REID, Robert (1842–1904)
Senator for Victoria, 1903 (Free Trade)

Robert Reid, a shrewd, highly successful softgoods wholesaler, and a pillar of the Collins Street Baptist Church, was fond of the biblical passage: ‘Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings’. Reid, born on 17 October 1842 at Leven, Fifeshire, Scotland, was the second son of Robert Reid, stationer and bookseller, and his wife Catherine, née Lambert. The family arrived in Melbourne on 7 April 1855 after a stormy passage on the Ralph Waller, the father dying within a few weeks, apparently due to the rigours of the voyage. As a consequence, young Robert, who had received his early education in Scotland, had to support his mother and five sisters, his elder brother, the Rev. John Reid, arriving in Australia somewhat later.

Robert worked in drapery shops, first in Melbourne, then in Ballarat, and again in Melbourne. In 1874, he entered the wholesale drapery business, becoming a partner in the firm of Warne, Adair, and Reid. In 1887, he was sole proprietor of what was now Robert Reid and Co. and in 1888 appears to have indulged in a little speculation in the syndicate, City Road Property Co. By 1898, Reid’s firm was a major importer of soft goods, and a limited liability company with its head office in London, and branches in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. President of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce (1889–90 and 1899–1902), Reid had been its representative at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886.[1]

In 1888, Reid was appointed to the royal commission on the sanitary condition of Melbourne. This linked up with his visit to Europe in 1889 as a commissioner for the Paris Exhibition for which he later received the French Legion of Honour. Prior to his departure for Europe, Reid received an address from the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce; F. T. Sargood was one of the signatories. In his reply, Reid made it clear that he saw himself as a semi-official ambassador for Melbourne. He would ‘leave no stone unturned to promote a better understanding of our resources and to develop trade’. He would examine drainage systems abroad in order to make Melbourne ‘a healthy centre’.

In 1892, Reid was elected to the Legislative Council for Melbourne Province, holding the seat until he entered the Senate in 1903. He was Minister of Defence and Minister of Health (1893–94) and Minister of Public Instruction and Minister of Health (1902–03). Active in the Legislative Council, in 1894 he moved the second reading of the Savings Banks Act Amendment Bill which, had it been passed by the Legislative Council, would have made credit more accessible to rural landholders hit by the depression.In 1901 Reid, who regarded Federation as a great compromise, stood, unsuccessfully, for the Senate. A Free Trader, during the campaign he declared himself opposed to women’s suffrage; also to the entry of aliens into states ‘south of the tropics’, although he maintained that Kanaka labour was necessary to the Queensland sugar industry.[2]

In January 1903, Reid was chosen at a joint sitting of the Victorian Parliament to fill the vacancy arising from the death of Senator Sargood. Seldom engaging in debate, Reid supported penny postage, pointing out that in this regard Australia was lagging behind other nations in the British Empire. Joining those requesting further information about the agreement with the Eastern Extension Company over the laying of the Pacific cable, he sounded a warning on the company’s keen business practices. Drawing on his experience as Minister for Defence in the Victorian Parliament, he supported an amendment, moved successfully by Senator Matheson, to the Defence Bill of 1903, to establish a council of defence. He maintained that this council (which in the event met rarely) should include ‘two common-sense business men’.

On 18 August 1903, a censure motion concerning an alleged breach of privilege was brought against Reid by Senator Pearce. The motion referred to a speech made by Reid in Melbourne and reported in the Argus. Highly critical of the effects of Federation on Victoria and of ‘the class of men sent into the Federal Parliament’, Reid had declared: ‘Why, some of them did not even pay their debts’, adding that ‘only those for whom £400 a year provided a haven of rest would stand for election . . .’. Pearce withdrew the motion only after Reid made an abject apology to the Senate. In December, Reid’s eleven-month term came to an end. He did not seek re-election.[3]

Early in 1903, a case alleging customs fraud, brought by the Commonwealth against Reid’s company in May 1902, came before the Supreme Court in Brisbane. The verdict went against the firm, though the judge was ambivalent about whether or not Reid himself had any knowledge of the matter. However, as secretary of the Baptist Church Theological College for many years, chairman of the Baptist Union for one term, and an unashamed advocate of probity, Reid must have been considerably embarrassed by this widely reported case.[4]

In January 1904, Reid and his wife left for an extended holiday in England; their eldest son, Robert, having become managing director of his father’s London office. Reid died at St Ermins Hotel in London on 12 May and was buried at Hampstead Cemetery. On 2 February 1865, at his mother’s house in Punt Road, Melbourne, he had married Mary Clancy, who, with their six daughters and four sons, survived him. His firm in Flinders Lane, in which his sons remained involved, also survived him. A philanthropist, Reid left an estate valued at £196 501. His sphere had been commerce and Victorian, rather than federal, politics.[5]


John McKinley


[1]Margaret Steven, ‘Reid, Robert’, ADB, vol. 11; James Smith (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol. 1, 1903, Cyclopedia Company, Melbourne, pp. 146–147; Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1978, p. 33; L. J. Blake (ed.), Vision and Realisation: A Centenary History of State Education in Victoria, vol. 1, Education Department of Victoria, Melbourne, 1973, p. 1483; Michael Cannon, The Land Boomers, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1995, pp. 73–74; Table Talk (Melbourne), 29 November 1889, pp. 5–6; Age (Melbourne), 14 May 1904, p. 12; Argus (Melbourne), 14 May 1904, p. 15.

[2] VPP. Final report of the royal commission on the sanitary condition of Melbourne, 1890; Argus (Melbourne), 15 February 1889, p. 9, 25 February 1901, p. 6; VPD, 1 August 1894, pp. 1126–1131, 5 July 1899, pp. 198–199, 25 September 1900, pp. 1578–1584.

[3] Reid was the first Senator to fill a casual vacancy; CPD, 24 September 1903, p. 5461, 14 August 1903, p. 3616, 1 October 1903, pp. 5644–5649, 18 August 1903, pp. 3679–3681, 20 August 1903, pp. 3900–3901; Argus (Melbourne), 17 August 1903, p. 5, 22 August 1903, p. 5.

[4] Queenslander (Brisbane), 28 February 1903, p. 478, 4 April 1903, p. 743; Australasian (Melbourne), 7 March 1903, pp. 533–534, 14 March 1903, p. 584; Brisbane Courier, 30 March 1903, p. 9.

[5] Table Talk (Melbourne), 19 May 1904, p. 5; Argus (Melbourne), 18 July 1936, p. 10.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 289-291.

REID, Robert (1842-1904)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1903

Victorian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council, Melbourne Province, 1892–1903