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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Garvan, Sir John Joseph (1873–1927)

by Bede Nairn

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

Sir John Joseph Garvan (1873-1927) financier, was born on 17 January 1873 at Hill End, New South Wales, eldest son of the six sons and six daughters of James Patrick Garvan, insurance entrepreneur and politician, and his wife Mary Genevieve, née Glissan. Educated at Sydney Boys' High School and St Ignatius College, Riverview, Sydney, he spent some of his early life on St Helena, a family property near Byron Bay. Garvan followed his father into the insurance business. In 1897 he became general manager and a director of the Citizen's Life Assurance Co. Ltd, and in 1899 was appointed managing director. He helped the Australian Widows' Fund and the Mutual Life Association of Australasia by amalgamating them with the C.L.A. to form the Mutual Life and Citizens' Assurance Co. Ltd in 1908.

At a time when theoretical training in economics and allied subjects was meagre, Garvan proved a skilful, prudent and successful businessman, excelling in financial management. He kept the expenses of the M.L.C. low and strengthened policy reserves; his control helped to turn the company into one of the main insurance groups in Australia. In the early 1900s he perceived a weakening of values in real estate and began the process whereby those assets were changed into public securities—by 1915 real estate represented only 0.43 per cent of company assets. At his instigation a branch was established at Montreal, Canada, in 1913.

In World War I, and after, Garvan concentrated on public service, although he continued to participate in major company decisions. With a strong faith in the gold standard, in 1914 he was appointed to the Federal Finance Council which organized war loans and, through the treasurer, advised the government on war finances. The first war loan was for £5 million and the M.L.C. contributed £1 million. Garvan became a member of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia's Note Issue Department in 1920, and next year was chairman of the inquiry into the break of railways gauge. He resigned from the royal commission into the incidence of Federal taxation in 1921. On his return from overseas the same year he criticized presciently the financial terms of the treaty of Versailles. In 1924 he became a director of the Commonwealth Bank and was elected chairman, rendering expert service as it assumed central bank functions. Ill health caused his resignation in 1926, and he was knighted next year.

'Retiring almost to the point of shyness', Garvan was tall and well built. He was a benefactor of several charities, including the St Vincent de Paul Society. Like his father, he was a keen sportsman, especially interested in tennis and polo. Sometime vice-president of the New South Wales Polo Association, in the 1900s he played a reliable game at full back and was a member of a team that twice won the Countess of Dudley Cup; he donated the J. J. Garvan Cup which is still played for. He had a string of racehorses, including Braehead and The Pied Piper, but they had little success.

Garvan died of coronary vascular disease on 18 July 1927 at his home in Darling Point and was buried in the Catholic section of South Head cemetery. He was unmarried. His estate was sworn for probate at £156,558. The prime minister, S. M. (Viscount) Bruce, described him as 'an outstanding figure in the business life of Australia, and one of its leading financial authorities'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. C. Gray, Life Insurance in Australia (Melb, 1977)
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 1927
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 1927
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 21 July 1927, p 16
  • private information.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Garvan, Sir John Joseph (1873–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 8

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