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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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West, John (1856–1926)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

John West (1856-1926), journalist, horticulturist and irrigation pioneer, was born on 23 August 1856 at Armstrongs Diggings, Mount Ararat, Victoria, eldest son of English-born Isaac West, goldminer, and his Scottish wife Ann, née McMann. A garden help and stablehand at 13, 'with a very imperfect education', West joined Brunnings Nursery, St Kilda, and attended night-school to qualify as a state schoolteacher. He taught at Tatura, and at Murungi in the Goulburn Valley where his family selected land after his father died (1876) in a mine accident. When rust ruined the local wheat crop in 1878, West advocated vine and fruit culture as alternatives: his campaign in the Shepparton News gained much attention and for some years before resigning his teaching post he was that newspaper's farming editor. On 7 April 1882 he married with Presbyterian forms Mil(l)vina Gardiner at Pentland Hills, near Bacchus Marsh.

Active in shire and local interests, he was secretary (1885-89) of the Mooroopna hospital. With his brother, West printed the Goulburn Valley Yeoman. In 1885 he founded the Euroa Advertiser, and occasionally freelanced for the Argus and Australasian. In 1886 he was one of a syndicate of five who purchased two farms (730 acres, 295 ha) for £5 per acre which were to provide the basis for Ardmona—the first irrigation settlement in Victoria. (Chaffey brothers secured their grant the same year.) Most of the land was subdivided into holdings of less than 15 acres (6 ha) and sold at £12 to £15 per acre.

With his 'heart and soul in the industry', West took up Milvina, his own 22 acres (9 ha), and began planting for intense cultivation in 1887. Using irrigation, he worked 20,000 trees, raised currants and grapes, and culled a legendary 300 cases of tomatoes from three-quarters of an acre (0.3 ha). West Bros Nursery supplied thousands of vine cuttings for Chaffey Bros, and propagated peach, pear and apricot stock for the orchardmen of Ardmona. A paper which West presented at an irrigation conference in 1890 advocated methods used today. In that year Alfred Deakin, commissioner of water supply in the Gillies administration, sent West to California, United States of America, to study irrigation. On his return, West toured Victoria, lecturing on what he had seen. He undertook the training of future horticulturists and in 1894 had nine men working at Milvina, each of whom paid him a £25 fee for the experience. A government bonus (£2 per acre for vines and £3 for fruit trees) encouraged planting at Ardmona after 1898.

Deeply interested in public life, especially from the viewpoint of the 'man on the land' (a phrase he was reputed to have coined), West was prominent in Victoria's pre-Federation politics. In 1894, when he founded the Triple Reform League under the uncompromising banner 'Victoria must part with her high duties or with her farmers', he was seen by Table Talk as a 'coming man of politics'. An advocate of Federation at the People's Federal Convention at Bathurst in 1896, next year he was one of five non-parliamentary Victorian nominees for election to the Australasian Federal Convention (1897-98). He held meetings throughout the State, making his appeal particularly to country electors as the only candidate resident outside Melbourne. Though one of the 'Argus ten', he finished fifteenth in a field of twenty-nine. Having unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Warrnambool in 1897, he was defeated for the Federal seat of Moira by T. J. Kennedy in 1901. West was a founding member of the Kyabram reform movement whose protests against extravagance and call for public economy helped to bring down Sir Alexander Peacock's government in 1902.

In 1903 West joined the staff of the Argus (after a public farewell from Ardmona) and represented the paper at the 1907 Imperial and Navigation conferences in London. In 1909-19 he was secretary of the National Union, an organization interested in constitutional matters. He retired to farm at Toolern Vale where he was president of the local bushfire brigade, a member of the Melton exhibition committee and a 'keen' proponent of a district water scheme. In 1923-26 he was secretary of the Bacchus Marsh Agricultural and Pastoral Society. Survived by two sons and a daughter, West died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 22 February 1926 at Toolern Vale and was buried in Melton cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. L. Hall, Victoria's Part in the Australian Federation Movement, 1849-1900 (Lond, 1931)
  • D. M. McLennan (compiler), History of Mooroopna, Ardmona and District (Mooroopna, Vic, c1936)
  • W. S. James, A History of Shepparton (Shepparton, Vic, 1938)
  • C. S. Martin, Irrigation and Closer Settlement in the Shepparton District, J. L. F. Woodburn ed (Melb, 1955)
  • R. West, Those Were the Days (Shepparton, Vic, 1962)
  • N. H. Bossence, Todwan and the Shire of Rodney (Melb, 1969)
  • G. Nice, Hospitals are People (Melb, 1976)
  • Australasian, 15 Sept 1894
  • Table Talk, 15 Sept 1894
  • Kyabram Free Press, 26 Feb 1925
  • Bacchus Marsh Express, 27 Feb 1926.

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'West, John (1856–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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