John Riddoch grew up in Scotland and came to the Victorian gold fields with his family in 1852, walking from Melbourne to Bendigo. That same year he also went to River Oven’s gold rush. He used the money made from gold to become a Geelong shopkeeper and wine merchant. In 1854 he married Eliza King.
After borrowing heavily, in 1861 he paid £30,000 for Yallum Park, near Penola. Here he built an Italianate mansion, surrounded with exotic trees and a forty-acre (16 ha) deer park; a genial host, he entertained princes, dukes, governors and Anthony Trollope. John was a loyal friend and patron of Adam Lindsay Gordon who wrote some of his poetry, including ‘The Sick Stockrider’, at Yallum.
John Riddoch was responsible for recognizing the Terra Rossa Soil, which Coonawarra became famous for. In 1865 he was elected to the South Australian Parliament; he was the first resident South East member prepared to make the sea voyage or coach travel to Adelaide, (this took 6 weeks). He did this for 8 years. He became the inaugural chairman of the Penola District Council in 1869 and held that position for 25 years. The Limestone Coast’s main arterial road is called the Riddoch Highway. He died in 1901.
John Riddoch donated £2,000 to the Mount Gambier Institute in 1886 to build the first floor of the building to house a museum, art gallery and lecture room. He subsequently purchased European artwork for the Institute, and the collection of artworks and artefacts grew over subsequent years through donations by the local community.
In 1979, the Mount Gambier Institute ceased its operations, with the artefacts and artworks donated to the South East Cultural Trust for the purposes of founding an art gallery. In 1981, the Riddoch Art Gallery was created. It was housed in various buildings, before finding a permanent home in the current location of the old Kings Theatre.
Riddoch Art Gallery now forms part of the Main Corner complex, a multipurpose cultural and function centre.