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De Garis, Clement John (Jack) (1884–1926)

by Janet McCalman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Clement John (Jack) De Garis (1884-1926), financier, was born on 22 November 1884 at North Melbourne, eldest son of Elisha Clement De Garis and his wife Elizabeth, née Buncle. 'Jack' De Garis grew up in the struggling early days of his father's business at Mildura and when 9 had to leave school with an exemption certificate to work for his father. By 14 he had saved enough from his wages to pay his own fees for two years at Wesley College, Melbourne.

At 17 Jack returned to Mildura to manage part of the family business. Shown the sales figures he was expected to maintain, he resolved to double them. In fact he tripled them in eighteen months and at 21 was left in sole charge of the Mildura enterprises. Short and compactly built, he was a man of effervescent charm and superhuman energy—a 'prince of ballyhoo' as the theatrical entrepreneur Claude Kingston later described him. On 26 September 1907 at the Methodist Church, Mildura, he married Rene Vera Corbould; they had three daughters.

De Garis's confidence in the dried-fruits industry exceeded even that of his father. In 1910 he made his first venture alone and borrowed £15,000 to build a modern packing-shed, Sarnia Packing Pty Ltd. Three years later, ambitious to father a settlement, he raised £22,000 to buy 10,000 acres (4047 ha) of the old Pyap Village Estate where the South Australian government had already buried £25,000 and a Melbourne syndicate had failed. He installed overhead irrigation and moved eighty employees into stone cottages. A school, library, billiard-table and a baby bonus that anticipated Andrew Fisher's child endowment—all testified to his thoroughness and paternalism. The community survived a savage drought in 1914 and gradually prospered.

In 1919 a shortage of shipping space for sixteen weeks exposed the dried-fruits industry's excessive dependence on the British market. De Garis persuaded the Australian Dried Fruits Association to vote him £20,000 to mount a nation-wide publicity campaign to expand the home market. Using new American gimmicks the campaign comprised competitions, recipe books, children's books, cartoons and pamphlets. Australians danced to the 'Sun-Raysed Waltz' and the town halls of the capitals hosted free screenings of film about Mildura. Even the influenza epidemic of 1919 was exploited:

I fear no more the dreaded 'flu,
For Sunraysed fruits will pull me through.

De Garis's ambitions took on a manic quality and he began to see himself as all things to all men. A self-constituted patron of the arts, he launched a Great Australian Novel Competition, won by Frank A. Russell with Ashes of Achievement. De Garis himself had artistic aspirations: infatuated with the theatre, he wrote a musical comedy, F.F.F. He timed the première in Perth to coincide with an advertising campaign for Sunraysed fruits and brochures were posted to all listed in the Perth telephone directory. Theatre-goers suspected F.F.F. to be yet another stunt for dried fruits and the show was a box-office disaster. De Garis published numerous short stories, a war drama Ambition Run Mad (1914) and a novel, largely autobiographical, Victories of Failure (1925). His Sunraysia Daily attained a high standard with a staff of nearly a hundred based in Mildura.

During the influenza epidemic De Garis clashed in Mildura with the swindler and journalist G. H. Cochrane, better known as Grant Hervey. Masquerading as an American, a giant swathed in an astrakhan coat, Hervey called on the people of Mildura to secede from the State of Victoria under his leadership. Within a week subscriptions of £5 a head were being raised to pay his fare to London. But Hervey had not reckoned on De Garis who swiftly exposed him as a fraud.

De Garis's restless nature now sought another challenge—aviation. Not content with pioneering the use of private aircraft to conduct business, he established several interstate flying records. During a flight to Perth in 1920 he conceived another scheme—a new settlement on 50,000 acres (20,235 ha) at Kendenup, formerly the home of the Hassell family. He made his home there in December 1921 and 350 settlers were installed to grow apples, potatoes and farm produce. The land held greater promise than Pyap, but De Garis, in haste, raised finance on too insecure a base for safety. Grant Hervey now reappeared in Mildura seeking revenge and alleged that De Garis was on the point of bankruptcy. A 'Citizens' Vigilance Committee' was formed to defend his honour and Hervey was tarred and feathered.

Suddenly, despite frantic juggling, the Kendenup finances failed and De Garis went to the United States of America to raise new capital. A quarter of a million dollars were promised but never eventuated. He was later exonerated of charges of fraud by a royal commission, but suggestions of dishonesty hurt him deeply. He had been extravagant and absurdly sanguine but he prided himself on his commercial integrity. Other investments failed and he plunged into desperate schemes to raise finance through real estate and drilling for oil on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. By 5 January 1925 he had lost touch with reality and he faked suicide by drowning in Port Phillip Bay, having that afternoon written almost seventy farewell letters.

A week later he was apprehended on a boat bound for New Zealand and it is said that his persuasiveness was such that he sold land to one of the detectives who extradited him. Acquitted in October of a charge of passing a valueless cheque, he returned to retrieving his financial position. But the strain was too much. On 17 August 1926, after waking 'believing I had the greatest day's work of my life to accomplish and the certainty of all the debts paid', he suffered another disappointment and gassed himself at his Mornington home. He died apparently believing he was worth £1 million.

De Garis had divorced his first wife in May 1923 and on 27 June that year married his former private secretary, Violet May Austin, who bore him a daughter. He was buried in Brighton cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Hill, Water into Gold (Melb, 1937)
  • C. Kingston, It Don't Seem a Day Too Much (Adel, 1971)
  • K. Dunstan, Ratbags (Melb, 1980)
  • A. T. Stirling, Gang Forward (Melb, 1972)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 15 Jan 1925
  • Age (Melbourne), 18, 19 Aug 1926.

Citation details

Janet McCalman, 'De Garis, Clement John (Jack) (1884–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-garis-clement-john-jack-5941/text10129, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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