Teenage runaway who became world's largest private landowner

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A new survey of the world's biggest landowners features all the usual suspects: the Queen, the Pope and a swag of other monarchs and tycoons. The top 10, however, includes one unexpected name: Kidman Holdings, an Australian agricultural company founded more than a century ago by an Outback legend known as the "Cattle King".

According to the New Statesman, which conducted the survey, Kidman Holdings – still controlled by descendants of Sir Sidney Kidman – owns 24 million acres, making it the world's largest private landowner and the eighth biggest overall.

That might not impress the Queen, who – nominally, at least – owns a cool 6.6 billion acres, equivalent to nearly one-eighth of the planet. But it is not bad considering that Sidney Kidman began with nothing, having run away from home aged only 13, on a one-eyed horse, and with just five shillings.

It was 1870, and the vast, inhospitable Australian interior was still being explored. Mr Kidman, from Adelaide, worked on cattle stations, then – displaying precocious entrepreneurial flair – opened a butcher's shop in the New South Wales town of Cobar, the site of a copper rush. By 29 he had bought his first property: Owen Springs station, in the Northern Territory.

But the tall, lanky Mr Kidman – who, despite some claims to the contrary, is not believed to be an ancestor of the actress Nicole Kidman – was not satisfied with one property. His vision was of a chain of cattle stations across Outback Australia, following inland river systems, and enabling his livestock to be moved around in times of drought. Over the decades, he acquired more than 100 such properties, covering 64 million acres, or more than three per cent of the Australian continent.

By the time he died in 1935, Mr Kidman was universally known as the Cattle King – owner of the world's largest pastoral empire, and of more livestock than anyone else on earth. According to one anecdote, a British journalist once asked him, over lunch at London's Savoy Hotel, how much land he owned. He replied: "It's big enough to put the British Isles on to one of my paddocks."

While the Kidman holdings have shrunk since then, they still consist of 14 properties that swallow up – according to the company, whose figure is higher than that given by the New Statesman – more than 27 million acres across three states and the Northern Territory. They include Anna Creek, the world's biggest cattle station, which occupies an area larger than Belgium and takes five hours to drive across.

The New Statesman league table has King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at number two, sandwiched between the Queen and the Pope. He owns more than half a billion acres. Below him come Morocco's King Mohammed, Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Sultan Qaboos of Oman and Nepal's King Gyanendra. No fewer than eight Australian agricultural companies are among the top 24 landowners.

It is said that Sidney Kidman never drank, smoked or swore. According to one story, he pledged never to touch alcohol after two fellow farm workers sold his one-eyed horse, Cyclops, then drank the proceeds in a pub. His motto – forged after he nearly died of thirst as a boy during one Outback expedition – was: "You must keep on going. You must never give in."

Mr Kidman learnt tracking and bush skills from Aboriginal friends. He was also famously mean, once sacking an employee for striking a match to light his cigarette while sitting beside a campfire. He had a casual attitude towards paying taxes, and seems, for the most part, to have got away with it. Visiting London in 1908, he caused a stir by recruiting drivers of horse-drawn carriages to be stockmen on his properties.

Mr Kidman's 75th birthday was celebrated with a rodeo in Adelaide that was attended by 75,000 people – still an Australian record for a private birthday party. Lying on his deathbed, the Cattle King remarked: "Ah, well, it's all over. I'll pack up my kit...now and go."