State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 37 Autumn 1986


John Randell: A Decade's Harvest

John Ormond Randell (1926–86) was a practical working pastoralist for seventeen years. Then the creation of Lake Eppalock submerged his property, and caused him to tell its story in a notable memoir, Kimbolton (1976).
This book led to a larger one, The Pastoral Pattersons (1977), and that to the collection of W.L. Morton's major press articles as Adventures of a Pioneer (1978). These publications appeared while Randell was studying the squatting occupation of his native district, with patient industry and the perception of long familiarity. The chief result was the planning of a detailed account of pastoral settlement in northern Victoria, and the production of an initial volume, The Coliban District (1979).
Randell's work is notable for its accuracy, wealth of detail tagged to sources, clarity, sound composition, unusual illustrations, wide but relevant range, and broad humanity. His historical net has caught subjects too large for treatment within one section of his planned major books; but his tireless concentration and capacity enabled him to make minor books of two, in addition to Morton, viz.: An Overland Diary (A.F. Mollison's of 1837) and Yaldwyn of the Golden Spurs (a short biography of the half-forgotten squatter W.H. Yaldwyn, 1801–66), both published in 1980.
A fourth minor study covered the Jeffreys brothers who were the pastoral founders of Kyneton, Victoria. E.W. Jeffreys, as spokesman, featured in a discussion about the squatters’ right to pre-emptive purchase of their runs. The argument is set out in William Campbell's The Crown Lands of Australia, 1850, at pages 90–106. But John Randell, as in Yaldwyn's case, made personal contact with descendants beyond Australia. Hence he could say with assurance that paintings of Kyneton homestead held in the La Trobe Library are essentially correct and in keeping with other views of the same period. He had access to E.W. Jeffreys’ diary, and studied the family and its colonial history thoroughly.
Pioneer Settlement in Northen Victoria, Vol. 2 (The Campaspe District), its 600 pages exceeding Vol. 1's by nearly 350, was published in 1982, its excellent presentation slightly marred by imposition of a bibliographical reference to ‘Sheep ranches’! Yet the typically high standard of Randells own contribution in contents and arrangement may not do as much for his reputation as a slim family history published in 1983. Entitled They came in the ‘Brilliant', this account of bounty immigrants who ultimately held stations in mountainous Upper Murray country is perhaps the best pointer to the author's capacity.
Such glimpses of the harder life possibly jolted Randell from acceptance of both writer's and printer's costs into engagement on a business footing, first with the Graziers’ Association of Victoria and Riverina, then with his native shire, administered from Heathcote township. History books were the fruit: in 1983, Teamwork, for the Graziers; late in 1985, Mclvor, for the Shire. Both were based on intensive study of records backed by the author's personal knowledge and contacts. The second is a compilation amassed and indexed through much arduous labour. It reflects his loyalty to his setting, but cannot rank with his best work.
John Randell's accomplishments were exceptional. In boyhood he seemed to be indifferent to school, but apparently centred himself upon Kimbolton, loss of which eventually forced him to write. His talent and natural taste soon closed the gap. At ease in any company, but firm in principle, amusing but also instructive, he became properly equipped for academic as well as field research, and also mastered typing and practical cartography. His quiet determination was not aggressive.
His sudden death from heart failure, on 2 January 1986, left his third major volume, The Loddon, almost but not quite ready for production. For some time he had been buying, inhabiting, personally restoring, and then selling, elegant houses in East Melbourne. No doubt this taxed his physique. He was man big in body, mind and spirit.
His funeral service was at St. Peter's Anglican Church, East Melbourne, which oversees the once fashionable St. Mark's, Fitzroy. Bow-legged stockmen and other bush friends attended, some younger couples distinguished by grace and height. Their setting had been that of the late-come historian forced into urban life to preserve part of its story. His kind of specialist knowledge may be deduced from summary paraphrases of two remarks he made, one on site near Bendigo, and the other nearer home:
This slope across the creek is where your great grandfather and his shepherd were speared when yarding sheep at dusk, in April 1841… Two neighbouring pews, the small one by a side door, within easy reach of the yard, may have been
his family's and his coachman's after he settled as a Melbourne merchant.
These pews were mentioned during the service, because Randell had advised that they should be retained in their respective positions, when inspecting St. Mark's, Fitzroy, on behalf of the St. Peter's authorities.
But what should be done about his Loddon volume?


John Randell had, for several years before his death, made regular deposits of material to the La Trobe Library's Australian Manuscripts Collection, including manuscripts and working papers for several of his published works as well as a collection of early records of “Ournie”, a station on the Upper Murray which he owned for a time in the early 1970s.
Through the courtesy of his son, Mr. Andrew Randell, the remainder of his papers have now come to the Library. They include research files, correspondence, extensive card indexes, personal papers and further records of “Ournie”.