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Wilson, Sir Reginald Victor (1877–1957)

by Malcolm Saunders

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Reginald Victor Wilson (1877-1957), by unknown photographer, 1920s

Reginald Victor Wilson (1877-1957), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23530235

Sir Reginald Victor Wilson (1877-1957), businessman and politician, was born on 30 June 1877 in Adelaide, son of James Wilson, commercial traveller, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Tonkin. Educated at Riverton and Whinham College, North Adelaide, he worked briefly in a store at Happy Valley, then for six years with H. A. and W. Goode at Port Pirie. In 1898 he bought a store at Broken Hill, New South Wales. On 12 February 1901 he married Lily May Suckling at Holy Trinity Church, Riverton. Poor health brought him to Adelaide in 1903, but he returned in 1906 to Broken Hill where he purchased a grocery business. Becoming a Freemason, Wilson joined the Chamber of Commerce and was treasurer of the Silver City Show Committee. In 1908 he was elected an alderman, but in November 1909 transferred his business to Adelaide where he was mayor of St Peters in 1916-17. He unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Assembly seats of Torrens (1912) and East Torrens (1918).

Chosen by the Farmers and Settlers' Association as a candidate in a composite National Party team, Wilson was elected to the Senate in 1919. In parliament he soon came to the attention of Stanley (Viscount) Bruce. As a member of the royal commission inquiring into Cockatoo Island dockyard (1921), Wilson was conspicuous for his tough questioning and his thoroughness was confirmed by his work on the wireless agreement committee (1921-22). An honorary minister (1923-25) in the Bruce-Page government with some responsibility for health and immigration, in March 1923 Wilson was nominated by Bruce as chairman of the commission responsible for organizing an Australian pavilion for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London: an integral part of the 'men, money and markets' programme, the pavilion aimed to stimulate immigration, promote foreign investment and extend and open up markets. Wilson's handling of his task drew lavish praise and marked the turning-point of his career. He accompanied Bruce to London in September where he added his voice to the pressure for preference for Australian produce, and was described as 'one of the most capable and business-like ministers who had ever visited England'. In Britain he also discussed a proposed migration agreement and reorganized Australia House 'from top to bottom'. Those who met him warmed to his bluff and breezy personality, valued his candour and forcefulness, and—according to Bruce—regarded him very much as 'a typical Australian'. Wilson subsequently negotiated a reciprocal trade agreement in Canada, visited New York and attended the opening of the Wembley exhibition. He returned to Australia in June 1924.

His meteoric political career continued when Bruce appointed him minister for markets and migration on 16 January 1925. The new portfolio made him ex officio deputy president of the Commonwealth Board of Trade. Although he had joined the Country Party, Wilson did not identify with either the Country or Nationalist groupings; nor did he attend meetings of either parliamentary party. As a ministerialist, he believed that he should not have to seek party pre-selection. Angered by his attitude, the South Australian Country Party omitted him from its Senate team: not even Page's intervention induced it to relent. Wilson had fourth place on the non-Labor ticket for the Senate at the general election in December 1925 and was defeated. Bruce asked him to remain until his term expired (June 1926). Wilson was widely tipped to succeed Sir Joseph Cook as high commissioner in London. Instead, in January 1926, he was appointed K.B.E.

Sir Victor remained very much a public figure. In the late 1920s he moved to Sydney. As president (1927-39) of the Motion Picture Distributors' Association, he was periodically accused of preferring American to Australian and British film interests—an allegation he flatly rejected. A director of the Australian General Insurance Co. from 1938, he was senior vice-chairman (1938-57) of the Royal North Shore Hospital board, a member (1938-46) of the National Health Research Council and chairman (1939-57) of National Press Pty Ltd. He owned a pastoral property at Mudgee and was part-owner of another near Kingoonya, South Australia.

Wilson was a tireless and cool-headed fighter. Popular and unpretentious, he remained 'just his natural self'—a knight who liked to be called 'Vic'. Predeceased by his wife and son, he died at his Neutral Bay home on 13 July 1957 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 Jan 1920, 17 Jan 1925, 21 Jan 1926, 15 July 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Feb 1923, 17 Jan 1925, 21 Jan 1926, 30 June 1939
  • Observer (Adelaide), 24 Jan 1925, 23 Jan 1926
  • Register (Adelaide), 21 Jan 1926
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 6 July 1933
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 14 July 1957
  • Wilson papers (privately held).

Citation details

Malcolm Saunders, 'Wilson, Sir Reginald Victor (1877–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-sir-reginald-victor-9145/text16137, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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