Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights
1905 - 1957
by Jack Horner
This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
John Thomas (Jack) Patten (1905-1957), Aboriginal leader, was born on 27 March 1905 at Moama, New South Wales, eldest of six children of John Thomas Patten, labourer and later police tracker, and his wife Christina Mary, née Middleton. Jack was educated at Cumeragunja (Cumeroogunga) Aboriginal, Tumbarumba and (in 1916-18) West Wyalong Public schools. Unable to gain admission to the navy, he turned to labouring for Sydney Municipal Council. While boxing at Casino in 1927 he met Selina Avery of Yulgilbar whom he married at Tabulam on 2 March 1931.
By 1930 Patten lived at Salt Pan Creek, an Aboriginal community near Sydney, where he absorbed radical Aboriginal politics. Still boxing occasionally, he organized political groups among Aborigines along the south and north coast. Settled at La Perouse by 1936, but unemployed, he spoke on Aboriginal rights each Sunday in the Sydney Domain.
In August 1937 Patten met Percy Stephensen, later editor of the Publicist, a political monthly owned by William Miles. Stephensen encouraged Patten to write militant letters to the premier, (Sir) Bertram Stevens. When Bill Ferguson visited Sydney in October, publicizing his Aborigines' Progressive Association, he made Patten its president. For five weeks Patten hitch-hiked around the State with a permit to enter reserves, collecting affidavits from Aborigines as evidence for the Legislative Assembly select committee on the administration of the Aborigines Protection Board.
Patten and Ferguson's pamphlet, Aborigines Claim Citizens Rights!, exposing the arbitrary powers of the State protection systems, promoted a 'Day of Mourning' meeting in Sydney on Australia Day, 1938. Patten's speeches emphasized education for their children and, as president, he put and carried the key resolution for 'full citizen status and equality [for Aborigines] in the community'. Nothing came of a deputation which he led to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons proposing a radical national Aboriginal policy.
In April 1938 Miles started a short-lived monthly, the Australian Abo Call, edited by Patten. Ferguson objected to an A.P.A. constitution announced in the first issue, suspecting Miles's influence; at a general meeting at La Perouse a 'no confidence' motion in Patten was defeated and the A.P.A. split. In June Patten toured north-coast reserves rousing enthusiastic meetings. He went to Cumeroogunga in February 1939, in response to his relations' calls for help, and denounced food shortages. When the manager expelled him, many residents walked off. Patten was arrested, and Stephensen bailed him out: a magistrate had him bound over. Patten and Ferguson settled their quarrel at the Dubbo A.P.A. conference in January 1940; as guest speaker, Patten called for unity.
He had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in December, and in February 1940 he embarked with the Sixth Division, serving in the Middle East as a private. Discharged in April 1942, with a shrapnel-damaged knee, he worked in the Civil Construction Corps at Tennant Creek, Northern Territory. In 1946 he settled in Melbourne on a war pension; Mrs Patten remained at Grafton. Often in hospital, he did clerical jobs, and worked unpaid for the Australian Aborigines' League.
On 12 October 1957 Patten died in St Vincent's Hospital after a car accident and was buried in Fawkner cemetery. His wife and seven children survived him. Patten was of middle height, physically vigorous, with broad shoulders and a tubby figure. Among friends, he liked playing practical jokes. Before his wartime experiences depressed him, he was a forceful organizer and journalist, and won a loyal following along the New South Wales coast.
J. Horner, Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal Freedom (Syd, 1974)