to sink a bore, and his large windmill not only pumped water but was harnessed to drive a chaffcutter and corncrusher, thus utilizing the gales which swept over the high plains.

Tall and imposing, Pearce was superintendent of the Methodist Sunday school at Caltowie North in a small stone building affectionately called Little Glory. He has been remembered as 'the straightest man I ever knew'.

Pearce was chairman of the Caltowie branch of the South Australian Farmers' Mutual Association by the mid-1880s. Later he saw that this organization, formed to alleviate farmers' marketing difficulties, aimed too high. A more fundamental, practical course was needed. With such friends and neighbours as Thomas Mitchell and Alex McCallum (to whom he was related), Pearce had long fireside discussions on possible methods of helping themselves and their fellows. Though isolated, they researched the co-operative efforts being made by farmers overseas.

From the findings and deliberations of this dedicated, tightly knit group emerged the pioneering (and eventually powerful) South Australian Farmers' (later Co-Operative) Union. Of the original shareholders (Jamestown, October 1888), Pearce held the second-largest number of shares and three times more than his friend Mitchell. It was on Pearce's casting vote as provisional chairman that the union was formed.

With another Devon man, George Hingston Lake as secretary, and with Mitchell and McCallum as two of the directors, Pearce was elected chairman. He devoted most of his time, energy and savings to fostering the fledgling (and often floundering) co-operative movement; first as chairman, later as managing director and general inspector of agencies. He left his Caltowie property in the hands of his three sons.

Succeeded as chairman by Mitchell (and later still on the board of directors by his eldest son Edward James), Pearce remained a director of the now-flourishing S.A.F.U. until 1902, when he retired in poor health, allegedly caused by years of stress, community antagonism to the new concept and extensive travelling.

He died at his home at Malvern, Adelaide, on 9 August 1910, survived by his wife (d.1922) and their nine children. He was buried in Mitcham cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of South Australia (Adel, 1890)
  • South Australian Farmers' Co-operative Union Limited (Adel, 1919)
  • J. St Clair, The First Forty Years (Adel, 1929)
  • C. Hill (compiler), Fifty Years of Progress (Adel, 1938)
  • N. Robinson, Change on Change (Leabrook, SA, 1971)
  • Agriculturist and Review, 29 Mar 1882, 4 July, 10 Oct 1888
  • Register (Adelaide), 28 Apr 1888
  • 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)
  • SA Farmers' Union files (in archives of Southern Farmers Group Ltd, Adelaide, and Robinson collection, National Trust, Jamestown, South Australia)
  • Pearce family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Nancy Robinson Whittle, 'Pearce, John (1840–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 February, 1840
South Molton, Devon, England


9 August, 1910 (aged 70)
Malvern, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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