Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Peter (1812–1878)

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John Peter (1812-1878), pastoralist, was born near Glasgow, Scotland, son of a prosperous farmer. His father offered a farm and flour-mill to dissuade him from migrating, but Peter was determined. At 20, with £50 for the return fare in his pocket, he sailed from Liverpool in the Mail, arriving at Sydney on 3 December 1832. Introduced to Alexander McLeay, Peter accepted his offer as manager of his station at £40 a year with 1 per cent on the value of the wool clip in the first year and an additional 1 per cent thereafter. Ten days later he found the station littered with the bones of sheep dead from scab and starvation. In 1836 a severe catarrh epidemic reduced the flocks of most local settlers but Peter lost only a fifth of his sheep by providing plentiful supplies of rock salt. He decided to move to the Murrumbidgee District where he knew salt bush was prolific.

At Camden on 10 February 1837 Peter contracted an auspicious marriage with a widow, Mary Bourke, a native of Campbelltown. J. Gormly described Mrs Bourke as 'a capable station manager and one of the most active women among stock I have known'. Her first husband had left her the run, Gumly Gumly, for which Peter took out a licence in 1837 in addition to a ten-mile (16 km) frontage on the Murrumbidgee for himself. For twelve years he managed the Macleays' properties as well as his own. He increased the quantity and quality of their stock, sometimes surviving only on savings, through droughts, the depreciation of colonial produce in the early 1840s, labour shortages and a severe epidemic of Cumberland disease. When he left the Macleays', they gave him a thousand select ewes.

In 1854 after the gold discoveries the value of fat sheep rose from 5s. to 30s. and cattle from 15s. to £8-£10. With his wife's help, Peter accumulated vast pastoral holdings in the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Districts. In 1848 he was licensee of Cuba, Gumly Gumly, Ugoble and Sandy Creek; by 1859 he had 15 runs in 3 districts and by 1866 had 17 runs totalling over 740,000 acres (299,700 ha) including Bungerra, Banandra, Gumly Gumly and 9 runs comprising Tubbo estate. In the 1860s in Queensland J. Peter & Co. held Thalberg and Winterbourne in the Port Curtis District and with George Macleay, Arthur Onslow, Andrew Bonar and William Onslow held Carnarvon and Consuelo in the Leichhardt District. He also owned properties on the Culgoa River near Bourke and at Broadmeadows near Melbourne. Although he did little rough work he closely supervised the detailed running of his enormous transactions, keeping a light carriage and good horses, to travel quickly around the stations. Known as 'Big Peter', he was reputed to be one of the most progressive pastoralists in the Murrumbidgee area.

Peter was active in local affairs and the growth of Wagga Wagga. He was influential in agitating for the establishment of a Court of Petty Sessions there in 1847 and became one of the most regular of the local magistrates. He was also treasurer of the board appointed to build the National school and contributed handsomely in funds and pupils from his outlying stations. As president of the 1856 committee which later provided a hospital, he also gave liberally to the Mechanics' Institute and the Presbyterian Church.

In 1845 Peter bought three £5 shares in the South Australian Burra copper-mine which yielded fifteen dividends of 200 per cent each for the next five years. By the late 1850s he had become the wealthiest resident squatter in New South Wales. Retaining his colonial interests, he retired to Britain in the early 1860s. He took a house in Piccadilly and another in Suffolk, dividing his time between them and Glasgow with visits to Europe interspersed with splendid shooting parties in the Highlands for his friends. One of these, Roger Therry, found him markedly generous with 'shrewdness of judgement and a persevering spirit'.

Childless, Peter provided liberally for his friends, family and the education of his nieces and nephews; his reputed income by 1866 was £40,000 a year. He died on 28 January 1878 at Torquay, leaving substantial legacies to his family and the charities with which he had been associated in Wagga Wagga. His goods were sworn at £65,000. His wife died on 23 September 1884 aged 73.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Therry, Reminiscences of Thirty Years' Residence in New South Wales and Victoria, 2nd ed (Lond, 1863)
  • J. Gormly, Exploration and Settlement in Australia (Syd, 1921)
  • R. B. Ronald, The Riverina: People and Properties (Melb, 1960)
  • K. Swan, A History of Wagga Wagga (Wagga Wagga, 1970)
  • J. J. Baylis, ‘The Murrumbidgee and Wagga Wagga’, JRAHS, 13 (1927)
  • Sydney Herald, 3 Dec 1832
  • Australian, 17 July 1838, supplement
  • Town and Country Journal, 6 Apr 1878
  • D. Denholm, Some Aspects of Squatting in New South Wales and Queensland, 1847-1864 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972)
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

'Peter, John (1812–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


28 January, 1878 (aged ~ 66)
Torquay, Devon, England

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