Time icon

Parliament House is currently

Sir George Houstoun Reid GCB GCMG PC KC

John Campbell Longstaff (1861-1941), George Houstoun Reid (detail), 1916, Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection. View full image

Prime Minister, 18 August 1904 to 5 July 1905
Free Trade Party 1901 to 1906
Anti-Socialist Party 1906 to 1909

Australia’s fourth Prime Minister, the ebullient George Reid (1845-1918) holds a unique position among Australian political leaders, having served in colonial, Commonwealth and British legislatures.1 He was also the first Opposition Leader in Australia’s federal Parliament and Australia’s first High Commissioner to the UK.

Scottish-born Reid was one of seven children born to Reverend John Reid and his wife Marion (née Crybbace). The family migrated to Melbourne in 1852 before settling in Sydney in 1858. At 13 Reid began work as a merchant’s clerk, and by 1864 was an assistant accountant at the colonial Treasury. He studied law, entering the Bar in 1879, and becoming secretary to the Attorney-General. Elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1880, Reid was a vociferous advocate of Free Trade. He spent almost 20 years in the colonial parliament, serving as Minister for Public Instruction, Attorney-General, Treasurer, and Premier. In 1891 he married Flora Brumby and they had three children.2

Easily lampooned due to his physical appearance and eccentricities, the quick-witted Reid was an astute politician and gifted platform speaker with an ability to laugh at himself. As a key protagonist in Australia’s journey to Federation, Reid became notorious for his cautious advocacy of the 1896 Commonwealth Bill. This stance earned him the moniker of ‘Yes–No’, to which he retorted,

‘I could not help congratulating myself that after a long political life no one could find anything worse to say about me’.3

However, it was Reid who led the colonial premiers to a fresh and ultimately successful round of negotiations and ensured that NSW approved the Constitution at its second referendum.

When Barton formed his Protectionist ministry, Reid assumed the mantle of de facto leader of the Free Traders and, therefore, of the official Opposition. This status was affirmed following the first federal election in March 1901 which returned Reid as the Member for East Sydney. He became Prime Minister in August 1904 after the fall of the Watson Labor Government. Although only in power for less than 11 months, Reid’s coalition Government successfully passed the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, an achievement which had previously bested both the Deakin and Watson governments.

Forced into Opposition by his antagonist Deakin, Reid retired from politics in 1909 but was quickly appointed as Australia’s first High Commissioner to the UK. He held this position from 1910 to 1915, during which time he oversaw the land purchase and foundation stone laying for Australia House, Australia’s permanent diplomatic mission in London. In January 1916, he was elected unopposed to the British House of Commons, representing the central London constituency of St George, Hanover Square, which he retained until his death in London in 1918.

Sir John Campbell Longstaff
Born in Clunes, Victoria, John Longstaff (1862-1941) was an Australian portraitist, war artist and five-time winner of the Archibald Prize (1925–35). He studied at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School alongside Emanuel Phillips Fox, Tudor St George Tucker, Tom Humphrey, John Mather and Frederick McCubbin. Awarded the School’s first travelling scholarship in 1887, he travelled to Europe, settling in Paris and later in Spain. Throughout the early 1890s Longstaff exhibited successfully and in 1893 moved to London where he worked as a fashionable portrait painter, regularly exhibiting at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. During 1918–20 Longstaff was an official war artist with the AIF. Returning to Australia in 1920, he later held several official positions, including president of the Victorian Artists’ Society, the Australian Art Association, the Australian Academy of Art, and a trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria. In 1928 Longstaff became the first Australian artist to be knighted. His work is represented in major state and regional galleries across Australia.4

George Houston Reid
by John Longstaff
Oil on canvas
146 x 107.5 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection.

1.Information in this biography has been taken from the following: ‘Australian Prime Ministers: George Reid’, Museum of Australian Democracy; ‘Prime Ministers of Australia: George Reid’, National Museum of Australia; WG McMinn, ‘Reid, Sir George Houstoun (1845–1918)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1988; N Church, ‘Sir George Houstoun Reid (1845–1918): Premier, Prime Minister, High Commissioner, and Member of the UK House of Commons’, FlagPost blog, Parliamentary Library, September 2018; D Heriot, ‘Australia’s first Parliament: Her Majesty’s loyal opposition’, FlagPost blog, Parliamentary Library, February 2019; WG McMinn, George Reid, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1989; D Headon, George Houstoun Reid (1845–1918): Forgotten Founder, Parliamentary Library, 2020; G Reid, My Reminiscences, Cassell and Company Ltd, London, 1917; see also ‘George Houstoun Reid’ in Historic Memorials Collection Portraits: Parliamentary ‘Firsts’, Parliamentary Library, Parliament of Australia, 2021. Websites accessed 12 May 2021.
2. ‘George Reid’s partner: Florence Reid’, National Archives of Australia, accessed 8 July 2021.
3. N Abjorensen, ‘Reid and the Yes–No Speech’, The New Federalist, June 1999, pp. 88–92.
4. Information in this biography has been taken from the following: L Astbury, ‘Longstaff, Sir John Campbell (1861–1941)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1986; K Robertson, ‘Sir John Longstaff b. 10 March 1861’, Design & Art Australia Online, 2011. ‘Longstaff, (Sir) John Campbell’, A McCulloch, S McCulloch and E McCulloch Childs, eds, The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006, p. 625. Websites accessed 25 March 2021.

Connect with us