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Matthew Reid (1856–1947)

by Rodney Sullivan

This article was published:

Matthew Reid (1856-1947), by unknown photographer, 1920s

Matthew Reid (1856-1947), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an25009625

Matthew Reid (1856-1947), carpenter, tailor and politician, was born on 30 September 1856 at Dalmellington, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of Elizabeth Reid. After an apprenticeship in Glasgow he worked as a carpenter in London, joining the Amalgamated Carpenters' Union and Henry Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation. On 24 June 1879 he married Mary Smart. He paid their passages to Brisbane in 1887, unwisely believing he could 'get a bit of land and do all right with it'. He found work in his trade and represented the carpenters on the Trades and Labor Council and from 1889 on its successor, the Brisbane district council of the Australian Labour Federation.

With Albert Hinchcliffe Reid was dominant in guiding Labor through the turbulent 1890s. This self-described 'professional agitator' restrained unionists from striking at Jondaryan in May 1890 while victory was secured through negotiation. Dismissed because his foreman 'did not want any agitators on the job', Reid in December became paid organizer for the Brisbane A.L.F. He campaigned to unionize and to establish workers' political organizations. Reid managed the A.L.F.'s free labour bureau and arranged deputations that extracted official concessions (including rations and travel passes) for unemployed; he noted that 'human beings are cheaper in the market than horses'.

A foundation member (1890) of the Worker board of trustees, Reid represented the Brisbane A.L.F. at the 1892 Labor-in-Politics convention, was elected to its executive and became successively treasurer, vice-president and president (1905-09). Largely responsible for the Queensland party's controversial 'socialist objective' of 1905, he was prepared to jettison 'opportunist politicians' who refused to sign the party platform. Though he described himself as part of Labor's 'extreme section', Reid's socialism was gradualist. He believed that as 'labour produces all wealth' socialism consequently involved neither 'confiscation' nor 'robbery', and that power might be transferred peacefully from financial institutions to a people recognizing 'that wrongs could be remedied … constitutionally'.

In 1893 Reid had become Toowong's first and only Labor member in the Legislative Assembly. A militant teetotaller, he campaigned for the unemployed, conciliation boards, public access to agricultural land, and educational opportunity,—'no man feels [its lack] more than I do when I address the House'—in the hope that the young might be spared the prevailing 'bitterness and desperation and ignorance'. He defended bush unions during the 1894 pastoral strike, unsuccessfully advocating a parliamentary conciliation committee. During the infamous peace preservation bill debate Reid was suspended and escorted from the House. The particular target of conservatives, he was watched and reported on to the colonial secretary. In 1896 Toowong was contested by the popular retailer Thomas Finney, standing as an Independent. Though acknowledging Reid's ability and intellect, the Brisbane Courier nevertheless proclaimed that a vote for him was a vote against flag and Empire, and for Queensland's transformation into 'a Social-Democratic Republic'. He was narrowly defeated.

Reid contested Logan (1896) and Toowong (1899) before winning Enoggera at a by-election in December 1899. Blacklisted by employers after an unexpected defeat in the 1902 elections, Mat Reid set up in Brisbane as a tailor and outfitter. His unsuccessful attempts to re-enter the assembly, for Toowong (1904) and Burrum (1905), contrasted with his powerful, perhaps ruthless, extra-parliamentary rule on Labor's political executive. He became party organizer in 1907 but bitterness displaced his old fire as a new generation of Labor men, without respect or understanding for the veterans, pursued office. He had also become an active Theosophist. He resigned his positions in 1909.

During World War I Reid supported conscription and joined the National Party. He excused his apostasy on the grounds that the war had turned the world 'upside down'. He was elected National party senator in 1917. As chairman of the royal commission into the Cockatoo Island dockyard (1921) he was disgusted with the 'loafing and go-slow tactics' of its employees. He defended banking against Labor attack and attributed industrial conflict to communist extremists. In 1924 he called for the enfranchisement of resident Indians as representative of 'one of the most cultured races within the Empire', which should be converted into a 'commonwealth of nations'. He retired in 1935.

Reid died on 28 August 1947 at home at Toowong and was cremated with Theosophist forms. Two daughters and a son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Prelude to Power (Brisb, 1970)
  • J. Roe, Beyond Belief. Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939 (Syd, 1986)
  • Parliamentary Debate (Queensland), 1893, p 84, 211, 462, 686, 1894, p 88, 334, 337, 408, 522, 1895, p 518, 783, 824, 953, 1900, 1619, 1901, p 444
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1924, p 199, 3316, 3321, 1929, p 921, 1509, 1931, p 952
  • Australian Labor Party, Queensland Labor-in-Politics Convention, Official Record, 4 (1905), 5 (1907)
  • Brisbane Courier, 24, 25 Apr, 2 May 1893, 16 May 1895, 16, 25 Mar 1896, 31 Jan 1898, 12 Apr 1917
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 29 Aug 1947
  • Worker (Brisbane), 27 Dec 1890, 10, 24 Jan 1891
  • S. W. Jack's cutting book (State Library of Queensland).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Rodney Sullivan, 'Reid, Matthew (1856–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 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

Matthew Reid (1856-1947), by unknown photographer, 1920s

Matthew Reid (1856-1947), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an25009625

Life Summary [details]


30 September, 1856
Dalmellington, Ayrshire, Scotland


28 August, 1947 (aged 90)
Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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