Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, Arthur Bruce (1851–1937)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Arthur Bruce Smith (1851-1937), businessman, barrister and politician, was born on 28 June 1851 at Rotherhithe, Surrey, England, fifth of seven sons of William Howard Smith, master mariner and later ship-owner, and his second wife Agnes Rosa, née Allen. The family reached Melbourne on 7 July 1854 in William's 186-ton schooner-rigged steamer, Express. Bruce was educated in England (1862-64) and at Wesley College, Melbourne, then engaged in commerce (1867-72).

Coached by W. W. Mankel, Smith matriculated at the University of Melbourne in October 1872 and studied law there before entering Lincoln's Inn, London, in December 1873; he was called to the Bar on 26 January 1877. Returning to Melbourne he was admitted to the Victorian Bar on 14 September, the same day as Alfred Deakin. At the Presbyterian Church, Toorak, he married Sara Jane Creswell (d.1929) on 15 January 1879. Next year he published an article, 'Chinese labour', in the Victorian Review and, with Alan Skinner, a digest of County Court cases.

Narrowly defeated for the Legislative Assembly seat of Emerald Hill as a 'Constitutionalist' in February 1880, Smith moved to Sydney next January, armed with a letter of introduction from James Service to Sir Henry Parkes, and practised at the Bar. He won a Legislative Assembly by-election for Gundagai on 23 November 1882, the day parliament was dissolved, and was re-elected on 13 December. The Bulletin commented that Smith added 'the strong common sense of the experienced commercial man to the acumen of the practised advocate; is socially a favourite, and inherits the vigor, honesty and determination … of his father'.

Smith resigned his seat in April 1884 and returned to Melbourne to become joint managing director of Wm Howard Smith & Sons Ltd (registered in September 1883) at a salary of £1250. Faced with industrial unrest, in March 1885 he founded the Victorian Employers' Union (president 1885-87) and, later, the Victorian Board of Conciliation; he found the Trades Hall leaders were 'on the whole cool-headed, exceedingly amenable to reason'.

After quarrelling with his father, in December 1886 Smith sold all his shares in Howard Smith to his brother Edmund Edmonds Smith (1847-1914) and in January 1887 resigned from the board. Disinherited by his father in February, he returned to Sydney and practice at the Bar, and that year joined the Australian Club.

Having lost a by-election for Kiama that January, Smith set out his political philosophy in the massive and anachronistic Liberty and Liberalism (1887), a protest against increasing interference by the state. A disciple of the classical liberalism of the Manchester school, he was influenced by Herbert Spencer and social Darwinism. Over the years he contributed to such journals as the Victorian Review, Melbourne Review, Centennial Magazine, Sydney Quarterly Magazine and the Australasian edition of the Review of Reviews, often reprinting his articles as pamphlets. He remained a doctrinaire, extreme laissez-faire free trader, becoming increasingly anti-socialist in the 1900s. In 1888 he founded the New South Wales Employers' Union and under its auspices published a pamphlet, Strikes and their Cure.

Returned to the Legislative Assembly for Glebe in February 1889, Smith joined the committed free traders led by his close friend (Sir) William McMillan and from 8 March served in Parkes's last ministry as secretary for public works. He pursued a vigorous programme and took a practical interest in the work, on one occasion inviting six northern members to join him 'in some experiments with the sand dredges which have been imported for the Northern Rivers'.

Smith frequently clashed with Parkes and was 'furiously angry' in October 1889 when the latter espoused Federation without consulting his ministers. Parkes protested to the governor, Lord Carrington, that 'Mr. Bruce Smith who cavils at nearly everything I propose … may have to leave the ministry for I am not disposed to put up with much more of his thinly disguised offensiveness … he seems to think that I ought to do the impossible thing of consulting him at every turn'.

During the maritime strike of 1890 Smith vigorously denied that he had said that the government would 'shoot down' the strikers 'like bloody dogs' and emphasized his good relations with the trade unions. On 14 August 1891 he replaced McMillan as colonial treasurer. Within a few weeks Parkes protested formally to the governor that Smith transacted 'the most important business of the colony' over his head by communicating direct with the agent-general in London.

After the fall of the government in October, Smith acknowledged the great advantage derived from observing Parkes's ability to rise 'above the mere question in hand'. In Opposition he disappointed his friends by his inactivity. He explained to Parkes that 'I have “given (as Bacon puts it) hostage to fortune” in the shape of a family & a home; & I must be reconciled to eschewing active politics … My profession will not admit of half measures'. He did not seek re-election in 1894.

One of (Sir) Edmund Barton's most able lieutenants, Smith was philosophical about his defeat for the 1897 Australasian Federal Convention: 'I couldn't spend more time in the country than I did … so my exclusion from the “Protestant 10” settled my chances' (he sent a daughter to a convent). Next year he unsuccessfully contested Glebe for the National Federal Party. He campaigned for the 1897 and 1898 referenda on the Constitution, although R. E. O'Connor complained to Deakin that 'Bruce Smith has really not given up any chances of work [at the Bar] during the campaign and I should not think he has suffered at all'. Smith was a member of the United Federal Executive's finance committee in 1899 and edited United Australia (1900-02).

Believing in 'the necessity of having the best obtainable men in Parliament', he confided to Deakin that he 'was even prepared to postpone for a time the enforcement of my own economic principles'. In March 1901 he was elected to the House of Representatives for Parkes and held the seat until defeated in 1919. Like his fellow free traders, Smith had nowhere to go in Federal politics, especially as he was no supporter of their leader (Sir) George Reid, whom he once described as 'a charlatan'. Seen as a die-hard Tory by Labor, he was unreconciled to the new welfare liberalism and deplored 'meddling legislation', but always supported the women's movement. He also strongly opposed the White Australia policy, immigration restriction, 'white ocean' legislation, compulsory arbitration and Melbourne remaining the temporary capital. 'The one man in the House who understood political economy', he did 'his party harm by his independent utterances'. He twice declined the Speakership. Black-haired with a beautifully waxed moustache as a young man, he was later described by R. A. Crouch as 'white-haired & moustached, tall, stout, double-chinned, good-looking' and a 'fine speaker and debater'. Although on most occasions urbane, Smith was inclined to fuss over trifles.

As well as attending somewhat casually to his parliamentary duties, in Sydney he lived at Point Piper, became a leader at the Bar and took silk in 1904. He was a director of the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd and the Sydney & Suburban Hydraulic Power Co. Ltd, State president of the British Empire League in Australia and the Association for the Protection of Native Races, and a member of the Union Club from 1915.

While recuperating at Bowral in 1890, Smith had written to Parkes that he had been 'giving my mind a rest by reading Jane Austen, Boswell, [Washington] Irving & Sterne'. He published a handbook on the Constitution, Our Commonwealth (1904); Paralysis of a Nation (1914), attacking socialism; Truisms of Statecraft (1921); The Light of Egypt (1924) and a volume of verse, Fugitive Thoughts (1929). About 1925 he retired to his house at Bowral where he had always enjoyed fishing and outdoor pursuits. He died there on 14 August 1937 and was buried beside his wife in the Church of England cemetery. Two daughters and a son survived him; his three eldest sons had died in infancy and his eldest daughter aged 15. His estate was valued for probate at over £42,000.

A young man of parts, Bruce Smith never lived up to his promise. In Opposition most of his eighteen years in Federal parliament, he was too doctrinaire and too quixotic, and perhaps too aware of his own intellect, to adapt to twentieth-century party politics.

His elder brother Edmund, ship-owner, was born on 17 January 1847 at Rotherhithe and was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. He entered his father's firm and by 1886 was managing director in Sydney of Howard Smith & Sons Ltd. Next January he took over as managing director in Melbourne; he was chairman in the 1890s and retired from the board in 1904. He was president of the Victorian Employers' Union and the Australasian Steamship Owners' Federation in 1890 and of the federal council of the Employers' Federation in 1904. He owned office-buildings in Bourke and Flinders streets and a house at Toorak.

A member of the royal commission on the University of Melbourne (1902), he was elected to the Legislative Council for South Yarra next year, but resigned in 1903 to contest the Senate and lost. Smith died childless on 13 April 1914 at his holiday home at Cowes and was buried with Anglican rites in St Kilda cemetery. He was survived by his wife Jemima, née Doling, whom he had married at Heidelberg on 11 May 1892. His estate was valued for probate in Victoria at £252,771.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • J. Rickard, Class and Politics (Canb, 1975)
  • A. Martin, Henry Parkes (Melb, 1980)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1890, p 3889
  • Australian Magazine, 12, no 10, 1 Dec 1909, p 1023
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25, 28 Feb 1880
  • Bulletin, 3, 7 Dec 1881, 25 Nov 1882
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Jan, 7 Feb 1887, 29, 30 Jan 1889, 16 Aug 1937
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 19 May 1887
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 29 Jan 1889
  • Catholic Press, 26 Nov 1903, 4 May 1905
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 Nov 1911
  • Y. Larsson, The Political Ideas of Bruce Smith (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1974)
  • Wm Howard Smith & Sons Ltd, directors' minutes (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • W. McMillan papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Edmund Barton papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Crouch memoirs (State Library of Victoria)
  • CO 201/ 610/ f281 (microfilm, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Smith, Arthur Bruce (1851–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-arthur-bruce-8462/text14879, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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