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Michaelis, Sir Archie Reuben Louis (1889–1975)

by J. S. Levi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir Archie Reuben Louis Michaelis (1889-1975), businessman, politician and Jewish leader, was born on 19 December 1889 at St Kilda, Melbourne, eldest child of Australian-born parents Frederick David Michaelis, merchant, and his wife Esther Zillah, née Phillips. Moritz Michaelis was his grandfather. His aunt Alice Michaelis was a founder (1912) and president (1944-46) of the Lyceum Club, Melbourne. The close-knit family gathered at Linden, the Michaelis mansion in Acland Street, St Kilda, on Friday nights to observe traditional ceremonies and rituals in preparation for the Sabbath. Archie attended Wesley College, Prahran, and Cumloden School, East St Kilda; in 1903 his parents took him to England and enrolled him at Harrow School.

Returning to Melbourne in 1908, he entered the family tannery business, Michaelis, Hallenstein & Co. Pty Ltd. In 1912 he was sent to England to gain experience in the firm's London office. He served (from 1914) in the Honourable Artillery Company and went with his battery to the Middle East. After being commissioned (1916) in the Royal Field Artillery Special Reserve, he was posted to Ireland and Greece. He trained for the Royal Flying Corps in Egypt in 1917, but contracted malaria and influenza and was repatriated in 1919. Archie's brother and three first-cousins had died or been killed in World War I, and the family required his active involvement in the business. On 14 January 1920 at Tusculum, Potts Point, Sydney, he married his cousin Claire Esther Hart (d.1973).

In the late 1920s Michaelis began to take an interest in politics. He became associated with the Australian Legion and later the Young Nationalist Organisation, and valued his lifelong friendship with (Sir) Robert Menzies. In 1932 he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly for the United Australia Party, wresting what had been the safe seat of St Kilda from the Australian Labor Party. During the 1935 election campaign anti-Semitic pamphlets were distributed in St Kilda. In parliament, Michaelis was the foremost advocate of legislation (1939) that made third-party motorcar insurance compulsory; towards the end of World War II he worked to prevent the transfer of vital powers from the States to the Commonwealth. In 1945, with (Sir) Thomas Maltby and three other dissident Liberals, he helped Labor to defeat the Dunstan-Hollway government. From 2 October to 21 November he was minister without portfolio in Ian Macfarlan's 'stop-gap' government. He rejoined the Liberal Party in December 1946. Elected Speaker in 1950, Michaelis served in that role until his retirement in 1952. He was knighted that year.

Chairman (1948-65) of the family firm and of its parent company, Associated Leathers Ltd, Michaelis was a generous supporter of charities. As treasurer of the Emergency Relief Committee, he had helped Jewish victims of the 1929 riots in Palestine. He was a member (1940-70), president (1945) and chairman (1947-51) of the Patriotic Funds Council of Victoria, and a board-member (1935-72) and vice-president of the Alfred Hospital. He also chaired the Victorian branch of the Australian Jewish Historical Society and served on the board of the Melbourne Jewish Philanthropic Society.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Michaelis was president and a trustee of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation. He was a friend and disciple of its rabbi, Jacob Danglow, whose wife was his aunt. Michaelis became a defender of the Anglo-Jewish establishment within the Australian Jewish community. As founding president (1939-40) and spokesman of the Victorian Jewish Advisory Board, he resisted attempts to secularize the Jewish community's leadership. Opposed to Zionism, he publicly defended Sir Isaac Isaacs's anti-Zionist letters and articles. When some member of the Jewish community condemned Isaacs and his supporters, Michaelis declared that he would not be 'dragooned into silence'. In 1947-48 he helped to fund the short-lived anti-Zionist journal, Australian Jewish Outlook. Like Danglow, he later made his peace with the independent state of Israel.

In retirement, Sir Archie maintained a lively interest in community affairs and wrote frequent letters to the press. He relinquished his membership of the Victoria and Peninsula golf clubs and his social games of tennis, but continued to enjoy a weekly game of poker, crossword puzzles and reading (he was vice-president of the Kipling Society, London). In 1966 he published a brief memoir, Before I Forget. Survived by his three daughters, he died on 22 April 1975 at South Yarra and was buried in St Kilda cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • The Michaelis, Hallenstein Story 1864-1964 (Syd, 1964)
  • P. Aimer, Politics, Power and Persuasion (Syd, 1974)
  • W. D. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia, vol 2 (Melb, 1991)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 23 Apr 1975, p 5299
  • Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, vol 8, part 1, 1975
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Feb 1935, 3, 10 Oct 1945, 11 Dec 1946
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 Apr 1975
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 23 Apr 1975
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

J. S. Levi, 'Michaelis, Sir Archie Reuben Louis (1889–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/michaelis-sir-archie-reuben-louis-11117/text19795, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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