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  ― 267 ―

23. Chapter XXIII To London As High Commissioner Of The Commonwealth

THERE must have been some “hidden springs” which prevented the passing of an Act to constitute the office of Australia's High Commissioner in London. Viceregal speeches, notices of motions, the introduction of Bills, came to nothing until the latter part of 1909, when a Bill was passed. Such an appointment should have been one of the earliest Federal developments. I fear there must have been some personal considerations at work which were not accessible to the light of day. During the whole of the period named I kept clear of any sort of relationship to the matter. My view was that the man who lifted a finger to indicate his own wishes or qualifications for such an office stood self-condemned. Sometimes friendly interest, or unbridled curiosity, broached the subject; but my invariable reply was that it would be quite soon enough to consider the matter if the position were ever offered to me.

Early in December Mr. Cook sounded‘ me as to my willingness, and then the Prime Minister conveyed the offer in the following graceful terms:

“The Act creating the position places its occupant in the most confidential relation with the Government


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of the day, both in his defined duties and in the large sphere of influence beyond them presented to him at the heart of the Empire of making the honourable ambitions of Australia and the ardent spirit of its people better understood. You will be able to maintain the friendliest attitude to the Government of the Mother Country and the representatives of her dominions and dependencies. My colleagues and myself have no doubt but that these opportunities of promoting the strength and integrity of the Empire will weigh with you when considering this invitation. Our High Commissioner will be able to take an active personal part in the realisation of those constructive ideals shared by the vast majority of the people of the Commonwealth.”

Considering the fact that from first to last I had been a very strenuous fighter, and had crossed swords with many antagonists, the cordiality which greeted my acceptance of the office was an agreeable surprise. I had always tried to make up for the aggressiveness of my political style by personal relations of goodwill, and I am glad to place on record that the vast majority of my political opponents were men for whom one could cherish friendly feelings.

I could not leave Sydney without saying a special goodbye to my two latest Hon. Secretaries for election campaigns in East Sydney. Mr. C. W. Beal had given his services for many contests, and most valuable they were. Mr. Carroll joined him some years before I left. I thanked them most gratefully.

From one end of Australia to the other, in all the


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States through which I passed, I was the object of friendly demonstrations and good wishes.

Photograph facing p.268. Sir George Reid in 1910



I came to England in the Orvieto, one of the new steamers of the Orient Company's fleet. Outside the Navy and Army there is nothing British in which discipline and method are so absolute as on one of the great ocean liners. I do not think that any stride democracy can take will ever interfere with the despotic rule of the commander of a ship, which, until human nature changes in some wonderful way, will be one of the best features of life at sea.

I have not yet been able to visit India, but Ceylon is an intensely interesting miniature of our Oriental rule. The greatest of all the triumphs open to our race—the most gradual and difficult, too—will be the restoration to their full vigour of those higher faculties of the races of Hindustan which ages of brutal conquest paralysed, but could not utterly destroy.

The Suez Canal is, of course, one of the wonders of the world; but it is also a monument of our own colossal stupidity, in failing to give the project a friendly reception. I really do feel inclined to the belief that the lost ten tribes of Israel landed in Britain when I reflect upon the number of instances in which Providence seems to save us from the consequences of our short-sighted policy of “muddling through.”

My arrival in London on February 29th, 1910, reminded me of my solitary electoral defeat on that date twenty-six years before. I think there is no better time for a remembrance of one's misfortunes


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than when one's career is passing through an auspicious transformation.

I was supremely happy to find myself in the greatest of all cities, accredited to the greatest of all Empires, as the servant of one of its greatest dominions. A deeper personal chord was touched when I reflected upon the generous confidence of my supporters in East Sydney for nearly thirty years, of my colleagues and supporters in the Parliament of New South Wales, and in the Federal Parliament, and of so many thousands of electors in Australia, which made such a happy fate possible. To serve Australia in the Mother Country with untiring zeal and faithfulness was the least return I could offer for the long and prosperous career I had enjoyed.

I was warned that the cold winds of March were most dangerous. I found them the most enjoyable winds I ever struck. They supplied a long-felt want. After a life, mostly spent in Sydney, which has a bright and glorious climate for eight or nine months in the year, and a still brighter but not at all glorious climate for the other three or four months, the one thing I craved for was “a nipping and an eager air.” I got it.

The duties of the High Commissioner cover a wide range. I had to act as confidential medium between the Australian and Imperial Governments in a large number of matters not covered by the official dispatches passing between His Excellency the Governor-General and the Secretary of State. One of the most important of the objects of my appointment was the spread of information at this end of the


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world, especially in the British Isles, concerning Australia and the varied openings it affords, as a source of raw materials and food supplies, as an attractive home for the emigrant, and as a place for the investment of British capital. It was also necessary to remove a large number of false impressions arising from distance or ignorance.

The peaceful annals of a Continent at the Antipodes, however vast the spread of its development and the potentialities of its future, were crowded out too often by less important but more interesting events nearer home. The quarrels of insignificant countries, the eternal round of conflict in Home politics, events in the theatrical world, sporting news, society gossip —everything, in fact, that had little or nothing to do with 12,880,000 square miles of the 13,000,000 square miles of the British Empire—were the stock in trade of everyday English journalism. Our main chance of a good place in its columns in those days was a first-class crime like the Deeming murders in Melbourne, or the fraud of the Wapping butcher who returned to England from New South Wales as a candidate for the Tichborne title and estates, or, to breathe a purer atmosphere, the exploits of our Australian elevens in the cricket field.

No one can possibly admire the ability, fearlessness, fairness, and freedom from “yellow” outrages, of the British Press more than I do; but I did feel that it was exposed to the reproach I have mentioned. The chief causes, of course, lay in the insular tastes of its readers. If they had wanted more Colonial intelligence in their newspapers they would have got more.




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To give the newspapers a better chance of paragraphs on Australian topics, I established a Publicity department, under the management, able in every way, of Mr. H. C. Smart. A copious stream of paragraphs was constantly flowing from us to the Press, and it gives me great pleasure to acknowledge the liberal way in which the newspapers responded to our advances. A sense of grievance gave way to a feeling of gratitude.

One of the most agreeable welcomes I received was that from a large gathering of London editors, who accepted the invitation of Captain Muirhead Collins, the Official Secretary of the Commonwealth, to meet me.

Many names well known in the newspaper world, even in Australia, became most interesting personalities that day. As in our country, I found in London that the most vigorous political enmities disappear, as a rule, in personal intercourse.

Each of the Australian Colonies has a representative in London, known as its Agent-General. A long line of more or less distinguished men have occupied those six positions. They were all ably represented at the date of my arrival in London, and the first of a long series of dinners was that which they arranged in my honour.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies at that time was Lord Crewe. He was good enough to preside at a banquet which the Royal Colonial Institute gave. There was a most interesting gathering of Australians and Anglo-Australians there.

Lord Crewe made a most interesting and graceful


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speech, to which I endeavoured to offer a suitable reply.

The Prince and Princess of Wales had honoured me with an invitation to dinner for the same evening. To my infinite regret I had to plead the other engagement. A few weeks later His Royal Higness informed me that the dinner at Marlborough House was really intended as a welcome to me, and that I was the only absentee!

However, I soon had the happiness of meeting their Royal Highnesses at a dinner given to them by Lord Rosebery. On that occasion I had my first experience of a mistake which often happened later, in consequence of there being two Sir George Reids. A very distinguished lady paid me a number of charming compliments upon a painting of her husband I had done. She took me for Sir George Reid, the President of the Royal Scottish Academy. How could I feel in the least annoyed? The other Sir George was not only an eminent painter, he was a remarkably handsome man!

Shortly after my arrival His Majesty was good enough to receive me in audience, and at once displayed a lively interest in Australian affairs, congratulating me on my appointment as Australia's High Commissioner, and said: “You made the best speech at that Imperial Institute dinner in 1897!”

I was delighted with the compliment, especially as Lord Rosebery had expressed the same opinion at the time. My own opinion was that Lord Rosebery's speech was ever so much better. I did not feel any


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difficulty, however, in receiving such flattering assurances.

Having asked and obtained the King's permission to make a personal remark, I expressed my astonishment that His Majesty had been so often allowed, without much criticism, to become his own Foreign Minister, immensely to the advantage of the Empire.

Those who think that a British sovereign has ceased to be a leading factor in the active, even the political, life of the nation make a very great mistake.

Two of the earliest calls I made were upon the Japanese Ambassador, Baron Kato, and the Chinese Minister, Lord Li. To Baron Kato I expressed, on behalf of the Australian Government, the most cordial feelings of respect which we all entertained for the Japanese nation. I said that the recent war between Russia and Japan had done more than reveal the courage and devotion of the sailors and soldiers of Japan; it had made known in an equal degree the chivalry of the Japanese character. I asked His Excellency not to place an offensive interpretation upon our immigration laws. We were a small community, and felt, almost as keenly as Japan herself had always felt, a fear of losing our racial integrity, to which we, like all the peoples of the East—indeed of all countries—attached supreme importance. To the Chinese Minister I conveyed also the most friendly sentiments. I afterwards submitted what I had said to my Government, and was glad to receive its approval.

It has always been obvious to me that in large as in small affairs the more necessary it is to pursue a course open to an unfriendly interpretation, the


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more necessary it becomes to observe the rules of courtesy.

It was, for similar reasons, a source of great satisfaction to me to become the chief guest of the Japanese Society in London at one of its annual dinners, and to propose the toast of the evening.

At a Livery dinner of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters given shortly after my arrival I proposed the toast of the Empire, and in the course of my remarks strongly advocated juvenile emigration to Australia. Later on, some Australian newspapers took a strong line in opposition to my views. I confess I could not understand it. The boys would settle down to Australian life infinitely better than grown men.

When I arrived in London I completed the circle of High Commissioners. The senior was Lord Strathcona, High Commissioner for Canada, then ninety years of age. His history was one of the most remarkable records of patience and success. The humble Scottish youth, the indomitable Hudson Bay outpost man who suffered from a superior's injustice for twelve years without remonstrance, the successful railway speculator, the Canadian millionaire, then High Commissioner, his princely gifts in peace and war, his immensely long and active career—combine to make a wonderful record, which is reinforced, in my case, with many memories of personal kindliness. He really was one of the most obliging men I ever met. The simplicity of manner which he displayed in his younger period he preserved to the last; but behind that simple look what depths of shrewdness


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lay concealed! I enjoyed my association with him immensely.

Sir Richard Solomon was High Commissioner for South Africa, a different type, but a sterling man, with whom, also, it was a privilege to work.

Sir William Hall-Jones was High Commissioner for New Zealand. He most worthily represented that Dominion under difficulties, because the salary and allowances attached to his office were inadequate.

We all found it easy to work well together, and the Colonial Office was most sympathetic at all times. Regretting the transfer of Lord Crewe to the India Office, we found in his successor, Mr. Lewis Harcourt (now Viscount Harcourt), a man whose manners were so charming that if he had not been the admirable Colonial Secretary he proved to be, we would still have been fond of him!

Sir Francis Hopwood was the Permanent Under Secretary of State at the Colonial Office when I arrived. Sir Francis is one of the ablest men in the Public Service. I don't know many places of high responsibility in which he would not be likely to do well. He left to take charge of the Development Commission, and afterwards became one of the Civil Lords of the Admiralty.

Sir Charles Lucas succeeded Sir Francis Hopwood. Sir Charles visited Australia and other dominions with Mr. Pearson, some time before, to acquire a closer knowledge of Colonial affairs. The tour of these two gentlemen was a great success. Sir Charles, amongst his many good qualities, possesses a quaintness


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of academic diction that formed a charming setting for his speeches, which I always enjoyed.

I very soon discovered that in London a man in my position had to regard attendance at dinner and luncheon functions of a public or semi-public character as a primary duty. One might safely avoid those overcrowded receptions in which there can be no pronounced success for a hostess unless her guests are made supremely uncomfortable. A few hours after writing my name in the visitors' book at Buckingham Palace I was honoured with a command to a State Dinner. It was the latter one of the two official dinners, the first being given to Ministers, and the second largely to members of His Majesty's Opposition. I had never seen such an important assemblage or so much grandeur. As I surveyed the gold dinner service I wondered whether there was any Australian gold in the dazzling outfit! I was thankful that there was no French Envoy to keep us waiting for thirty-five minutes! The wait at Marlborough House in 1897 could only happen once in a lifetime!

King Edward spoke to all his guests in turn. The Prince of Wales was equally agreeable. Looking at the brilliant scene, I did not feel madly anxious to revert again to the Opposition benches in the Federal Parliament!

I notice that in one of the speeches I made when I arrived, in speaking of international relations, I made a remark which became prophetic without my knowing it in the least. I said: “Even a treaty is worth little or nothing in an emergency.” I had not


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Germany or Belgium in my mind then, I must admit.

I had one great grief in those beginning days. I received a cablegram announcing the death of my only surviving brother, Mr. H. R. Reid, Chairman of the Melbourne Shipping Company, which he had founded many years before. He was a man who might have excelled in public life, but could not be induced to leave his business career and life of unobtrusive philanthropy. He was, indeed, one of those rare men who combined keen business aptitude with unaffected generosity and piety. I had an unbounded appreciation of his good qualities, and felt that I had lost my best man friend, as well as a brother of whom I was proud.

My first visit to a great industrial centre was to Glasgow, then I visited Bristol, with its fine new docks built for oversea trade, and then Birmingham, when I was a guest at the annual dinner of the Chamber of Commerce. In response to the toast of the Commonwealth of Australia at those and all similar functions I always tried to avoid the saying of things that would damp that “after-dinner glow” which every grateful visitor should endeavour to promote. You never have a better chance of doing good by saying sensible things than after you have “tickled the ears” of those whom you wish to persuade. This applies to every occasion, but more so when processes of digestion are hard at work!

The greatest of the annual dinners in the London season is that of the Royal Academy of Arts. I was always honoured with an invitation, and in my first


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year with a request to respond to the toast of the guests, and to propose the Academy. I suppose there is no gathering in London which combines in so eminent a degree the great men of England in art and in public affairs. On this occasion the Prince of Wales was the chief guest, and made one of those excellent speeches of his which are not only full of stimulating thought, but also sound well and read well.

I felt rather nervous when my turn came, but was told I had done well.

It is usual, after the banquet, to inspect the pictures and sculpture. I was going along one of the avenues with Lord Brownlow, when I saw the Prince standing some distance ahead. I felt that I could not seem to seek his notice, after the pleasant things I had been saying. I therefore turned away into a corner, as I thought out of sight. But a few moments later the Prince found me out, and we had a conversation which to me was profoundly interesting. Little did we think that in six days the Prince would become the Sovereign!

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