(27 October 1827 – 15 July 1901)
John Riddoch was born on 27 October 1827 at Turriff in Scotland’s Aberdeenshire. He migrated to Victoria with his brother, George, and his parents as the gold rush began in 1851. Riddoch worked as a carter, gold digger and buyer, eventually earning enough money to buy a general store at Geelong, where he became a successful wine merchant.
With heavy borrowings, John Riddoch purchased Yallum Park (including the adjoining Katnook Station) as a freehold property in 1861, shortly before the shearing season began in October. Wool production was seen as the next area of economic growth around this time and wool exports to England had increased from 33 tons in 1815 to 16,300 tons in 1849 due to improved farming practices.
Riddoch’s practice of washing sheep before shearing to remove grass seeds, twigs and burrs from the wool improved the quality of the clip. He invested in new technology, including the lever press, which enabled wool to be washed and compacted into bales, and built a rectangular woolshed with a dramatic timbered interior and accommodation for a whole team of shearers, designed by architect William Thomas Gore. With such fastidious attention to detail and the best-classed fibre in the district, his wool clip was realising the highest prices in South Australia by 1871.
During this time the wool industry dominated the colonial economy. Sheep numbers on the Australian continent exploded from 20.1 million in 1860 to over 106 million in 1892, with wool production increasing nearly tenfold, from 26,753 tons to 289,380 tons, also reflecting the improved fleece weights as a result of better breeding.
By 1865 Riddoch had successfully won a seat – along with the celebrated Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon – as a member of the colony’s vast political district of Victoria, which incorporated Mount Gambier and Penola and at that time was an electorate in the South Australian Government’s House of Assembly.
Riddoch, considered gentlemanly and kind by those around him, was by far the most influential man in South Australia’s south east by 1880. His vast land holdings comprised Yallum, Monbulla and Glencoe Station, covering 385 square miles and holding at least 110,000 head of sheep (some say 160,000) and 3000 head of cattle. His younger brother George, who had invested in land of his own, managed Yallum Park, freeing up Riddoch to represent the district in South Australia’s House of Assembly (from 1865 to 1870 and 1871 to 1873).
His residence, the newly completed Yallum Park homestead, became an unofficial staging post for governors and ministers visiting the district. In 1881 he hosted Prince George (who was to become King George V) and his elder brother Prince Albert Victor, who were travelling as midshipmen on the HMS Bacchante. While at Yallum they enjoyed wheelbarrow races on the lawns and formed a great affection for the people in the district despite the brevity of the visit.
John Riddoch’s sense of duty, generosity, membership of the Australian Pastoralist Union, and patronage to the south east earned him great respect among the community, along with the unofficial nickname of ‘the squire of Penola’.