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Reid, Sir John Thyne (1903–1984)

by D. T. Merrett

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

Sir John Thyne Reid (1903-1984), company director and philanthropist, was born on 15 October 1903 at Randwick, Sydney, second of three surviving children of Scottish-born parents Andrew Reid, importer and shipping agent, and his wife Margaret, née Thyne.  His father was a partner in, and later sole proprietor of, James Hardie & Co., which commenced manufacturing the asbestos-based Fibrolite in 1917.  Jock studied first at Turramurra College before boarding (1917-18) at The Kings School, Parramatta.  After a brief period with a private tutor, he travelled with his father to Scotland, where he attended school at the Edinburgh Academy, studied accountancy in the evenings, developed a love of music and practised his Presbyterian faith.  His father offered to send him to the University of Oxford but Jock preferred to enter the family business; he served an apprenticeship with a Glasgow engineering firm, for which Hardie was an import agent, unaware that his father was paying his wages.  Returning to Australia in 1923, Jock began work for Hardie in Sydney, also taking up flying as a hobby.  On 8 January 1929 at Lansdowne United Free Church, Glasgow, he married Gladys Violet Boyd Scott, daughter of his former minister.

In 1932 Reid was sent to Hardie’s largely independent Melbourne branch, where he rose to the position of manager by 1936.  The death of his father in 1939 and the enlistment into the army of his elder brother Andrew Thyne Reid thrust Jock into higher positions.  He shared command of the James Hardie group until his brother died in 1966; thereafter, he was chairman of both the holding and key operating companies until he retired in 1974.  He also joined the board of the finance company Mercantile Credits Pty Ltd in 1939, and was chairman in 1966-73.  Both companies prospered under his stewardship.  In his business dealings 'he had a sharp mind, a mastery of detail, a clear sense of what he wanted, a capacity to argue strongly for it, and he usually succeeded in getting his way'.

Reid gave freely of his time and wealth to philanthropic and cultural causes, having both the means and the motivation to do so.  He joined the Rotary Club of Melbourne in 1939, serving as president (1953-54) and receiving numerous awards.  Appointed to the board of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1961, Reid later served as vice-chairman (1967-71).  He created the John T. Reid Charitable Trusts in 1956 and 1963, which focused on Victorian and Australian causes respectively.  The boards and committees of the Melbourne Young Men’s Christian Association, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, the Victorian Symphony Orchestra, the Victorian College of the Arts, the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne, the Baker Medical Research Institute and the St George’s Hospital all benefited from his influential participation.

Reid was a paradox.  His highly principled behaviour, particularly his reliance on a man’s word, was almost quixotic, but he also presided over a business that manufactured products containing asbestos.  He and his senior management team chose to downplay the growing scientific evidence of the dangers associated with the material; as early as 1957 Reid referred to 'the supposed danger of asbestos dust' when distributing a medical report to colleagues.  Reid and his associates dragged their feet in improving workplace safety and fought early compensation claims brought on behalf of the victims.  Future leaders of James Hardie, including Reid’s son John Boyd Reid, inherited this problematic legacy, including a proliferation of compensation claims in the 1980s.

Unlike his brother who refused honours, Jock Reid was appointed CMG in 1971 and knighted in 1974.  He received honorary degrees from the University of Melbourne (LL.D, 1977) and the Victoria Institute of Colleges (D.A.Sc., 1977).  Survived by his wife and their son and three daughters, Sir John died on 31 December 1984 at Kew and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC, 1983
  • J. Kent, Mercantile Credits, 1985
  • B. Carroll, 'A Very Good Business', 1987
  • O. Parnaby, Australia’s First Rotary Club, 2002
  • G. Haigh, Asbestos House, 2006
  • James Hardie Industries Ltd and Reid family papers (State Library of New South Wales)

Citation details

D. T. Merrett, 'Reid, Sir John Thyne (1903–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/reid-sir-john-thyne-14437/text25521, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 11 December 2019.

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

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