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ROBERT REID, DRAPER, BUSINESS MAGNATE, FEDERATIONIST POLITICIAN

The cover is addressed to Mrs. Robert Reid, “Belmont”, Balwyn and has a MELBOURNE/ PM/ 1 30/ 9 10 02 postmark overlying a blue handstamp for the MINISTER OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION/ VICTORIA frank stamp (Figure 1).

The reverse has a printed blue oval for the Government of Victoria crown over shield, and a reception postmark for CANTERBURY/ OC 9/ 02/ VIC, for the post office at nearby Balwyn did not open until 1920 (Figure 2).

Robert Reid, merchant and politician, was born on 18 October 1842 at Leven, 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.  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 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.   The 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, 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.  In 1898 Reid's 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 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 Melbourne boom he was a public champion of business rectitude, criticizing the 'smart' promoters of 'wicked schemes' 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.   He was restored to the Victorian ministry by Sir William Irvine in June 1902 with charge of Public Instruction and Health.  In January 1903,  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.

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 Homeopathic Hospital.  As a member of the royal commission on the sanitary condition of Melbourne (1888) he had contributed comparative reports from his travels.  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.  Reid's wife, Mary Jane, née Clancy, whom he  married in  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 Patterson, Reid & Bruce.

The cover addressed to Mrs Robert Reid can be confirmed as to his wife at their family home, and the frank stamp confirms that it came from his office, as he was Minister of Public Instruction in 1902-03.  Another point of interest is that I have pointed out to the ADB and to the Parliament House, Melbourne that the photographs at  both sites do not seem to be the same man, and this is under investigation.  The photo at the ADB is shown first and that held at the Parliament House is shown second (Figures 3 & 4).

 

This paper relies heavily on the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

 


 
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