The earliest settlers on the Australian continent were confronted by a somewhat inhospitable land subject to low rainfall, unsuitable soil types and the threat of flood or fire. Under these conditions European style intensive agriculture was confined to the very limited areas of higher rainfall. The hand of God is clearly seen in the colonisation of this land as He provided, early in the development of the colonies, an animal (the Merino sheep) and a plant (wheat) which would survive well under the adverse climatic conditions and bring self-sufficiency and prosperity to the land.
Wheat has been the major crop in area and value of production since the first settlement of Australia by the British. By the standards of European agriculture crop yields per acre were very low. The important factors in the success of wheat as a crop were the exceptionally dry weather during harvest, relatively flat land and mechanisation. No-one will deny that God provided the first two but it is less well known that He also brought from England a man with deep Christian conviction who lived in this country for only fourteen years sacrificing his own comfort and security to develop the machinery needed to harvest the wheat from the vast tracts of land.
In December, 1887 the leading journal of South Australia, the Register,
John Ridley was born in 1806 in West Boldon, County Durham, England. His parents were greatly influenced by the Wesleys who they probably had seen as children and family correspondence of the period indicates a strong personal devotion to the Lord. Growing up in a Christian home, John Ridley was constantly confronted with the need for a personal faith and in later life expressed his childhood suffering from his sense of sin. On April 23rd, 1819, at the age of twelve he was praying for assurance of forgiveness and salvation, "he lay stretched out in the straw, praying for grace and pardon. Suddenly a stream of bright light shone around him, and, at the same moment a great peace filled his heart."(2) He later wrote of his strong sense of God's goodness and his prayer that day was "Let me be anything so that I may serve Thee." He thought "My natural self I wish to cease to live, that I may be with Christ a new creature, and present my body a living sacrifice... all things are possible to God, to Christ, that power of God in man..."(3) From that day John's life changed. Although he could identify weaknesses in Methodism, he saw benefit in its training and by the age of eighteen was a lay preacher.
"June 4, 1835 - For the success of the colony I look to God, and to Him will I look. America was founded on that basis by God's people in a tempest; this Colony will, I hope, be raised upon a similar foundation, in a calm. If I can get pious people sent out to that land, the ground will be blest for their sake; and if justice be done to the aborigines as was done by William Penn, then we shall have peace in our borders, for I reason that the principles of God's government will apply to South Australia as to elsewhere."(4)
At this time John Ridley asked one of his friends "Will you pray
for me that I may be directed to some place where I am really needed and
where I may be of some use in the world?" (5) This was in 1837 and the
Colony of Mr Angas was still a dream but John Ridley caught the vision
and in 1839 took his wife and two infant daughters and boarded the good
God began to guide John's contribution from the very moment he stepped from the ship. He trod on a piece of newspaper which attracted his attention and he found in it an announcement of a proposed meeting to consider the problem of turning the wheat harvest to use. This was God's confirmation of His direction in John's life. He soon took up land at Hindmarsh, a mile from Adelaide where he set up a steam flour-mill and ground the first flour in South Australia - first fruits of many harvests. The abundance of harvests created another problem - shortage of labour for the reaping. Things seemed to come to a standstill by 1843. Shortages were experienced with flour reaching twelve pounds per bag, mutton 2/6 per pound, butter 5/- the pound and vegetables not procurable. John began to see a great need for engineering ability and mechanisation of the harvest. A local steam engine was notable for its poor workmanship but John's advice went unheeded at that time.
Tragedy struck the Ridley family when their four-year-old daughter went
too close to the fireplace. Her pinafore caught fire and though the flames
were quickly extinguished, the shock proved fatal. Soon after this the
Ridleys lost a boy of seventeen days and a girl of eight months. John wrote:
John Ridley, despite hardship and personal tragedy, was still a man full of original mechanical ideas. He hated waste and was a determined man who expected his orders to be carried out. He had attempted to build a structure to raise water for irrigation of the Adelaide plains by means of a horizontal windmill. His workshop was full of mechanics and his yard full of patterns and old machinery. Having been kept awake one night by a baby crying, he invented an apparatus to rock the cradle. Other inventions included a bone crusher to make use of waste bones, improved winnowing machines for cleaning wheat, a safer pearl barley machine, a machine for preserving whole meat carcases and many others. As well as this he built a chapel and assisted in forming a mechanics institute. His missionary zeal was strong and he was particularly concerned for the salvation of the aborigines. He wrote:
The first reaping machine was invented by the Gauls centuries ago and
two other machines developed by Bell (1826) and McCormick (1834) had appeared
in California. John Ridley invented his "Stripper" in 1843-4 and it is
said that the idea came to him while walking in the wheat fields with his
wife who dropped her comb. John picked it up and in doing so stripped the
head from a wheat stem. "The original Australian harvesting machine comprised
a horizontal comb and revolving wooden beaters driven by belts connected
with the carriage wheel axles. Horses were attached to a pole at the rear
of the Stripper and, as they pushed it through the crop, the comb gathered
the wheat heads only. The beaters knocked the heads into a box-like structure.(8)
The unique aspect of this invention was the striking of the heads instead of cutting them off. The original "stripper" could harvest an acre in an average of 1 hour and 26 minutes at a cost of only 2d. per bushel for harvesting and less than 1 1/2d. for preparation for market. This was only a third of the cost of conventional hand reaping and the use of the machine meant that thousands of acres could now be harvested which would have perished because of lack of labour. John Ridley's invention was hailed as a great boon to the rural economy of South Australia.
Tribute was paid to John Ridley by many people and in many ways for
his selfless gift to the colony. Here is an extract from Mr. Foster's book
Melbourne. John had every intention of returning to his busines interests in South Australia but once he reached England he settled down amongst his old friends and never returned. His latter years were spent making further inventions, taking part in scientific gatherings and undertaking charitable works. He was a deeply spiritual man and did for a time delve into the area of spiritualism. However, in 1870 he recognised the foolishness of this and wrote: "I have found perfect satisfaction in receiving the Lord Jesus as the spring of spiritual life, as a living and ever-present influence and power through the Divine Spirit."(9)
John passed from death to life on November 24th, 1887. His life and testimony stand today as an outstanding demonstration of God's hand in the establishment of this nation and an example of what God will do with a life submitted to Him.