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Sir Geoffrey Sandford Reed (1892–1970)

by Rex Stevenson

This article was published:

Geoffrey Sandford Reed (1892-1970), by unknown photographer, 1949

Geoffrey Sandford Reed (1892-1970), by unknown photographer, 1949

National Archives of Australia, A9626:7

Sir Geoffrey Sandford Reed (1892-1970), judge and director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, was born on 14 March 1892 at Port Pirie, South Australia, elder child of William Reed, Wesleyan clergyman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Lathlean, both Australian born. Geoffrey was educated at Prince Alfred College (1901-09) and (on a scholarship) at the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1913). Articled to his uncle R. H. Lathlean, he was admitted to the Supreme Court of South Australia as a solicitor and barrister on 25 April 1914.

On 18 February 1918 Reed enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. At the Methodist Church, Malvern, on 22 June that year he married Kathleen Jennie Matthews. He reached England in October and served in France with a supply depot from January 1919. Back in Adelaide, he was discharged from the A.I.F. on 21 May.

Reed continued his legal career as associate to Justice Alexander Buchanan. On 20 February 1920 he became a partner in the law firm McLachlan, Reed & Griffiths. Active in the Law Society of South Australia, he was its secretary in 1924-27, treasurer in 1932-33 and vice-president in 1934. He began lecturing in law at the university in 1928. In 1937 he took silk and chaired a royal commission on transport. An acting-judge of the Supreme Court in 1935-37, he was appointed permanently to the bench on 15 July 1943.

From May 1941 Reed was chairman of the South Australian National Security Advisory Committee. The Federal government appointed him to undertake a number of security-related inquiries: he investigated the lack of co-operation between civilian and military intelligence agencies, heard (1943) charges against Lieutenant Colonel R. F. B. Wake, head of the Queensland office of the Commonwealth Security Service, and examined (1944) breaches of national security regulations in Hobart. In 1945 he carried out an inquiry into the court-martial and detention system in the army, and chaired a royal commission into the Adelaide Electric Supply Co. Two years later he headed a royal commission into allegations of improper payments to the Tasmanian premier (Sir) Robert Cosgrove. In December 1948 the Commonwealth solicitor-general (Sir) Kenneth Bailey sought Reed's suggestions about a 'new security service'.

Reed's appointment for a twelve-month term as Commonwealth director-general of security was announced on 2 March 1949. The Australian Security Intelligence Organization came into existence a fortnight later when Reed received a charter from Prime Minister J. B. Chifley setting out his authority and responsibilities. The principal reasons behind the decision to establish A.S.I.O. lay in a serious but unsolved Soviet espionage case, and increasing allied (especially British) pressure for Australia to address its security shortcomings. Chifley's government was also influenced by widespread industrial unrest fomented by the pro-Soviet Communist Party of Australia. Reed faced a difficult and politically delicate task. He set about his job in a dedicated and methodical manner, his integrity and bipartisan approach winning him the early confidence of his political masters.

The new organization made its presence felt within a few months. By June 1949 the prime minister had authorized the first telephone-interception operations and on 8 July C.P.A. headquarters in Sydney was raided at A.S.I.O.'s direction. Reed was successful in obtaining money and staff. A.S.I.O., modelled on its British counterpart, Military Intelligence 5 (M.I.5), grew rapidly. (Sir) Robert Menzies, who replaced Chifley as prime minister in December 1949, became a strong supporter of the service, and Reed's term as director-general was extended until 30 June 1950.

Reed's last months in office were largely dominated by the government's Communist Party dissolution bill (tabled on 27 April 1950) which occasioned acrimonious debate. He completed his term on 6 July. In a valedictory report to Menzies, dated 27 June, he listed his achievements: the successful establishment and maintenance of the new organization, representative offices in all States and mainland territories, a staff of 141, the introduction of a comprehensive record system based on registries, scrupulous observance of political impartiality, and the consolidation of operational activity. On his departure, he received warm tributes from his American and British counterparts, and from both Menzies and Chifley.

Returning to Adelaide, Reed resumed his role as a judge. In 1953 he was knighted. Two years later he chaired a commission on electoral boundaries. He served as deputy to the governor of South Australia in February and November 1957. In the following year he was judge in the controversial murder trial of the Aborigine, Rupert Max Stuart; in July 1959 he was appointed to the royal commission into Stuart's conviction.

Five ft 5¼ ins (166 cm) tall and compactly built, Reed had been a keen tennis player as a young man. He belonged to the Adelaide, Royal Adelaide Golf and Adelaide Oval Bowling clubs, and the Commonwealth Club, Canberra. Chairman (1940) of the Red Cross Emergency Service Committee, he was founding president (1963) of the Asthma Foundation of South Australia and a life member (from 1942) of the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia. He was also a Freemason and a grand master (1953-56) of the Grand Lodge of South Australia. Throughout his life he retained close links to the Methodist Church. His interest in aviation was also abiding. Sir Geoffrey took leave in December 1961 and stepped down as a puisne judge on 14 March 1962. After travelling abroad, he spent his retirement in Adelaide, caring for his wife who was partially blind. He died on 31 December 1970 in Calvary Hospital, North Adelaide, and was cremated; his wife, and their son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Ball and D. Horner, Breaking the Codes (Syd, 1998)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Aug 1945, 3 Mar 1949
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 June 1950
  • 'ASIO: a Chronology' and R. A. Swan, 'Significant Events in the History of Internal Security Intelligence Organizations in Australia up to the Formation of ASIO on 16 March 1949' and 'ASIO—A History 1949-79', (typescripts, ASIO, Canberra)
  • Reed family scrapbook (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Rex Stevenson, 'Reed, Sir Geoffrey Sandford (1892–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Geoffrey Sandford Reed (1892-1970), by unknown photographer, 1949

Geoffrey Sandford Reed (1892-1970), by unknown photographer, 1949

National Archives of Australia, A9626:7

Life Summary [details]


14 March, 1892
Port Pirie, South Australia, Australia


31 December, 1970 (aged 78)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.