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Robert Reid (1842–1904)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published:

Robert Reid (1842-1904), by Talma Studios, c1903

Robert Reid (1842-1904), by Talma Studios, c1903

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23492347

Robert Reid (1842-1904), merchant and politician, was born on 18 October 1842 at Leven, Fifeshire, Scotland, second son of Robert Reid, bookseller, and his wife Catherine, née Lambert. The family migrated to Victoria, arriving in April 1855 on the Ralph Waller, after barely surviving collision with an iceberg. When his father died weeks later, Robert, not yet 13, became the support of his mother and five sisters. He was first a shop clerk in Collins Street, Melbourne, then at Ballarat, but the news of his having to work on the Sabbath outraged his mother's 'strong Scottish Christian opinions', and he was peremptorily recalled. He walked back to Melbourne to keep his £5 pay intact.

For seventeen years he worked in the wholesale warehouse of William Watson & Sons, Swanston Street, before setting up as a wholesale drapery importer in Flinders Lane in January 1874, with partners Edward Warne and John Adair. Two years later the firm became Warne & Reid. Handsome new premises were built in 1881 for the staff of 90. Next year a factory with 250 employees, to manufacture men's clothing, was opened in Collingwood and a large Sydney branch was established. In 1887 after the retirement of Warne with a rich personal estate, the firm became Robert Reid & Co. By 1890 it was one of the largest Australian importing businesses and had additional branches in Adelaide and Brisbane. From its London and Glasgow branches buyers combed Europe for softgoods, doubtless guided by their proprietor's motto, 'Do your best every day and never miss a chance'. In 1898 Reid's (general warehousemen, agents, manufacturers and wharfingers, specializing in wholesale softgoods) became a limited liability company with a capital of £500,000 and its head office in a five-storey London building.

As 'one of the foremost of Australian commercial magnates', Reid was president of the first Congress of the Chambers of Commerce in Australasia during Victoria's centennial exhibition. He represented the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition (1886) in London and was a commissioner at the Paris Exhibition (1889) when he received the cross of the Légion d'honneur. He was president of the Melbourne chamber in 1888-90 and 1899-1902. Short, alert, rugged, well-travelled and well-informed, Reid rode or drove daily to the city from his family home, Belmont, at Balwyn. During the boom he was a public champion of business rectitude, criticizing the 'smart' promoters of 'wicked schemes' which 'endangered the whole character of this colony' in 1889, and condemning banks and other institutions for abandoning 'the old-fashioned lines of the British merchant'.

When the boom collapsed Reid was one of the veterans called on to represent the new business movement, the National Association, in colonial politics and was returned to the Legislative Council in October 1892 for Melbourne Province. A free trader and a Federationist, he was re-elected three times before he resigned in February 1903. Under (Sir) James Patterson he held the defence and health portfolios from January 1893 to September 1894. Though he refused the position of agent-general in London through pressure of business, the government charged him with explaining the colonial financial situation to help to restore credit there. Reid also persuaded London shippers of the importance of refrigeration, before returning through North America. In 1901 he stood unsuccessfully for the Senate in the free-trade interest, having faced the voters as an opponent of the 'great darkness' of protection and of women's suffrage, and as an advocate of a White Australia yielding to coloured labour where necessary. He was restored to the Victorian ministry by (Sir) William Irvine in June 1902 with charge of public instruction and health. In January 1903, however, Reid was elected to the Senate by the joint houses, to 'hold the place' caused by the death of Sir Frederick Sargood, by 68 votes to 51 for Sir Alexander Peacock. He did not seek re-election in December.

Reid had a long connexion with the Collins Street Baptist Church. He was chairman of the Baptist Union of Victoria and secretary of its theological college for many years. A prominent philanthropist, he contributed £1000 for a wing of the Homoeopathic Hospital. As a member of the royal commission on the sanitary condition of Melbourne (1888) he had contributed comparative reports from his travels. He was a member of the board of the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia.

Reid had suffered from diabetes for ten years and died in diabetic coma on 12 May 1904 in a London hotel, while on holiday, and was buried in Hampstead cemetery. When the unexpected news reached 'The Lane', warehouse flags were flown at half-mast. Reid's wife, Mary Jane, née Clancy, whom he had married at his mother's house in Punt Road, Richmond, on 2 February 1865, survived him with four sons and six daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £196,501. Sons continued the family business and his daughter Isabelle Bruce (1883-1945) was an early woman veterinary surgeon. In 1966 Robert Reid & Co. amalgamated with its long-time competitor Paterson, Laing & Bruce, as Paterson, Reid & Bruce.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • W. G. Spence, Australia's Awakening (Syd, 1909)
  • F. J. Wilkin, Baptists in Victoria: Our First Century, 1838-1938 (Melb, 1939)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Education Department (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • G. Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (Melb, 1978)
  • Australian Storekeepers' Journal, Feb 1899
  • Draper of Australasia, 27 May 1904
  • Woman's World, 1 Jan 1927
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 29 Nov 1889, 19 May 1904
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 Feb 1901, 14, 16, 17, 18, 21 May 1904, 14 Dec 1945
  • Queenslander, 28 Feb 1903
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 7 Mar 1903
  • Brisbane Courier, 30 Mar 1903
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 May 1904
  • Punch (Melbourne), 17 Mar 1921
  • Robert Reid & Co. Ltd papers (1879-1963) (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Reid, Robert (1842–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 July 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

Robert Reid (1842-1904), by Talma Studios, c1903

Robert Reid (1842-1904), by Talma Studios, c1903

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23492347

Life Summary [details]


18 October, 1842
Leven, Fife, Scotland


12 May, 1904 (aged 61)
London, Middlesex, England

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