Ion (Jack) Llewellyn Idriess 1889-1979

Dedicated to the Life and Works of

The Cattle King

 Angus and Robertson,   1936

Reviewed by Rob Coutts




The Bush Telegraph reading group
examines Ion Idriess and 'The Cattle King'
By Keiren McLeonard
Monday, 01/08/2011

The Bush Telegraph Book Club this month looks at two larger-than-life men, author Ion Idriess and pastoralist Sir Sidney Kidman who was the inspiration for Idriess's book 'The Cattle King'.

Both men have been largely forgotten in urban Australia, but the memory of them in the bush is still strong. From the 1930s to the 1950s Idriess was Australia's best-selling author and Kidman was the founder of an astonishing cattle empire stretching from the Top End to the Bight in southern Australia.

At the turn of the last century Kidman created the largest pastoral empire the world has ever known and even today his company is one of Australia's largest beef producers.

Yet his empire all started when, as a lad of 13, he took to the road with five shillings in his pocket.

Idriess traces Kidman's journey as he embarks on a bush education, learning of the land and its possibilities.

Many people learnt their Australian history from Idriess, a prolific author who wrote over fifty books including 'The Cattle King' which has had over forty reprints since its release in 1936.

Idriess wasn't a historian and 'The Cattle King' isn't a history book. It is a tribute which has introduced generations to the challenges of establishing and maintaining a cattle industry and still inspires those in the Top End who follow in Kidman's footsteps.

Idriess fans can explore Rob Coutts' Idriess site

Listen to: Reading Group - "The Cattle King"

In this report: Michael Cathcart speaks with Philip Mead, Professor of Australian Literature, University of Western Australia; Rob Coutts, an Idriess fan who runs a website devoted to Idriess; Tom Stockwell, owner of Sunday Creek Station near Daly Waters, NT and chairman of the Katherine branch of the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association



As is well-known, The Cattle King is about Sidney Kidman (9/5/1857–1/9/1935) the legendary Australian cattleman. Kidman was described by Tom Stockwell in a radio discussion of Jack’s book (see link above) as, “the Bradman of the Australian cattle industry”.

Although controversy followed Kidman throughout his illustrious career, there is no doubting his achievements. In building a cattle empire he finished up owning or controlling around one hundred cattle stations in an interstate chain that allowed him to drought-proof his operation. Even so, he was not just a cattleman. He traded extensively in horses, sheep and wool. His horse sales at Kapunda (SA) were legendary. And that’s only on the primary production side.

As Jill Bowen (Bowen, J. Kidman, The Forgotten King, Angus and Robertson, 1987) points out, when Kidman shifted his focus to the city and business other than grazing he developed interests in foundries and building ships, roads and other wide-spread interests.

Jack was asked to write Kidman’s biography. He said (along with The Diamond ) that he had great difficulty writing The Cattle King. Indeed, in retrospect, he probably should never have agreed to undertake this mammoth task. He was writing about a man who was at the very end of a lifetime of spectacular achievement – lauded the world over as the Cattle King.

Why should Jack have declined the request? Well, for a start, he was too busy. He was finalising publication of Man Tracks (1935), writing Forty Fathoms Deep (1937) and making a start on Over the Range (1937). In 1936 he published over thirty newspaper and magazine articles. Secondly, Jack had early warning of the difficulty in getting credible material to do justice to Kidman’s life.

After meeting with the Kidman family in Adelaide in 1934 he wrote to Kidman’s station managers. These letters were unanswered or unhelpful. Early in 1935 Jack had just returned from a seven week tour through some of Kidman’s properties. He filled four of his notebooks with good material but there was not much information about Kidman himself. This and the following paragraphs use information from Beverley Eley’s book (Eley, B. Ion Idriess, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1998).

Then early in April 1935, at the request of the Kidman family, Jack returned to Adelaide to interview Kidman. But even by 10 April he was writing to A&R about the difficulty of getting material for the book. By August he was still having difficulty verifying dates with the Kidman head office. Kidman’s death in September would have added commercial pressure to complete the book and he continued to try to pull the available material into shape. In my view, Jack should have pulled the pin on the project in April 1935.

By November 1935 Jack had finished a draft of the book. In January 1936 he wrote two letters to M. C. Rice, Kidman’s son-in-law offering the opportunity to proof the book and make corrections or alterations. The second letter is a detailed explanation of why he wrote the book as he did and why some aspects were not mentioned. This offer was not taken up.

There are errors in the book that the family could have avoided (by providing Jack with more co-operation) or corrected before the book was published. Minor ones are that Isobel Kidman (Kidman’s wife) is referred to as “Bell” instead of “Bel” and Sackville Kidman (Kidman’s brother) as “Sac” instead of “Sack”. And the family would probably have been upset by Jack’s reference to Kidman’s wife as “the Scotch lassie” and Jack’s comparative neglect of her important role in Kidman’s life. Jill Bowen (p77) obliquely criticises Jack for his information about the purchase of Owen Springs station. Again this is exactly the sort of correction the Kidman family members could have corrected if they had bothered to do so. So, the Kidman family were largely to blame for what Muriel Kidman (Kidman’s daughter-in-law) called an “awful” book.

Angus and Robertson must also accept some responsibility. Evidence that the book was rushed (and evidence of the pressure on Jack) is in the dozens of errors that should have been corrected by proper proof-reading and editing. In January 1936, when Jack wrote to Kidman’s son-in-law, Angus and Robertson should have set the manuscript aside and waited for a reply. The final version of The Cattle King should have included more comprehensive collaboration with the family. Instead, Angus and Robertson released the book in March 1936 with dozens of proof-reading errors and without the dates that could have been provided by the Kidman family and/or company.

Despite receiving more criticism than any of Jack’s books, The Cattle King is a good book. It is not up to Jack’s best work and he would not have claimed it as such, nevertheless, the book continued to be reprinted for 67 years until 2003 and sold thousands of copies. The book combines two themes – observations of (a) the outback landscape and everything in it and (b) the people who lived there.

The story Jack set out to write was about the vastness of the outback and the size of the man (Kidman) who dominated it. In that aim he succeeded. Tom Stockwell in the radio interview mentioned above also pointed out that Jack emphasised the bush values by which Kidman lived – values that are still today central to life in the outback.

Surprisingly, there have been only two books written about Kidman – The Cattle King and Jill Bowen’s Kidman – The Forgotten King. Bowen’s book is a competent, thorough and detailed family history with Kidman as the central focus. It is a good book and an excellent reference. I have three criticisms of Bowen’s work, each concerning her treatment of The Cattle King.

First is the subtitle to her book, The Forgotten King. By 1987 when Bowen published her book The Cattle King had been in constant print for over fifty years. It had sold thousands of copies and (as Bowen acknowledged) was the definitive work on the life of Kidman. Jack’s work made quite sure the name of Kidman was not a “forgotten king”.

Indeed, if Bowen set out to remedy the “forgotten king” tag, she failed. Although her book was reprinted four times in the 1990’s and revived in 2007, it reads like an academic thesis and it will never have the audience that Jack’s book achieved. It is still possible to buy the book new and there are 145 used copies on sale at the comprehensive website “”. This is about the same number of used Cattle King books on sale today but Jack’s book continued to be reprinted for 67 years until 2003. Today a copy of the first edition of The Cattle King would cost you about $500.

Secondly, Bowen misunderstood the thrust of Jack’s book. He did not attempt a family history. He would never have attempted Bowen’s depth of family analysis. For example, in discussing the final Will of Kidman’s wife (p415) Bowen tells us that, “Walter (Kidman’s son) retained the cocktail cabinet, minus the grog…”. Who cares? And Jack would never have considered writing that part of Kidman’s life where he was a city businessman. Jack never wrote about city life and financial affairs.

Thirdly, I object to the way Bowen treats Jack’s book with contempt. This is unfair. Bowen did Jack a disservice.  She admitted she used Jack’s book as a starting point for her research. She referred to his words several times. Then she omitted The Cattle King from her Bibliography. In contrast to Jack, Bowen had full access to the Kidman family, financial resources and the luxury of time to delve into bank, business and other archived records.

While not criticisms of Bowen it is worth noting, firstly, that because of pressures on him to complete his books, Jack wrote The Cattle King in ten months in 1935. Bowen’s book took her three years. Secondly to get her material, Bowen spent much of her time in archives and libraries. Jack went bush for seven weeks to tour Kidman’s stations.

Reading the Cattle King I was impressed with some of the similarities between Jack’s life and that of Kidman. Both were intensely patriotic with a deep love of Australia and more particularly – the outback. Both were interested in the development of Australia and saw this development as a contest between man and unforgiving environment. Jack was probably more of the “conservationist” but he still saw the land in terms of problems to be overcome.

Success came to both men in middle age after spending about half their lives in the bush. For different reasons, both were later based in cities but loved “going bush”. Both started from nothing and headed off early into the bush – Jack at 18, Kidman at 13. Both finished up with Imperial Honours. Kidman was awarded a knighthood and Jack an OBE.

I think that, although the 32-year age difference prevented a meeting, Jack would have welcomed the chance to meet Kidman when he was younger. Jack always held in high esteem men who were “out there and done things”. Kidman was one of these men. So was Jack.

Apart from the capacity to accumulate great wealth, there were also major differences between Kidman and Jack. Their personalities were vastly different. Jack was almost excessively quiet and introspective whereas Kidman was affable and talkative. Their physiques were also very different. At 65kgs and 171cm, Jack was not a big man but Kidman was a strapping 183cm.

Kidman was an almost complete abstainer from alcohol and never smoked tobacco. In later life, Jack was dependent on alcohol; maybe even an alcoholic and he always smoked tobacco. Ironically these avoiding these “vices” did not prolong Kidman’s life. Kidman died at 78 and Jack nearly reached 90.

Their families were also different. Jack had a sound, supportive family until his mother died of typhoid. Kidman’s family of origin was dysfunctional. Kidman married early and stayed married for fifty years. Jack had an uneasy de facto relationship that began in his 40’s.

So how was The Cattle King received by Jack’s contemporaries? Beverley Eley sums this up by quoting Dame Mary Gilmore, “Your book has just come to hand and I have been turning the leaves unable to read because of half-crying over familiar names, remembrance of years gone and people I shall never see again. My dear what a work you are doing for Australia…