Skip to content
  • 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission
  • Shop

Martha Sear, Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia, 13 August 2008

MARTHA SEAR: Thank you for coming along today to the last of our curator’s talks about the objects that will appear in Australian Journeys which opens at the end of this year. At the end of the talk I will give you a sneak preview of what we will be doing over the coming months to give you further opportunities to see the gallery as it evolves prior to its opening, so stick around for that.

Today we are going to be discussing items that are in the National Museum of Australia’s collection that are associated with the lawyer, politician and statesman George Reid. These items came into the National Historical Collection in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a gift from Reid’s granddaughter Anne Fairbairn. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mrs Fairbairn for her generous gift not only to this Museum but also to the collections of the National Library of Australia and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney where different aspects of Reid’s career, material culture and archival records are held. I am happy to say that material from all three of those collections will feature in an exhibit about Reid that will appear in Australian Journeys from the end of this year.

Before I begin, I would also like to acknowledge the scholarship upon which my talk today and the exhibit itself is based. Winston McMinn’s detailed biography of Reid and the writings of Norman Abjorensen and LF Crisp have offered considerable insight into the man and his contribution to Australian public life. I would commend McMinn’s biography in particular if you would like to find out more.

Today’s talk is also based on the research of curator Rathicca Chandra who cannot be here today but I wanted to acknowledge Rathicca’s contribution to the talk, which was substantial.

I join with Carolyn Forster in thanking conservation and registration staff for their work to bring the objects which we have on display here to Acton from Mitchell. I thank them for having done that over the last 18 months as we have been delivering these talks. It is a substantial piece of work for them. Can I also thank the Friends team who have made these talks special and fun for the curators as well as for you.

George Reid is best known today as one of the fathers of Federation, albeit one whose critical contribution, as we shall see, has been somewhat downplayed by his contemporaries. As significant as his federal achievement was though, today I would like to focus on another important aspect of Reid’s career: his presence on the international stage, particularly his travels to Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Reid’s journey to England in 1897 paved the way for the acceptance of the Australian constitution in Britain, and between 1910 and 1916 he served as Australia’s first High Commissioner in London. In 1916 he won a seat in the House of Commons and became the only Australian to have sat in the New South Wales, Australian and British parliaments. These more global aspects of Reid’s story illuminate how intimately Australia’s political, legal and economic history is interconnected with the rest of the world.

I also want to acknowledge that Reid’s career covered such an astonishing range of issues that, in the time we have today, I can only give you a snapshot of a figure who was larger than life in every sense of the word. Perhaps you have a story about Reid or some knowledge about an aspect of his career that you would like to also reflect on, and we can use the discussion period at the end of the talk to look at those.

So who was George Reid? This is the George Reid that the men and women of Federation-era Australia knew from the cartoon pages of their newspapers [shows image]. In these depictions Reid was portly, monocled and with a large walrus moustache. He ‘loved the light’ and ‘rejoiced in the full blaze of public opinion’. Apparently endlessly vacillating in his support for Federation, he earned the nickname ‘Yes-No Reid’. This cartoon shows Reid attempting to climb the Yes ladder and the No ladder [shows image]. A question arose in the late 1890s about whether he truly supported the idea of Australian Federation, and he earned this nickname which he never was able to shake off.

To students of Australian political history, Reid’s image has been largely shaped by rivals such as Alfred Deakin, who penned this rather unflattering portrait of Reid:

Even caricature has been unable to travesty his extraordinary appearance, his immense, unwieldy, jelly-like stomach, always threatening to break his waistband, his little legs apparently bowed under its weight to the verge of their endurance, his thick neck rising behind his ears rounding to his many-folded chin. His protuberant blue eyes were expressionless until roused or half-hidden in cunning, [and] a blond complexion and infantile breadth of baldness gave him an air of infantile juvenility.

He walks with a staggering roll like that of a sailor, helping himself as he went by resting on the backs of chairs as if he were reminiscent of some far-off arboreal ancestor. To a superficial eye his obesity was either repellent or else amusing. A heavy German moustache concealed a mouth of considerable size from which there emanated a high, reedy voice rising to a shriek or sinking to a fawning purring or a persuasive orotund with a nasal tinge.

To a more careful inspection he disclosed a splendid dome-like head, high and broad, indicative of intellectual power, a gleaming eye which betokened a natural gift of humour and an alertness that not even his habit of dropping asleep at all times and places in the most ungraceful attitudes and in the most impolite manner could defeat. He never slept in a public gathering more than a moment or two, being quickly awakened by his own snore. He would sleep during the dealing of cards for a game whilst and during the play too if there was any pause, but he never forgot the state of the game or made a revoke.

In the Assembly or in a train he indulged with the same facility both of sleeping and waking if necessary with an appropriate retort upon his tongue. His extreme fatness appeared to induce this state and for that his self-indulgence was chiefly responsible since he denied himself nothing that he fancied, sucking ice or sweetmeats between meals and then eating and drinking according to his fancy.

I suspect this description may tell us something more about Deakin than it does about Reid. Deakin wrote it in 1904 but he chose not publish it for another 40 years, long after Reid had died. But it does point to some critical aspects of Reid’s character.

Reid had a natural gift for humour, and it meant that he found his own appearance a constant source of amusement. Speaking at a dinner as High Commissioner in London he began, ‘Mr Chairman, I rise with great difficulty to propose this toast’. He claimed when travelling on a tram or bus he could offer his seat to not one but two ladies. And as historian Norman Abjorensen relates:

When he lamented to Lord Kitchener at the outbreak of the First World War that, despite being over seventy, scarcely able to walk and unable to ride or shoot, he wished there were something he might do to help the cause. Kitchener looked at him steadily and replied: ‘Yes, I should think we could make you the base for something.’

His most famous retort was when a heckler at a rally in Newcastle pointed at Reid’s huge stomach which he propped on the balcony of a local hotel, the young fellow asked him ‘what do you call that?’ and Reid replied, ‘If it’s what I think it is, all piss and wind, I’ll call it after you, young feller.’ Reid’s capacity for the witty reply was legendary. To quote Abjorensen again:

When challenged from the floor of a public meeting that he had two faces, Reid shot back … ‘Which, sir, evidently you have not. If you had, you would have left at home the one you have brought here.’

After Reid’s death in 1918, a London newspaper commented on his easy confidence and enormous popularity as a speaker:

He had a shrewd and racy, if not very delicate humour, great good nature, and the ability to convince men that he was a practical man and a man and a brother … His speech was of the platform, plain, broad, blunt, relying for some of its best things on the chance of the moment or an opposition’s interruption.

He is one of several politicians credited with quipping to a woman interjector who shouted, ‘If I was your wife I’d poison you’, with the reply, ‘If you were my wife I’d poison myself.’ Several people have been credited with that, including Churchill. Crowds flocked to his election meetings as if they were a form of popular entertainment.

But Reid’s humour was, in the end, part of a larger and more generous engagement with the public. AG Stephens noted his ability to ‘jest continually while preserving the final respect of his audiences’. Reid’s political colleague in Australia, Patrick Glynn, upon hearing of Reid’s death summed him up this way:

He was a man of clear vision and somewhat cynical common sense, rhetorically eloquent without poetic sensibility; direct in his expression of what he desired to communicate; sound of judgement and, if expediency permitted, in action; of quick and sometimes marvellously applied wit; with the capabilities of statesmanship.

Glynn considered Reid to be the best platform speaker in the British Empire. But Reid’s constant joking, usually at his own expense, his intense privacy about his personal life, and incredibly poor filing habits have given the historian very limited access to his private thoughts and allowed the caricatures of the Bulletin’s cartoonists and his political rivals like Deakin to dominate his representation as a historical figure.

This is a great pity, given his remarkable trajectory through the colonial, Commonwealth and Imperial parliaments, and his commitment to fostering Australian education, liberalism and democracy, his willingness to see both sides of an issue and his uncanny political foresight. Reid was a popular politician who was willing to be unpopular on matters of principle. As Dean Godby commented at Reid’s memorial service in Melbourne in 1919:

He always tried to do the thing which is right, without considering whether it would be popular. He succeeded to the great tradition of the old school of Australian statesmen, of whom he proved himself a worthy inheritor.

Reid’s political style, which Godby pointed out was an inheritance from a much older tradition in Australia, was underpinned by the influences of his youth.

As the Australian Dictionary of Biography records, Reid was born in February 1845 at Johnstone in Renfrewshire, Scotland, the youngest of five sons of Reverend John Reid, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife Marion. Perhaps his career was set at his christening: Reid’s name-father or godfather was George Houstoun, the member for Renfrewshire. The family moved to Liverpool two months later, and in May 1852 arrived in Melbourne when Reid was seven. John Reid then joined John Dunmore Lang at Scots Church, Sydney, in 1858 and then later took over the interdenominational Mariners’ Church in Lower George Street. Reid wrote in his autobiography:

The prevailing idea in England when we left was that the emigrant to an Australian colony was an exile who could never hope to see his native land again… Only seven years of age, the voyage appeared to me to be a glorious, if not perilous, adventure. My dear mother, I well remember, felt all the pangs of a final separation from friends and home. Two years afterwards no power on earth could have torn her from her new home and new friends! She found, as most others do, that Australia really is ‘a new Britannia in another world.’

Nevertheless, Reid did not grow up in luxurious circumstances like some of his contemporaries. He remembered being mostly fed on porridge and treacle and said, ‘I remember I got quite enough porridge, but I never seemed to get quite enough treacle.’ This is Reid’s family home in Sydney, which was demolished to make way for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. [shows image]

Reid’s early years show a passionate dedication to preparing himself for public life. Reid was no great scholar, with a self-admitted ‘lazy horror for Greek’, but he was an avid advocate of education and the doctrine of self-improvement. From 15 years of age he was an active member of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts Debating Society and the Young Men’s Presbyterian Union. Reid developed an interest in politics at a young age. As his biographer Winston McMinn describes, in his teens:

… he attended many of the public debates on manhood suffrage and other democratic reforms, where he was struck by ‘the unbridled eloquence’ of political reformers, and ‘the gloomy forebodings’ of their conservative opponents; such impressions laid the basis of an approach to political issues which if never cynical was always pragmatic.

He had a great opportunity to observe the mechanics and machinations of New South Wales politics during his rapid rise as a young public servant. In 1864 he became an assistant accountant in the Colonial Treasury and within ten years he was chief clerk of the correspondence branch.

In 1875 Reid published Five Free Trade Essays, a systematic argument using international examples for the flow of goods between the colonies free from government restrictions such as tariffs, taxes, quotas and regulation. Reid’s commitment to these free trade principles would define his entire political life. The book stimulated good reviews in both Australia and Britain, and triggered a vigorous debate, particularly amongst staunch protectionists in Victoria.

During the late 1870s Reid trained in the law. This is Reid’s barrister’s wig and the tin that he carried his wig in [shows objects]. The National Historical Collection contains two of Reid’s wigs. The first was the one he wore when admitted to the bar in 1879. The second is the one he wore in the 1890s and 1900s. Reid’s son Clive commented that his father kept both wigs in the first wig’s tin, one on top of the other, because he believed that ‘without all the hard work of his early years as a barrister he would never have reached the top position in Australia’.

Reid’s legal studies were part of a strategy to make the transition from the public service to parliament. As a lawyer he could earn enough money to support himself in the unpaid role of member of Parliament, and work hours meant he could sit in Parliament when it was in session. He built a prosperous practice at the bar. He was referred to as not a profound scholar but a brilliant cross-examiner. He later became a Queen’s Counsel and worked continually through his life as a lawyer whenever his political fortunes meant that he had no other source of income.

His arrival at the bar enabled him to quit his job at the public service and stand as a candidate in the 1880 election, and he was elected as the Member for East Sydney in the parliament of New South Wales. Reid’s most significant contribution to the New South Wales political scene was as Minister for Public Instruction in the Robertson government. The Public Instruction Act of 1880 had offered the possibility of ‘free, compulsory and secular’ education, but it took Reid’s vigorous and imaginative approach to the implementation of policy to ensure that that became a reality. He was very active in establishing the colony’s first high schools and beginning a system of technical education which later became the model for the rest of the Australian colonies.

Sadly I don’t have time today to cover all of Reid’s experiences in government in the 1880s and his leadership of the liberal opposition through the early part of the 1890s. I direct you to Winston McMinn’s biography if you want a more comprehensive account of those years of his life. He continued to vigorously promote the principle of free trade and of direct taxation, and to disagree with his party leader Sir Henry Parkes when he thought that those principles were at risk of being jeopardised, including early conversations that Parkes had around the idea of federation.

On an aspect of Reid’s personal life, after years as a self-described ‘man about town’, in 1891 he married Flora Ann Brumby, the daughter of a Tasmanian farmer, and they had three children Thelma, Douglas and Clive. Just as a note, Flora was a public figure in her own right and in 1917 was awarded a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire in recognition for her work with Australian servicemen in London during World War I.’ She will come back into the story a little later.

In July 1894 Reid won the Premiership of New South Wales with an effective majority. He was incredibly keen to promote his reform agenda in the domestic sphere but he was also anxious to take up the federation question which, through the influence of people like [Sir Edmund] Barton, after a bit of a recess had become a live issue again. He wrote to all his fellow premiers and suggested that they should gather to focus on the ideas of Sir John Quick regarding a convention and a draft constitution. He rightly claimed later that he had picked federation up out of the gutter and set it back on the path which would eventually lead, through the conventions of the late 1890s, to the establishment of the Commonwealth.

Critical to the eventual success of the federal movement was Reid’s trip, along with other colonial premiers, to Britain for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. As Premier of New South Wales, Reid represented that colony at the jubilee celebrations in London and received a warm welcome as a representative of an overseas dominion alongside his counterparts from the other Australian colonies as well as representatives from New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. The representatives were warmly welcomed and were most impressed by displays of Colonial and Indian troops in the parades. Reid commented:

The Procession … was the greatest National Spectacle I ever saw. The route was a long one, and every pavement and window and roof space was crowded with bright and cheering crowds. … As I passed along I saw on the radiant faces of the youthful generation the promise of even better days.

Reid was able during his journey back to Britain in 1897 to meet with political colleagues old and new from Britain and from the Empire. This photograph shows Reid at [British Prime Minister William] Gladstone’s estate with, amongst other people, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Prime Minister of New Zealand and Lord and Lady Carrington who had previously been the Governor and Governor’s wife in New South Wales. Lord Carrington was a very vigorous Liberal member in the British House of Lords. Reid was able to connect or reconnect with significant political figures in Britain and throughout the Empire on that trip.

Another important ceremonial moment during the 1897 trip was that the colonial premiers were awarded honorary doctorates at Oxford University. The National Historical Collection contains the academic gown that we believe Reid wore at that investiture. I don’t have a photo of the gown yet - that is something you will have to look forward to seeing when the gallery opens later in the year. But rest assured we are designing a special George Reid mannequin in order to accurately display the gown - none of our mannequins have quite the right shape to represent George.

Reid’s trip also gave him a chance to reconnect with the place of his birth in Scotland. The exhibit also features a ladle that was given to him when he returned to his birth town of Johnstone in 1897. He commented that:

Having left England when a child, and having spent between forty and fifty years at the other end of the world, the visit widened my views of everything to an extent which made me feel how singularly narrow my outlook had been. The broader views and clearer vision which thus came to me, whilst they taught invaluable lessons and strengthened my feelings of admiration for the British people, did not diminish - indeed, they enlarged - my sense of the golden opportunities and my belief in the greatness of the lands oversea[s].

In the midst of all the celebrations and the fun, there was, however, quite a bit of work to do. Reid attended a conference of colonial representatives discussing such matters as a contribution to a British squadron in colonial waters and also Reid’s long-term goal - the abolition of trade tariffs between the colonies and the Empire. This is ‘the sons of Empires’, a photograph of the group who gathered to talk through all the critical issues associated with the dominions [shows image].

But Reid’s trip to London also had another agenda - to hold secret talks on the draft constitution for Australia developed at the first federal convention with Joseph Chamberlain who was Britain’s colonial secretary. Chamberlain was keen to resolve certain issues, such as federal authority over merchant shipping, the question of appeals to the Privy Council and issues associated with state bonds - all of which could be potentially thorny. He wanted to have these issues discussed and resolved before the constitution and the various legal documents entered into the British Parliament. He didn’t want there to be a controversial discussion at that late stage. So Chamberlain approached Reid because he assessed him to be a man of tact and judgement who did ‘not belong to the inner circle of committed federalists’ and so would be willing to represent the Colonial Office’s views.

Reid agreed only to act as an honest broker between the Colonial Office and the forthcoming convention. He was in a slightly difficult position but he chose to strike a very straight middle path. As Reid’s biographer Winston McMinn puts it:

Reid realised that Chamberlain and his officers were entitled to be heard, and were, on many matters, worth hearing, but in the last instance being heard was all they could expect: their practical ability to veto decisions made by the colony was strictly limited. They knew that and so did Reid. By treating Chamberlain’s points seriously, without committing himself to act as their advocate, Reid smoothed the way for the Constitution in London nearly three years later.

This is another object that will be in the exhibit [shows object]. It is a document box that it is believed that George Reid used to hold different drafts of the constitution as it evolved over the 1890s and eventually made its passage back to the British houses of Parliament.

Reid was deeply interested in federation but not at all costs - he was ready to bargain hard in the interests of New South Wales when he returned with the other premiers to Australia in late 1897. To race you through the events leading up to Federation, remembering that Reid is the premier of the largest, most economically viable colony and he has been given a special secret mission from Chamberlain to promote certain interests of the British Government and he is working with a very large group of other people from the smaller states to try to progress federation to a successful conclusion.

In 1897 at the federal convention a draft constitution was produced, and the convention adjourned so that the colonial legislatures could examine it. It was re-examined in Sydney following the trip to England in 1897, and then the National Australasian Convention proceeded in Melbourne in 1898. Melbourne was incredibly hot, oppressively so, and everyone’s tempers frayed badly. Reid was still unhappy about the constitution in association with the free trade and tax related issues and also to do with the make-up of the Senate.

The convention hit a major stumbling block: a clause raised by Tasmania’s Premier Braddon who wanted the federal government to assume power to levy customs duties, which were perhaps the most important source of revenue for the colonies. This suggestion of Braddon’s became known as the Braddon clause, which provided that the Commonwealth would have to return at least three-quarters of all the customs duties that are collected back to what would become the states. Reid vigorously opposed this clause which, as far as he could see, would mean that New South Wales as the major economic force in Australasia would be subsidising all of the smaller states. Braddon’s clause became known as the ‘Braddon Block’. Here are Reid and Barton attempting to saw through the Braddon block [shows cartoon].

The other stumbling block for Reid was something that we are all familiar with - the usage restrictions which would be placed on the Murray-Darling-Murrumbidgee water system. Reid was unwilling to accept the proposed idea of federal control over the Murray-Darling. He vigorously advocated on behalf of New South Wales, arguing that the needs of New South Wales farmers should be pre-eminent over the needs of South Australia. The opposition that he met on all of these issues meant that all these things were the last straw. Reid had serious concerns for democracy; he didn’t believe that the constitution was amply democratic; and he felt that his colony was being thwarted all the way through.

Following the convention when the referendum was in the air, Reid addressed a public meeting outlining his reservations about the proposed bill. He spoke without notes for two hours and gave what became known as the ‘Yes-No speech’. He indicated that he would be willing to vote for the constitution as a leader of the federal movement and because he was committed to the federal idea, but he felt compelled to warn others that it had numerous flaws. By pointing out all these flaws over the course of two hours he angered advocates on both sides. People who were pro-federation got annoyed with him because he was casting doubts over the issue; people who were anti-federation felt that he was promoting federation too strongly.

Throughout his whole speech he didn’t actually contradict the stances that he had made all the way through his other public utterances, but in the minds of electors he was a ‘federalist’ and by raising pros and cons he started to be seen as a ditherer. That is when he earned the nickname ‘Yes-No Reid’. As a consequence of Reid’s pointing out some of the inadequacies that he saw in the constitution, there were not enough votes to pass the referendum in New South Wales. It fell about 12 per cent short of the required 80,000 votes, and this threw a big spanner in the works.

Following the failure in New South Wales for the referendum to be passed, the premiers held a secret meeting in Melbourne to bring New South Wales back into the fold. A compromise was struck over the Braddon clause, ensuring that it remained in place just for ten years. Many scholars reflecting on these events - and there is a wealth of scholarship out there if you want to delve into this topic, which is fascinating, in more detail - reflects on the fact that, although Reid’s position seriously damaged him politically for the rest of his career, it resulted in ‘a vastly better, a reasonably workable and essentially democratic Commonwealth constitution.’ Once those issues had been resolved the federal movement was able to proceed successfully, and in 1901 the first parliament was held.

The exhibit will feature an inkstand that was given to Reid on 1 January, the day that the Commonwealth into being, by the Governor-General.

Reid was unable to maintain his coalition in New South Wales which he had with Labor and was forced to resign the premiership of New South Wales in 1899. This deprived him of the opportunity to become Australia’s first Prime Minister, and he was quite disappointed that that opportunity did not come his way. He was, however, subsequently elected to the federal seat of East Sydney.

I won’t have time to talk today about Reid’s time in the Commonwealth Parliament. Again, the Australian Dictionary of Biography gives quite a robust account of those years of his tenure in the second Parliament. In 1901 Reid’s old friend from debating society days, Edmund Barton, became Prime Minister. Here is Barton beginning to eclipse Reid on the national stage, and Reid became the very first Leader of the Opposition in the Commonwealth Parliament. Though the role suited Reid’s quick-witted demeanour, it was poorly paid. Reid found it difficult to maintain his legal practice in Sydney and be active in Parliament in Melbourne, and he missed a lot of the sessions. His wit had not deserted him though. He described the members of the first Labor government sitting awkwardly and apprehensively on the treasury bench as ‘like a row of chooks perched out in the rain’.

In August 1904 Reid became Prime Minister without election or fanfare as part of a coalition with other members of the Parliament because his Free Trade Party did not have a majority. The government’s greatest success - they were difficult years of trying to build alliances in those early parliaments - was the passing finally of the conciliation and arbitration bill, a key piece of industrial legislation of the early parliaments, which had previously led to the downfall of the Deakin and Watson prime ministerships. Again, Reid’s consummate skill as a political animal enabled him to get this piece of legisation through.

The government lasted less than a year. Reid subsequently continued to pursue his free trade views in the parliaments that followed, repeatedly clashing with Deakin who, as you can tell from his description, did not have a kind view of his parliamentary colleague. The tensions between the two of them eventually peaked around 1909 when the eventual need for the non-Labor members to form a fusion government was inhibited by Deakin’s dislike of Reid. So Reid decided that he would step aside, because he felt that the larger issue of those members coming together into a workable opposition was greater than his personal need. That fusion government subsequently went on to win government from Labor.

Reid’s retirement from political life was to be short-lived. On 24 December 1909 he resigned from parliament - he was the first member to have resigned from parliament twice - and in 1910 was appointed Australia’s first High Commissioner in London [shows image]. At the time of Federation there was a consensus that Australia needed to speak with one voice overseas. Canada had had a High Commission in London since the 1880s, and public opinion was very strong that a High Commission should be established in Britain to mark a very important stage in the development of Australian nationhood. Everyone agreed that Reid was the right man for the job. Even Deakin had to grudgingly admit that he was, but he wrote to a colleague in London:

I fear you will not like our first High Commr. But his ability is very great and his eloquence is remarkable. He is the sum of his own works and will make them imperial now that he is given the golden opportunity.

In the exhibit and in the National Historical Collection we have Reid’s ceremonial sword [shows mage] that he wore whilst he was High Commissioner. Reid was now Sir George Reid, and the story goes that he liked to tell people that the initials KCMG, the knight acronym, stood for ‘keep calling me George’.

Reid enthusiastically embraced his new role. He considered his most important task to be promoting immigration to Australia, particularly because Canada was spending large sums of money and offering free land to migrants which was diverting people to Canada. So he engaged journalist HS Gullett to convince British newspapers to feature advertisements about Australia in their business columns. He organised Australian stands at exhibitions, displays of posters at agricultural shows, and even went so far as to ensure that brief stories of Australian prosperity were printed on the backs of tram tickets. The results were spectacular: between January 1910 and July 1914 Australia’s net population increase from migration was six per cent - the highest rate per annum since the gold rushes of the 1850s.

Reid’s charm and his capacities as a public speaker made him an influential and well-liked public figure in Britain. Lady Reid too hosted a series of highly successful entertainments that powerfully enhanced Australia’s image abroad. The exhibit will feature a number of gifts given to Reid during this period of his life. He travelled throughout the UK. The exhibit has three or four walking sticks in it. He obviously needed a walking stick, so whenever he came to visit anyone they would present him with a walking stick. This is a walking stick given to him by the children of the Crosshouse Public School where he visited with the Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher. Crosshouse was where Fisher had been born [shows object]. We also have this silver-plated shaving mug, which was given to Reid when he gave a patriotic speech [shows object]. He would travel around, very much the orator. He would attend important events and he was usually asked to speak because he was so well known as an entertaining speaker and conversationalist.

One of his major achievements as High Commissioner was to ensure that Australia bought the land and began construction of Australia House. He went through the delicate negotiations of trying to find the right property. In 1913, King George V laid the foundation stone and gave Reid this walking stick [shows object]. Australia House began being built in 1913 but it was not finished until 1918 because of labour and material shortages during World War I.

Reid also travelled extensively abroad. He returned home to Australia briefly for his daughter’s wedding, although it was called off, which gave him a chance to visit the United States in 1912-13. There are some amazing photographs of Reid to be found in the Library of Congress Collection. They are the best photographs of Reid that we have been able to find. They are incredibly detailed photographs that show a Reid who is looking tired [shows images]. He had had a terrible car accident in 1911 with his kids in an official car and he was very badly injured. After that Reid was never quite the same health wise - he didn’t have very robust health but he subsequently became quite poorly. I think these photographs show somebody who is feeling keenly his long life in public service.

Nonetheless this is the period when his image is captured in perpetuity for the Australian people. George Lambert, an Australian expatriate artist, paints this portrait of Reid in London in 1913. This portrait is hanging in Old Parliament House. The exhibit in the gallery will feature the pencil sketch that Lambert took of Reid to make this painting.

Reid was back in England when World War I broke out. It was he who convinced Lord Kitchener that Australian troops should train in Egypt rather than in England in the depths of winter. The original suggestion was that the Australian troops should train on Salisbury Plain, but inadequate huts and shelter was provided for them. So he was able to prevail upon Kitchener, who had a quite close personal friendship with him, to ensure that the Australians instead went to Egypt.

Reid travelled with the New Zealand High Commissioner to meet those troops in Cairo at the very end of 1914, arriving on Christmas Eve. There he met many people whom he had known through his parliamentary career and he said:

I never felt more relieved than when Lord Kitchener proposed to me that our men should train in Egypt instead of England, because an English winter with a doubt about huts, and plenty on mud for certain, would have been a severe trial for Australians and their horses.

[shows images of Reid in Egypt] As you can see from these photographs, Reid spoke from platforms and from the back of his car to the troops on several occasions and gave what were CW Bean felt were perhaps the most memorable speeches of his career. He said things like:

The Pyramids - the youngest of these august Pyramids was built 2000 years before our saviour was born - have been silent witnesses to many strange events, but I do not think that they could ever have looked down upon so unique a spectacle as this splendid array of Australian soldiers massed to defend them. …

What brings these forces here? Why do their tents stretch across this narrow parting of the ways, between worlds new and old? Are you on a quest in search of gain, such as led your fathers to Austral shore? Are you preparing to invade and outrage weaker nationalities in lawless raids of conquest? Thank God! Your mission is as pure and as noble as any soldier undertook - to rid the world of would-be tyrants.

Reid was addressing troops who would later form the main Australian force to land at Gallipoli in April 1915. McMinn, Reid’s biographer, argues that Reid’s speech was made with the armchair observers of the war at home mostly in his mind and that he used his trademark flair as a means of drumming up support for the war. But certainly the soldiers, with whom he mingled and mixed very easily and with great confidence and familiarity during those days in Egypt, felt emboldened and pleased that Reid who they all knew because he was such a prominent figure had come to visit them. This episode in Reid’s life is featured in the gallery by a display of material that is in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection. It includes candlesticks that he was given on his visit to the camp and the coffee pot that he purchased whilst he was in Egypt [shows images].

In 1916 the Australian government decided not to extend Reid’s term as High Commissioner. Reid was bitterly disappointed, because he ‘did not feel ready for the tideless pond’ of retirement. He had also used up his income and sacrificed his bar practice so he had almost no money. But he had no intention of fading from public life, and when offered the seat of St George’s Hanover Square in the House of Commons he accepted, although standing unaligned with any party. So he stood as an independent imperialist. He was consequently escorted to the table of the House of Commons by both a Conservative and a Liberal minister. The offer of the seat was very much the result of British Liberals who were keen to bind the dominions, the former colonies and parts of the Empire together. Reid knew that he could not speak for the Australian government in the British parliament but he continually made references to his Australian experiences and acted where he could ‘to defend the interests of Australians’.

Reid strongly supported the coalition government and the war cabinet of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, although he exhibited his usual frankness when he didn’t agree with things. He would stand up and say, ‘I don’t agree with this, and here’s the reason why’. People loved to hear him speak. They would be sitting having a cup of tea and when they would hear that Reid was going to speak, they would flock to the public galleries and parliament to enjoy hearing him. His eloquence gave support Lloyd George through some very difficult periods.

The National Historical Collection contains this walking stick [shows object] which is engraved ‘George Henry Reid in appreciation, D Lloyd George’. We are still establishing exactly what the ‘appreciation’ noted on the handle was for, but the National Library archive contains a note from Lloyd George to Reid earlier in the month of July which reads:

My Dear Sir George, … how touched I was by your kindly message and warning. I am bearing it in mind as it is certainly a very wise and useful piece of counsel - but difficult to follow under the grim pressure of war.

The note remains somewhat cryptic. Further research in the Lloyd George archives may reveal its larger meaning, but clearly Lloyd George and Reid trusted each other enough to offer confidences to each other.

In October 1917 Reid began a speaking tour of the United States that was aimed at shoring up that country’s support for the war. This desk set [shows image] was given to him by Lord Blyth on the eve of that tour. The tour was extensive and sadly Reid was feeling his age - he was 72 years old. In the bitterly cold American winter he contracted pneumonia and had to cancel the rest of his engagements. He never quite recovered and he died in London in September 1918.

In a minute I will conclude by reflecting a little on Reid’s legacy but I thought it might be worth giving you a bit of a sneak preview of what the Reid exhibit will look like. I have just talked you through Reid’s life with particular emphasis on his international commitments, his participation in global politics and his statesmanship. It is very much those aspects of his career that are represented in the historical collections. It is those aspects of his career that will be represented in Australian Journeys, which is a gallery that explores how Australia is interconnected with the rest of the world.

Just to conclude, the Reid we have come to know through the popular media and through depictions of many voices in Australian history - from Deakin to Manning Clark - is very much a caricature: it’s the fat, dithering Reid. There’s no doubt that this caricature accompanied Reid’s towering political presence throughout the Federation era and beyond. It was such a dominant image in Australian popular imagination that a doorstop replicating his caricature was made in his image. This is another object that will be in the gallery [shows image].

But it is also important to recall that Reid himself helped create this image. I find it strangely refreshing to read about a politician who was apt to disarm his opponents politically by inviting them to have a lolly, a supply of which he habitually carried in his copious pockets. But the objects collected by him that you have seen today, kept by his family and ultimately generously donated to Australia’s historical collections - objects which will shortly appear in the new Australian Journeys gallery - show a man valued by his peers, by his constituents and by his public very highly in the public world, and a man whose legacy as an international statesman is truly worthy of deeper consideration. Thanks for listening today.

Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

Return to Top