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John Low Thompson (1847–1900)

by Alan W. Black

This article was published:

John Low Thompson (1847-1900), agricultural educator and innovator, was born on 16 April 1847 at Insch, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of John Thompson, farmer, and his wife Jessie, née Low. After a three-year apprenticeship on the farm of William McCombie, at 22 Thompson became land steward on a farm at Deeside. He came to Australia in 1870 in charge of a valuable shipment of stud cattle. He worked on the land at Omeo, Victoria, and then spent six years as stock-manager on Joel Horwood's property at Bridgewater-on-Loddon near Bendigo, where at 31 he married Agnes Clay Kentish.

Thompson quickly won wide repute for his knowledge of livestock and other aspects of farming and in 1878 was appointed first manager of the Victorian government experimental farm at Dookie. With fifteen pupils enrolled there two years later, it was the first farm school in Australia, but its work was hampered by financial stringency and the government's failure to appoint enough qualified staff. The scheme was discontinued when Thompson resigned in 1881 after a dispute with R. Richardson, minister of agriculture, over the conduct of the farm. He went to South Australia as manager of the Beefacres Estate near Adelaide, where he won recognition for his stock-breeding, his work in restoring fertility to exhausted soil and for championing the use of ensilage.

In 1886 Thompson was appointed farm-manager of the reconstituted Dookie Farm School, later renamed Dookie Agricultural College. Succeeding R. L. Pudney, he was principal from 1887 until 1891, when he was chosen from some fifty applicants as foundation principal of Hawkesbury Agricultural College, Richmond, New South Wales. In 1897 he was appointed travelling instructor of the New South Wales Department of Mines and Agriculture. In constant demand as a judge at country shows, he came into direct contact with landholders in most parts of the colony; as early as 1888 the Town and Country Journal had commented that 'Possibly there is no man better known in Australian agricultural circles'. He delighted in meeting farmers on their own ground and his 'peculiar knack of giving a canny turn to all he said seldom failed to command confidence'.

Genial and hearty, Thompson was described by one of his students as 'a 6 ft 3 ins (191 cm), 18 stone (114 kg), braw Scot'. His significance lies not only in the part he played in the foundation of two Australian agricultural colleges but also in his contribution to the processes of agricultural innovation and diffusion. A Presbyterian, he died of a diabetus carbuncle at Burwood on 17 January 1900 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery; he was survived by his wife, three sons and five daughters. His estate in New South Wales was valued for probate at £1152, and in Victoria at £1227. Portraits of him are at Dookie and Hawkesbury colleges.

Select Bibliography

  • R. N. Dart, Hawkesbury Agricultural College (Syd, 1941)
  • Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, 11 (1900)
  • Town and Country Journal, 4 Aug 1888, 6 Dec 1890
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18, 19 Jan 1900
  • A. W. Black, Organisational Genesis and Development (Ph.D. thesis, University of New England, 1972)
  • Council of Agricultural Education, Minutes 1886-91 (Dept of Agriculture, Victoria).

Citation details

Alan W. Black, 'Thompson, John Low (1847–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 April, 1847
Insch, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


17 January, 1900 (aged 52)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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