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Sir John Gilbert McLaren (1871–1958)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published:

Sir John Gilbert McLaren (1871-1958), public servant, was born on 15 October 1871 at Parramatta, New South Wales, son of William Burness McLaren, stonemason, and his wife Mary, née Gilbert, both born at Parramatta. He was educated at Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1895). He had joined the Postmaster-General's Department, New South Wales, in January 1888, as a clerk, and transferred with his department to the Commonwealth service in 1901.

McLaren was Commonwealth electoral officer for New South Wales in 1904-19 and a member in 1911-12 of the commission that redistributed electoral boundaries for the State. In July 1919 he was appointed assistant secretary, Prime Minister's Department, and in 1921-28 was secretary of the Department of Home and Territories. He visited Darwin in 1925 to report on and recommend staff reorganization in the Northern Territory, and in 1927 he examined the government of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea as a preliminary to its revision.

In June 1928 McLaren was appointed a commissioner of the Public Service Board. However, when S. M. (Viscount) Bruce reshuffled the Commonwealth Public Service in December, McLaren replaced Percy Deane as secretary to the Prime Minister's Department (1929-32) to which the administration of the territories of Papua and New Guinea was transferred. At the request of Prime Minister Scullin he reviewed the functions of the External Affairs Branch to bring it more closely within the departmental structure. (Sir) Keith Officer observed that although McLaren was very friendly he was 'almost too well informed of affairs in the office and asked such embarrassing questions'. He was chairman of the Australian Tobacco Investigation in 1931-32 and chairman of the Commonwealth advisory committee on employment (1932).

During his appointment as official secretary, High Commissioner's Office, London (January 1933–October 1936), on a salary reduced by a quarter under the Financial Emergency Act, McLaren represented Australia at International Labour Organization conferences (1933, 1934) and annually at meetings of the Permanent Mandates Commission, Geneva. As deputy high commissioner he attended the London Naval Conference in 1935-36 and the Council of Accession (1936). The financial responsibilities of the high commissioner were attended to by Bruce during McLaren's term, but pressures for economy led McLaren to suggest that all State agents-general should be located in Australia House.

During his early career McLaren had been active in literary and debating circles and was an attractive and well-informed speaker. On 8 February 1904 at Annandale, Sydney, he had married with Catholic rites Emily Frances Sarah Wynn (d.1941), oratorio and concert soprano, and on his transfer in 1927 he became prominent in the nascent cultural life of Canberra. He was the first president of the Canberra Musical Society (1928-30) and of the Canberra Repertory Society (1932), and a member of the Canberra Society of Arts. In August 1927 he was a member with (Sir) Robert Garran and (Sir) David Rivett of a committee calling for the establishment of a university and was a government nominee to the council of Canberra University College (1930-32) and acting chairman (1930).

McLaren was appointed C.M.G. in 1925 and knighted in 1935. When he retired in 1936 and returned to Sydney it was rumoured that he might seek a political career. He took an active interest in immigration and in work for the League of Nations and for over twenty years was a member of the Millions Club of New South Wales and its president in 1951-58. He died on 27 July 1958 at Strathfield, and was cremated. McLaren had married on 1 October 1949 at Mosman, a widow Lucie Adela Nash, née Sparrow, who survived him together with three daughters of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • P. G. Edwards, Prime Ministers and Diplomats (Melb, 1983)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Feb 1904, 15 Sept 1925, 2 Sept 1927, 8 Dec 1928, 2 Aug 1930, 7 June 1951, 29 July 1958
  • Canberra Times, 27 Sept 1927, 17 Feb, 11, 25 Apr, 22 May 1928, 18 Jan, 1 Feb, 13 Sept 1933
  • Officer papers (MS 2629, items 1/86, 1/102, 8/82, National Library of Australia)
  • Dept of Home and Territories, University of Canberra: proposed establishment, 1927, A1 27/17321 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'McLaren, Sir John Gilbert (1871–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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