Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Claude Hill Reading (1874–1946)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published:

Sir Claude Hill Reading (1874-1946), banker and company director, was born on 10 May 1874 in Sydney, fourth son of Edward Reading, dentist, and his wife Caroline Mary, née Burdett, both English born. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, he spent several years with the Union Bank of Australia (1890-96) before joining the wholesale tobacco firm of E. L. Sutton & Co. Tall, handsome, charming and popular, on 20 December 1902 Reading married Mabel Westropp, daughter of business magnate J. R. Carey at Christ Church, North Sydney. In 1909 he qualified as a public accountant. Reading became managing director (1913-34) and deputy chairman (1928-34) of the British Tobacco Co. (Aust), credited with an enlightened employee policy at its Kensington, Sydney, factory; he accepted directorships of the States Tobacco Co. (1914-34), W. D. & H. O. Wills (Australia), and the British-Australasian Tobacco Co. (1912-34, deputy chairman 1928-34).

Reading, related to Sir James Reading Fairfax, was well-known in business and financial circles. He was a councillor (1916) and honorary treasurer (1916-18) of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce and its representative on the standing committee of the Associated Chambers of Australia which dealt with trade questions during and after World War I. For a short period (March 1918–July 1919) he was deputy chairman of the Board of Business Administration, Department of Defence, from which he resigned to join the Home Service Personnel Commission chaired by Brigadier General Ramaciotti. He was a member of the Federal Board of Trade in 1919-22 and in that capacity with Herbert Brookes was co-opted by Prime Minister (Viscount) Bruce to advise and assist on commercial matters at the Economic Conference, London, 1923, which sought development of Empire trade.

In April 1927 Reading was appointed to the board of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Though normally the tobacco interests did not allow their directors to serve on other boards, an exception was made in this case. The appointment was popular in commercial circles. Reading was closely associated with the chairman Sir Robert Gibson, who held him in high regard, and he acknowledged Gibson as the source of his 'great education in the principles of national banking'. After Gibson's death in January 1934, Reading was appointed chairman of directors for the unexpired portion of Gibson's term and resigned his other directorships. In June he was appointed K.C.M.G. He was re-elected chairman annually until the board came to an end in August 1945.

Himself firmly orthodox, Reading headed a conservative board. Hesitant, courteous, patient, self-effacing and occasionally defensive, he was much less assertive than his formidable predecessor, usually allowing policy to emerge from board discussion. Protective of the bank's 'independence', he declared in May 1935 during negotiations with the Loan Council that 'We know no State and we endeavour to know no political party. That is our objective. And so far as I have seen it we can claim to have succeeded'. Leadership of the bank fell to Reading and Sir Ernest Riddle at a testing time in its evolution towards central banking status, during years of recovery from deep depression with its related pressures upon the bank to assume new responsibilities. However, into 1936 the bank's approach to recovery was cautious. It resisted arguments for credit expansion and exchange depreciation, and sought a reduction of the floating (treasury bill) debt during a period in which it saw a threat to financial stability.

In January 1936 Reading was the first to testify with prepared evidence before the royal commission on banking. The commission's report, recommending an increase in the bank's power, stimulated a reconsideration of the bank's functions and policies in relation to the economy. Reading embarked on a series of conferences with trading banks that would stretch into World War II. During 1936-39 he negotiated loans and finance for defence and oversaw secret reserves lodged with the Bank of England. Chairman of the Capital Issues Board, he was appointed to the Advisory Board on Investments in 1939. In September 1941 he attended a meeting of the Advisory War Council in Canberra. During and after the war his well-modulated voice was heard frequently on radio exhorting listeners to subscribe to war loans.

Reading so avoided publicity as to be considered 'unfair to himself', but the Sydney Morning Herald perceived him as 'a man of spacious interests active in many a good cause'. The education and welfare of youth concerned him. He was a trustee of Sydney Grammar School from 1924 and of the Gowrie Scholarship Fund from 1944, president of the Boy Scouts' Association of New South Wales from 1941, council-chairman of the Fairbridge Farm Schools of New South Wales, and a charter member of Sydney Rotary. He was prominent in the establishment of Air Force House, Sydney. Well-built and athletic, Reading had always excelled in sport, representing his State at lawn tennis and captaining its golf team in 1912. President of the Royal Sydney Golf Club in 1930-44, he was also a member of the Australian and Union clubs.

Reading died on 23 March 1946, and was cremated. Lady Reading, a son and a daughter survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £225,255.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank (Melb, 1951)
  • S. J. Butlin, War Economy, 1939-42 (Canb, 1955)
  • C. B. Schedvin, Australia and the Great Depression (Syd, 1970)
  • L. Foster, High Hopes (Melb, 1986)
  • Commerce (Sydney), Apr 1918
  • Pinion, Nov 1926
  • Home (Sydney), 1 Oct 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Sept 1919, 7 May 1923, 5 Jan, 4 Apr, 4 June 1934, 29 May 1935, 13 Sept 1941, 29 Jan 1944, 5 Nov 1945, 25 Mar 1946
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Jan 1934
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 11 Nov 1939
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Mar 1945
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Reading, Sir Claude Hill (1874–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 May, 1874
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


23 March, 1946 (aged 71)

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