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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Hagan, John Francis (1898–1987)

by F. Van Straten

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

John Francis O’Hagan (1898-1987), songwriter, was born on 29 November 1898 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Patrick O’Hagan, hotelkeeper, and his wife Alice, née Quinlan. Educated at St Patrick’s and Xavier colleges, Melbourne, Jack learnt music but claimed to play mostly by ear. On 3 January 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, serving as a corporal on home service until his discharge on 21 October 1919. Composing since his early teens, in 1917 he had four songs published, three with music by Henri Penn. In 1920 Allan & Co. employed him as a ‘professional manager’, with the task of ensuring that Allan’s songs were heard in theatres and dance halls.

Through the 1920s O’Hagan achieved success with songs linked to silent films: Anatol reflected the popularity of Gloria Swanson’s The Affairs of Anatol; In Dreamy Araby and Juli-o were inspired by the Rudolph Valentino epics The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After his acclaimed Down Caroline Way he decided to attempt something more local, and in 1922 penned his most emphatic hit. It was provisionally titled Along the Road to Bundaberg, but as that city lacked a river with a name having the requisite number of syllables, he chose the New South Wales town of Gundagai, ‘where the blue gums are growing, and the Murrumbidgee’s flowing . . .’  That year the song featured in J. & N. Tait’s pantomime The Forty Thieves. Recorded in 1931 by Peter Dawson, it was chosen in 1937 as the theme for the radio serial ‘Dad and Dave’. More songs in the same vein were to follow in the 1930s—Where the Dog Sits on the Tuckerbox, The Snake Gully Swagger, Snake Gully Home of Mine and When a Boy from Alabama Meets a Girl from Gundagai—but only Gundagai retained enduring popularity.

On 22 January 1924 at St Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church, South Melbourne, O’Hagan married Josephine Patricia Weichard. His successes continued with songs such as After the Dawn and Rose of Flanders. Mexican Serenade, based on the waltz from Léo Delibes’s Coppélia, appeared under the name of one of his daughters, ‘Pamela Terese’, one of several pseudonyms that he employed. Both Gladys Moncrieff and Richard Tauber recorded it.

While many of O’Hagan’s most endearing songs featured ‘bush’ themes there were also ‘hero’ songs, such as Kingsford Smith, Our Don Bradman and A Lone Girl Flyer, dedicated to Amy Johnson. Ginger Meggs was followed by Our Marjorie, celebrating the achievements of the Olympic Games sprinter Marjorie Jackson. ‘Special occasion’ songs included Colonel Campbell and Mr Lang, satirising the unconventional opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. During World War II he wrote Red Cross Nurse, England Can Take It, the mocking Oh, How We Love You, Mister Hitler and the wistful Little Ships Will Sail Again.

A pioneer broadcaster, as early as 1924 O’Hagan was singing his own songs on the Melbourne radio station 3AR. He regularly appeared on 3LO and later on 3AW, where he was anchorman for studio re-creations of ‘live’ Test cricket matches as well as sales manager. At 3DB he wrote, directed and performed in shows like ‘Songs and Songwriters’ and ‘Them Was the Days’. For a while he ran his own music publishing company. He flirted with the ‘talkies’, writing songs for Australia’s first musical film, Showgirl’s Luck (1931), and performed his own songs in Frank Thring’s Efftee Entertainers series. He provided occasional songs for pantomimes and scores for revues and musical comedies.

After World War II O’Hagan’s simple, catchy melodies seemed outmoded; his rallying anthem Young Man, Whither Goest You? (1947) was ignored. Joining the advertising agency O’Brien Publicity, for fourteen years until his retirement in 1965 he wrote jingles. His last song was God Bless Australia (1967), using the music for Waltzing Matilda, but with his own patriotic lyrics. Despite speculation that it might become Australia’s new national anthem, like O’Hagan himself it slipped quietly from public view. He was appointed MBE in 1973.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Game, The Music Sellers (1976)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 28 Oct 1950, p 12
  • People (Sydney), 18 July 1951, p 6
  • Reader’s Digest (Australian edition), May 1974, p 25
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

F. Van Straten, 'O'Hagan, John Francis (1898–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 October 2020.

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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