John Melrose was born on 12th January 1860 at Rosebank station, Mount Pleasant, South Australia, the son of station-owner George Melrose and his wife Euphemia Medina (née Thompson). He was educated at Prince Alfred College and, after spending a year working for an Adelaide commercial firm, was employed by his father as assistant manager of the family property ‘Wangaraleedini’ at Franklin Harbour. In 1884 he began management of another Melrose property, Ulooloo, which was a combination of two stations, Kadlunga and Wookongarie, in the mid-north. On 17th April 1886 he married Emily Eliza Edhouse and they had two children.
After his father died in 1894, he took over Ulooloo from his father’s estate and lived there for the rest of his life. In 1895 he was the first to import horned Dorset sheep into Australia in an endeavour to improve the quality of prime lamb production. With the Kapunda grazier, Henry Dutton, Melrose purchased the 12,900 hectare North Booborowie station in 1897 for £98,000, taking responsibility for its management.
About a year after buying North Booborowie, Melrose began to lose his sight and at the age of 41 he was completely blind. After six months in hospital, he determined to learn how to read and write Braille. With the aid of a Braille typewriter and a number of other contrivances, including a special frame to write cheques, he conducted his business affairs as he had done before. Despite the disability, he continued to work with his stock and exhibited at agricultural shows with great success. His heightened sense of touch enabled him to continue assessing the quality of his stud sheep and their wool. The day-to-day management of his properties was achieved with the assistance of his daughter Margaret Lily. His persistence in the face of adversity earned him a certain public interest and newspapers referred to him as the ‘Blind Squatter’. He wrote to leading stock and station journals on a variety of subjects and was known for his ability to get to the core of topical issues. In 1913 he imported the first French Percheron draughthorses and in 1928 the first Wensleydale sheep into Australia.
Melrose was also a director of various pastoral companies and a significant shareholder in the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd. In 1910 the government, anxious to achieve closer settlement and provide farmers with a greater amount of good land, had purchased the North Booborowie property. Provided with ample wealth, Melrose became a prominent philanthropist, giving generously to a number of charities and institutions. His best known bequest was £10,000, given to the Waite Agricultural Research Institute in 1927 to finance its chemistry laboratory. This donation earned him great praise and public affection and he was called ‘a man of big horizons and high ideals’. He was knighted in 1928 and the following year the laboratory at the Waite Institute was named in his honour.
Like his father before him, John Melrose was known for his bluff, straightforward character. Prior to his disability he was rather sharp-tempered and did not suffer fools gladly. Friends noted that blindness altered him. He grew in compassion and understanding, being publicly acclaimed for his ‘honesty of purpose, his kindly disposition and his generous heart’.
Sir John Melrose died on 16th September 1938 and was buried alongside his kin at the Church of England cemetery at Mount Pleasant. There, the tall, straight Ionian crosses bear testimony to the Scottish heritage and fortitude of a remarkable family.
Cockburn, R., Pastoral pioneers of South Australia (Adelaide: Publishers Limited, 1925).
Mattey, R., Deceptive lands: A history of Terowie and surrounding hundreds in the Mid-North of South Australia (Terowie: S.A. Country Women’s Association, 1968).