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Regan, John Basil (1903–1987)

by Chris Cunneen and Charles Regan

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

John Basil Regan (1903-1987), flour-miller and businessman, was born on 15 June 1903 at Tamworth, New South Wales, fifth of seven children of New South Wales-born parents Charles Regan (d. 1915), merchant, and his wife Sarah Sophia (Cissy), née Riley.  Basil was educated by the Dominican nuns at Tamworth and in 1915-20 by the Jesuits at St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, Sydney.  Nicknamed 'Josser', he was proficient at rugby union football and cricket but left without his Leaving certificate.  His two older brothers worked in Charles Regan Ltd’s store (the 'Palace of Trade') at Tamworth; in 1921 Basil began work in the office of the George Fielder Phoenix Mill, acquired by Charles in 1912.

In 1922 Basil travelled via Canada to England where he was employed by Thomas Burton Ltd, flour-millers, at Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire.  He completed the London City & Guilds course in flour-milling, before training at Aynsome Laboratories, St Helens, and the Woodlands Ltd laboratories, Dover.  In 1924 he rejoined the family businesses, which in 1922 had been expanded by the purchase of the Royal Hotel (sold 1947) and in 1924 by the erection of a flour-mill in west Tamworth.  He and his cousin Arthur Riley managed the new mill, which from the mid-1920s was the main earner of profits for the family company.

On 30 September 1931 at St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, Regan married Kathleen Mary Cavanagh, a striking redhead and an accomplished pianist.  Always entrepreneurial, in 1935 Regan began experimenting with the manufacture of gluten and starch.  He employed an Irish milling engineer and by 1938 a process had been perfected, using wheat rather than corn or potatoes, and a starch factory had been erected.  In a later legal battle, he won the right to label one product 'Fielders Cornflour' although it was not made from corn.  Another profitable project was the production of poultry feed from by-products of flour-milling.  Involved in the local community, Regan was a foundation member (1935) of the Tamworth Apex Club and a Rotarian.  He was an elected member (1939-50) of Tamworth Council, chairing the finance, electricity and water supply committees but declining nomination as mayor or deputy-mayor.  A staunch advocate of decentralisation of industry, in 1942 he wrote a pamphlet on the subject for the New South Wales Reconstruction Advisory Committee.  By 1945 the Regan group of companies was one of the largest employers in Tamworth.

On the death of his eldest brother, Harold, in 1950, Basil became responsible for the family enterprises.  As chairman and managing director, 'J.B.' was synonymous with Geo. Fielder & Co. Ltd (from 1971 Fielders Ltd) throughout its existence as a public company (1951-77).  Never a sentimentalist, in 1953 he oversaw the sale of the store, after ninety-six years of family ownership, to Western Stores & Edgley’s Ltd of Dubbo, whose board he joined.  The initial Regan family assets of the Tamworth flour-mill and starch factory were developed into a diversified but related group of companies.  Products were manufactured from wheat flour and sold to the food and packaging industries and for export.  Following the expansion of the starch factory into glucose and dextrose manufacture (1953), the first of numerous acquisitions of food companies in Sydney occurred in the late 1950s.  Among those acquired were Mums Products Pty Ltd, Aunt Mary’s Pty Ltd and Sydney Flour Pty Ltd.  The company expanded into breadmaking and by 1974 was the third largest baker in the Sydney market with its 'Fielders Frresh' brand.  Regan emphasised a culture of science and practical research in cereal chemistry within the group.  In 1977 the company merged with Gillespie Bros Holdings Ltd to form Fielder Gillespie Ltd, with Regan as chairman.  He retired in 1980.

In 1963 Regan and his wife had moved to Wahroonga, Sydney.  With a natural air of authority and an imposing presence, six feet (183 cm) tall, he held firm views but was a good listener and a capable public speaker, with a quirky sense of humour.  He was dark, with a high forehead, and wore glasses.  In 1951-69 he was on the council of the University College (University) of New England.  A board member of the Tamworth Newspaper Co. Ltd, sometime chairman, he was a director of East-West Airlines Ltd and of Television New England Ltd.  In December 1976 he was appointed CBE.  Conservative, but not reactionary, he supported the appointment of the left-wing historian Russel Ward to the University of New England despite their differing political views.  In the 1960s he was a Democratic Labor Party adherent.  He recalled in later life rebuffing an invitation to join the Old Guard in the 1930s.  An average polo player in his youth, later he enjoyed tennis and holidays at Port Macquarie.  He was a devout Catholic and a devoted family man.  Regan died on 14 July 1987 at Normanhurst, survived by his wife and their son and three daughters, and was buried in Tamworth cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Green and W. Newman, Chronological History of Tamworth, vols 2-4, 2004
  • C. R. Regan, Opportunity Beckons: The Regans, A Tamworth Story, 2006
  • Northern Daily Leader, 16 July 1987, p 2
  • Northern Daily Leader, 18 July 1987, p 5

Citation details

Chris Cunneen and Charles Regan, 'Regan, John Basil (1903–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/regan-john-basil-14434/text25518, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 October 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

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