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Pagan, Sir John Ernest (1914–1986)

by I. R. Hancock

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir John Ernest Pagan (1914-1986), merchant, philanthropist, Liberal Party president and soldier, was born on 13 May 1914 at Killara, Sydney, eldest of three sons of English-born parents David Clark Pagan, civil engineer, and his wife Hilda, née Rowe.  Educated at Hay Public School and the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, 'Jock'—as he was always known, on account of his father’s Scottish ancestry—left school at 16.  He began his working life as a salesman in the Sydney stores of Sydney Snow Ltd and then Grace Bros Ltd.  In 1934 he joined his uncle’s wholesale importing firm, P. Rowe (Holdings) Pty Ltd.

Nearly six feet (183 cm) tall, with green eyes, in 1936 the handsome young Pagan joined the Citizen Military Forces, rising to the rank of lieutenant before he was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force on 19 March 1940.  Serving with anti-aircraft regiments, from June 1941 to March 1942 he saw service in the Middle East, where he was promoted to captain.  He transferred to New Guinea in April 1942.  Promoted to major in January 1943, Pagan was appointed MBE in 1945 for his actions when commanding the 2/3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery (Airborne) at Lae, Finschhafen and Scarlet Beach in 1943.  His appointment terminated in Sydney on 21 November 1945, but with the revival of the CMF, in 1948 he commanded the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment with the rank of temporary lieutenant colonel.  He was an honorary aide-de-camp (1950-55) to the governor of New South Wales, Sir John Northcott, and was promoted to brigadier in 1958.  From 1974 to 1978 he served as the colonel commandant, Royal Australian Artillery.

After World War II Pagan had returned to his pre-war employment and he became chairman of the board of P. Rowe Holdings in 1958.  On 11 December 1948 at All Saints Church of England, Sutton Forest, he married Emily Marjorie Hoskins, a daughter of (Sir) Cecil Hoskins.  An early and active member of the Liberal Party of Australia, Pagan became the treasurer of the New South Wales division before defeating two other candidates in 1963 for the position of State president.  Re-elected three times, Pagan held office when Robin (Sir Robert) Askin’s Liberal-led coalition won government in 1965; Pagan stood down in December 1966.  He was a very effective president, who studiously followed the unwritten code of providing support for the general secretary (Sir) John Carrick, offering advice when asked, and helping to ease tensions, all the time exercising the gravitas then expected of a party grandee.

In November 1965 Pagan narrowly defeated Reginald Withers, a future senator, to succeed Sir Philip McBride as federal president.  He immediately joined McBride in urging Sir Robert Menzies to postpone his expected retirement as prime minister.  While disavowing any lack of faith in Harold Holt as Menzies’ successor, Pagan and McBride argued that, without Menzies’ 'valuable leadership and highly acceptable public image', the government could be in trouble in a 'rocky' year.  When Menzies did retire, Holt easily won the 1966 election but his disappearance off Cheviot Beach, Victoria, in December 1967, and the subsequent election of (Sir) John Gorton to lead the party, placed Pagan in a difficult situation.  He had to steer a course between a prime minister whom he admired for his humanity and directness and some angry senior Liberals and Liberal State premiers—including Askin—who accused Gorton of abandoning the party’s commitment to federalism.  In 1970 Pagan retired as federal president.

Pagan was appointed CMG (1969) and was knighted in January 1971, soon after his departure for London as the agent-general for New South Wales.  The Pagans enjoyed their time in London, where they regularly entertained and proved to be very welcome guests; as ever, he worked and played hard.  His efforts were recognised when he was made a freeman of the City of London in 1973.

Unlike most agents-general, Pagan did not adopt a low profile, treat his position as a sinecure, or defer to the Australian High Commissioner who, in his time, was Sir Alexander Downer.  He acted, in effect, as trade commissioner for New South Wales in Britain and Europe.  He was outspoken in his attacks on Britain’s new immigration laws for discriminating against citizens of the 'old Commonwealth' by limiting their entry into Britain, and in his warning about the effect on certain Australian export industries of Britain joining the European Economic Community.  Returning from a visit to Australia in 1971, he planted himself between the 'UK Passports Only' and 'Non-British passports' immigration channels at Heathrow airport.  He pointed out that neither label applied to his passport, which described him as an Australian citizen and a British subject.  A senior official arranged for him to pass through a gate halfway between the two channels.  Edward Heath, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, was reportedly furious with the New South Wales agent-general.

Pagan returned to Australia in 1972 bringing with him goods valued at $177,000.  Found to have made an inaccurate customs declaration for a few items, he was fined $500 and alcohol, furniture and household goods to the value of $2720 were confiscated.  Protesting he was innocent of deliberately evading his responsibilities, and embarrassed when the Federal Australian Labor Party government made his predicament public, he remained deeply hurt by what he believed, on good grounds, was a deliberate smear campaign to question his valued personal integrity.  The incident affected him for the rest of his life.

Back home, Pagan resumed his philanthropic, business and political activities.  When Pagan had become federal president of the Liberal Party, a colleague remarked that, because he 'fills 25 hours a day with voluntary community service', he would have to cut some of his activities.  In 1965 he was involved with the Australian Boy Scouts Association, the Big Brother Movement, the New South Wales Society for Crippled Children, the Commonwealth Immigration Advisory Council and the Church of England Retirement Villages.  In addition he became a trustee of the Salvation Army’s Darwin relief fund, and served in various leadership capacities on the National Parks and Wildlife Foundation (NSW), the World Wildlife Fund Australia, the Australian Brain Foundation, the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, the Australiana Fund, the National Heart Foundation of Australia, the Girl Guides Association and the Committee for Employer Support of Reserve Services.

A member of the boards of several companies, Pagan was never a passive observer.  His involvement with the NSW Permanent Building Society Ltd embroiled him in a factional fight within the State division of the Liberal Party.  A small 'l' Liberal, he found that his place on the building society board, and those of his supposedly 'establishment' allies, were challenged in 1977 by the emerging right-wing faction of the party, which regarded the society as a potential source of funds.  After drawn-out ballots and legal proceedings, Pagan survived, largely because of some frenetic enrolling of members, in which task he was assisted by a future Liberal senator, Chris Puplick.

Sir John Pagan had enormous energy, a generous spirit and considerable organising ability.  He liked pomp and ceremony and moving upwards on the social scale, but his military bearing belied a talent for friendship within and across party and social lines, and his sense of mateship created an enduring bond with former serving personnel of all ranks.  A gifted raconteur, he had a penchant for amateur theatricals, a reflection of his mother’s influence, which had induced one of his brothers to join the professional stage.  Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, he died on 26 June 1986 at Camperdown and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (1965)
  • I. Hancock, National and Permanent? (2000) and The Liberals (2007)
  • Canberra Times, 23 December 1971, p 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 January 1972, p 7, 18 November 1972, p 20, 28 September 1973, p 2
  • B2458, item 2/111111 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Liberal Party of Australia (Federal) records (National Library of Australia)
  • Liberal Party of Australia (New South Wales) records (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information

Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Pagan, Sir John Ernest (1914–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pagan-sir-john-ernest-15014/text26210, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 12 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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