From Australia’s Jewish Past: Sir Archie Reuben Louis Michaelis – Businessman, Politician and Jewish Leader

July 26, 2022 by Ruth Lillian
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Archie was born on 19 December 1889 in St Kilda, Melbourne.

Sir Archie Michaelis

He attended Wesley and Cumloden Colleges and in 1903, his parents took him to England and enrolled him at Harrow School – one of the most prestigious schools in the world.

He was the eldest child of Australian-born parents Frederick Michaelis, a merchant, and his wife, Esther Zillah. Moritz Michaelis was his grandfather.   The Michaelis family were close-knit and they all would gather at Linden, Archie’s home, every Friday night to celebrate the Sabbath.  Linden, the Michaelis mansion in Ackland St Kilda is today a contemporary art gallery.

Returning to Melbourne in 1908, Archie started work in the family’s tannery business –  Michaelis, Hallenstein & Co. Pty Ltd – and in 1912, he was sent to England to gain experience in the firm’s London office.  With the onset of war, he joined the British Army and served from 1914 in the Honourable Artillery Company and went with his battery to serve in the Middle East. After being commissioned in 1916 in the Royal Field Artillery Special Reserve, he was posted to Ireland and Greece. He trained for the Royal Flying Corps in Egypt in 1917 but contracted malaria and influenza and was repatriated in 1919. Archie’s brother and three first cousins had died or been killed in World War I.  Archie returned to continue his involvement with the family business. On 14 January 1920, at Tusculum, Potts Point, Sydney, he married his cousin Claire Esther Hart.

In the late 1920s, Michaelis began to take an interest in politics. He became associated with the Australian Legion and later the Young Nationalist Organisation and valued his lifelong friendship with Sir Robert Menzies. In 1932 he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly, representing the seat of St Kilda for the United Australia Party (later to become the Liberal Party).  In parliament, Archie was the foremost advocate of legislation, and on 29 September 1939, the bill he proposed to make Third-party Motorcar Insurance be compulsory was legislated.  Towards the end of World War II, he worked to prevent the transfer of vital powers from the States to the Commonwealth. In 1945, with Sir Thomas Maltby and three other Liberal objectors, he helped Labor to defeat the DunstanHollway government.  He rejoined the Liberal Party in December 1946, was elected the twenty-second Speaker of the House in 1950 and served in that role until his retirement in 1952, culminating with his being knighted in the 1952 New Year Honours.

Archie was chairman of the family company and its parent company- Associated Leathers Ltd – from 1948 to 1965.  He was a generous supporter of charities, serving as treasurer of the Emergency Relief Committee that helped Jewish victims of the 1929 riots in Palestine. He was a member of the Patriotic Funds Council of Victoria for thirty-two years and served as its president and also chair during that time.   He was also a board member for thirty-six years of the Alfred Hospital and later became vice-president. He was one of the founders, chair and patron of the Victorian Branch of the AJHS and also served on the board of the Melbourne Jewish Philanthropic Society.

Like his father and grandfather, Archie was president and a trustee of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation, serving on the board for 40 years.  He became a defender of the Anglo-Jewish establishment within the Australian Jewish community and, as its founding president from 1939 to 1940, plus spokesman of the Victorian Jewish Advisory Board, where he resisted attempts to secularise the Jewish community’s leadership. He opposed Zionism and publicly defended Sir Isaac Isaacs‘s anti-Zionist letters and articles. When some members of the Jewish community condemned Isaacs and his supporters, Archie declared that he would not be ‘dragooned into silence’. In 1947 he helped to fund the short-lived anti-Zionist journal, Australian Jewish Outlook. He later made his peace with the independent State of Israel.

In retirement, Archie maintained a lively interest in community affairs and wrote frequent letters to the press.  He no longer played golf and tennis but continued to enjoy a weekly game of poker, crossword puzzles and reading.  Interestingly, he was vice-president of the Kipling Society of London, an organisation for those worldwide who enjoy Kipling’s writings.   In 1966 he published a brief memoir Before I Forget.

Archie passed away on 22 April 1975 in South Yarra and is buried in St Kilda Cemetery.  He is survived by his three daughters.  His obituary, as published in the AJHS Journal, states that he was unfailingly courteous, tolerant and loyal, representing a tradition that he felt was important in Australian life.

The AJHS Acknowledges the following references in the preparation of this story

Australian Dictionary of Biography ANU; Jewish Virtual Library Organisation;;; Parliament of Victoria; AJHS Journal Vol XIII Part 1 1975

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