Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Thomas Reay (1858–1929)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published:

William Thomas Reay (1858-1929), journalist and politician, was born on 10 November 1858 at Balmain, Sydney, son of Edward William Reay, a sailmaker from England, and his Irish wife Johanna, née Brennan. As a boy he moved with his family to Williamstown, Melbourne, where he was educated at the Church of England School. Aged 13 he ran away to sea but left the ship near Dunedin, New Zealand, where he was employed briefly as a softgoods clerk before working his passage home. He completed his education at King's College, East Melbourne, then worked for nine years for the Victoria Sugar Co. at Yarraville. On 10 April 1882 at Hotham Hill, Melbourne, he married Lucinda Braithwaite Broadbent.

A 'chirpy, sparrow-like man', Reay began his journalistic career by purchasing in June 1883 the Coleraine Albion and then the Port Melbourne Standard. In 1887-90 he was editor of the Hamilton Spectator, where his writings attracted the attention of W. H. Fitchett who employed him in 1891 as leader-writer and assistant editor of the Melbourne Daily Telegraph. He brought to it, said his predecessor, Benjamin Hoare, 'a superabundance of energy'. When it closed in 1892 he transferred to the Weekly Times and then to the Herald as literary editor and later associate editor. An Adelaide journalist regarded him then as lacking in worldly experience but 'one of the straightest, most … kind-hearted men alive'.

An officer of the Victorian Mounted Rifles from 1886, Reay commanded a Victorian detachment to the Queen's diamond jubilee in London in 1897. In October 1899 he accompanied the first Australian contingent to the South African War as correspondent for the Herald and the South Australian Register. He was granted the South African medal for special military service at Jasfontein. On his return he published Australians in War (1900), of which one extract, 'The Highland Brigade buries its dead', became a classic of war reporting. In 1903 Reay retired from the Mounted Rifles with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Energetic and public-spirited Reay was active in many community and professional organizations. In 1896, for example, he was vice-president of the Melbourne Total Abstinence Society, the Anti-Sweating League and the Victorian Shorthand Writers' Association, treasurer of the Journalistic Institute and member of the Australian Natives' Association (later president, Hawthorn branch), the Criminology Society and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. In 1900 on his third attempt Reay succeeded in entering the Legislative Assembly as member for East Bourke Boroughs. Describing himself as a radical, he often voted with Labor.

In 1904 Reay became managing editor of the Herald. Commissioned by the newspaper to prepare a report on the voluntary training scheme in Switzerland he published The Swiss Army (1907). From 1911 he was the Herald's representative in London where, on the outbreak of World War I, he was appointed divisional commander and, in 1915, inspector-general of the Metropolitan Special Constabulary. Its work was described in his book, The Specials (1920). He was appointed O.B.E. in 1917 and C.B.E. in 1920.

William Reay died at Woolwich Memorial Hospital, London, on 11 November 1929 and was buried in West Norwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife and five daughters, two of whom had served as nurses, one winning the Royal Red Cross with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, while the other was with the Australian Voluntary Hospital.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • L. W. Matters, Australasians Who Count in London (Lond, 1913)
  • B. Hoare, Looking Back Gaily (Melb, 1927)
  • T. Waters, Much Besides Music (Melb, 1951)
  • Critic (Adelaide), 12 Aug, 21 Oct 1899
  • British Australasian, 6 July 1911, 11 Feb 1915
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, no 113, 1959, p 44
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 9 Jan 1891
  • Free Lance (Melbourne), 30 Apr 1896
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Nov 1929
  • Times (London), 14 Nov 1929
  • Bulletin, 20 Nov 1929
  • Howlett Ross papers (University of Queensland Library).

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Reay, William Thomas (1858–1929)', 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 November, 1858
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


11 November, 1929 (aged 71)
London, Middlesex, England

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