Sidney Kidman

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Sidney Kidman

From a humble background as a stockman, Sidney Kidman (1857-1935) went on to own, control, or have a financial interest in more pastoral land than anyone else in modern history. He was known in Australia and throughout the world as "The Cattle King."

When Australia had few railways and fewer telegraphs and when there was no such thing as wireless, motor transport, or airplanes, Sidney Kidman started to build and steadily added to two big chains of stations that stretched almost the length and breadth of Australia. With the aid of his phenomenal memory and his intensive knowledge of the geography of the bush, plus a small army of dedicated men, Kidman controlled the movement of great herds of cattle hundreds of miles apart and sent stock from his semi-arid lands in an evenly flowing stream to markets. Kidman used more than 150 stations covering more than 160,000 square miles of country (an area larger than the state of California).

Kidman was born on May 9, 1857, in Adelaide, South Australia, the fifth son of George and Elizabeth Mary Kidman. His father died when he was 14 months old. In 1870, when Sidney was 13, he ran away from home to join his older brothers George, Frederick, Thomas, and Sackville, who were working as stockmen and drovers in the Barrier region of New South Wales (now Broken Hill). He was given a job with Harry Raines, a nomadic herdsman who squatted with cattle where he found good feed. Raines was forced to move on when Abe Wallace arrived to take up the land legally, and Kidman found a job at Mount Gipps station in the area as a stockhand at 10 shillings a week. When he asked for a raise in pay in 1873 he was fired. He later claimed it was the best thing that ever happened to him in his life because it forced him to become an independent operator. Kidman never worked for another boss again.

Taking on Many Businesses

In 1875 he set up as a butcher in the canvas town of Cobar, New South Wales, where copper had been found and made money selling meat to miners from his boughshed butcher's shop. Seeing the money that could be made from transport, he acquired drays to cart provisions (flour, tea, sugar, jam, and soap) to the miners. The drays were also used to cart copper ore to the river ports of Wilcannia and Bourke. When gold was found in the Mount Browne area of New South Wales in 1881, Kidman was again in early providing rations and transport for the miners. He set up the first ration store in Tibooburra.

In 1878 he inherited 400 pounds from his grandfather. He used it to increase his dealing and trading, especially with horses. For a while he had a partnership with Bill Emmett (also known as Hammett) in Wilcannia and made frequent trips to Adelaide buying and selling horses and droving cattle.

He seized every opportunity and tried to make it a profitable one. In 1884 he secured a one-fourteenth share in the Broken Hill Mining Company for 60 pounds, selling it soon after at a profit of 40 pounds. Had he held onto it, his profit would have extended to many millions of pounds.

In 1885 he married a schoolteacher, Isabel Brown Wright, at Kapunda, South Australia. They had six children—Gertie, Elma, Edna (Edith and Norman, who died in infancy), and Walter.

Kidman joined his brother Sackville in a butchering business partnership at Broken Hill to accommodate the miners; the business extended into coaching in the late 1880s when the Kidman brothers' coaching business became second only to that of Cobb and Co. The coaches ran throughout New South Wales, Queensland, and South Australia, and also in Western Australia in the 1890s when another gold rush broke out.

Buying Land in the Bush

The 1890s was a time of major business recession, and many pastoral land holders were forced to give up their land. The Kidman brothers were in a sound financial position to buy up suitable large tracts of land on which they had had their eyes for some time. Their lust for land was not without purpose.

They sought no land near the coast or in the more reliable rainfall areas but the semi-arid lands of remote country. Sidney Kidman had realized that land where little or no rain fell could still be worked profitably where it incorporated rivers that rolled down from the north. After monsoon rains, the rivers burst their banks in south-western Queensland, providing untold miles of flood plain country which quickly responded with good fattening pasture for stock. He sought to buy such country and link it together in a vast chain of stations from the Gulf of Carpentaria south through western Queensland to Broken Hill and then into South Australia towards Adelaide. The chain would be watered by Cooper Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina rivers, which even when not in flood contained many good, permanent water holes. He also concentrated on a second chain of stations that ran from the Fitzroy River and Victoria River Downs in the Northern Territory to the Macdonnell Ranges, to the Oodnadatta area of South Australia, and down to the Flinders Ranges. The major chain was the north-south chain and the auxiliary chain, the central-South Australian chain. The aim of the strategy was to make the chains drought-proof or drought-resistant and to keep stock on the move where good feed prevailed and to stage them continually towards a market.

In 1895 the Kidmans bought their first station, Cowarie, in South Australia, and the following year, Owen Springs in the Northern Territory. Owen Springs was bought mainly for the 4,000 horses on the 600 square mile run that could be used for the coaching business. By 1899 the brothers had a further 14 stations amounting to some 11,000 square miles when Sackville died, and Sidney continued to buy up more solidly than ever. Victoria River Downs, some 12,500 square miles, was added, and when the turn of the century drought struck with great severity Kidman sustained stock losses of between 500,000 pounds and 700,000 pounds because his chains were still in fledgling formation.

In 1900 Kidman started his horse sales at Kapunda, South Australia, where as many as 2,000 horses from his stations were sold annually until 1935. The annual sales often went on for a fortnight and were said to be the biggest held in the world. By 1908, when Kidman made his first visit to England, he had 50,000 square miles of country and was acknowledged as the largest land holder in the British Empire; the United States could produce no one to trump him and called him the biggest pastoral landholder in the world.

In World War I his name became a by-word for generosity as he gave fighter planes, ambulances, shipments of beef and wool, and horses to be used in the Middle East to the war effort. He gave at a time when he was financially stressed by another drought and his stock losses amounted to more than 1 million pounds from his now much-strengthened chains, which stood at more than 100,000 square miles. He was knighted in 1921 for his war-time efforts.

The Man and His Legacy

He continued to buy up land in the 1920s, holding about 130,000 square miles of country in four states and the Northern Territory at the time of his retirement in 1927 when other members of his family assumed control of the day-to-day running of the business. He was again hit badly by the 1926-1930 drought, when his losses tallied 1.5 million pounds.

In 1932 when he turned 75 he was given a "public" birthday party by his station managers and stockmen in the form of a rodeo put on in Adelaide. Some 50,000 people broke down walls and fences to gain entry, and the party made headlines around Australia and overseas. When he died on September 1, 1935, at the age of 78, his death drew wide coverage throughout the world; he was the best known Australian internationally at the time.

He surprised people by leaving so little money—only 300,000 pounds, mainly to his family, but with generous bequests to charities. In order to avoid both state and federal income tax and state and federal death duties, his empire had been restructured in the 1920s to escape the clutches of the tax man.

He was a controversial figure in his day. Many people resented the fact that he had climbed to success on the financial misfortunes of others and condemned him for holding so much land. He was also accused of either "abusing" his land or of not improving it with fences and additional water, and he faced several commissions of inquiry to give evidence into matters relating to beef and land monopolies and pastoral mismanagement. He always emerged unscathed, in part because of his constant claim that he would sell off or hand back any of his land to anyone or any government who would either take it on or do a better job.

Much of the condemnation that came his way resulted from pure jealousy. The men who worked for him—and there were hundreds of them—regarded him with a mysterious and even savage loyalty. His managers, stockmen, and drovers were men of superior calibre—they were the experts of the day, and one of the reasons for his great pastoral success was his ability to select and retain men who were top notch in their field.

One of his earliest friends as a 14-year-old boy was an aboriginal, Billy, during the time he spent with the nomad herdsman Harry Raines. They worked together, and Billy was instrumental in teaching Kidman the bush knowledge that gave him an edge on many others of his time. Kidman admired the aboriginals who lived and worked on his stations and always saw that they were well-treated.

He did not live on any of his outback holdings, but at first at Kapunda and then at Unley Park, Adelaide. However, he made frequent inspections of his places—first on horseback, then by buggy with his wife at his side, and later by motor car—to see how his chain strategy was working. He considered visits a "must" during drought times. His men—and the aboriginals—were always pleased to see him. The aboriginals called him "Big fella Kidman, King of all Adelaide." They often insisted they would make rain for him if he gave them "wheelbarrows" (buggies), trousers, shirts, blankets, tobacco, jam, and other goods for their special efforts. Kidman was always happy to oblige.

A bitter family split and the refusal by Kidman to allow the New South Wales Western Lands' Commission to take back portions of his holdings in western New South Wales for soldier settlement led to the disintegration of his vast empire soon after his death. The Western Lands' Commission did resume many holdings as the leases expired and cut them into smaller places. It did not prove to be a wise move, since many smaller places overstocked to make money and were reduced to dustbowls.

Kidman's interests after his death were managed by his son, Walter, until his death in 1970 and then by Kidman's grandson, John Ayers, Sr., until his death in 1981. They were later managed by his great-grandson, John Ayers, Jr., and even today they are not inconsiderable—amounting to more than 45,000 square miles, about one-third of what Kidman once owned.

Further Reading

The first account of Sidney Kidman's life was the book "The Cattle King" written by Ion Idriess and published by Angus & Robertson in 1936, the year after Kidman died. It is a somewhat romantic and fictitious look at his life. A more detailed and historically accurate account is given in a biography by Jill Bowen published in 1986-1987 by Angus and Robertson. (The title of the book and the time of publication had yet to be decided when this entry was prepared.)

The Kidman business records were, for the most part, destroyed in two office fires in 1904 and in 1924. The Bank of New South Wales archives has details of Kidman's banking records. Other details of Kidman's business activity can be found at the Australian National University Business and Labour Archives in the Goldsbrough Mort, Dalgety, and A.M.L. and F records. There is more information on Kidman in both the Northern Territory Archives, Darwin, and the Queensland State Archives, Dutton Park, Brisbane, than there is in the state libraries of New South Wales and South Australia. Most Australian newspapers on June 3, 1921, carried details about Kidman's life at the time he was knighted, and most Australian newspapers and many overseas newspapers, including the London and New York Times, carried fuller reports of his life and achievements from September 1, 1935, when he died, to September 3, 1935, when his funeral took place. □