Captain Sir Robert Henry Muirhead Collins

Sir Robert Henry Muirhead Collins

By Chris Cunneen, Ann G Smith

Sir Robert Henry Muirhead Collins (1852-1927), naval officer and public servant, was born on 20 September 1852 at Chew Magna, Somerset, England, son of Charles Howell Collins, surgeon, and his wife Henrietta Jane Heaven, née Grosett. Educated at Taunton and as a Cadet in HMS Britannia, he entered the Navy in 1866, served in flying squadrons in 1868 and 1872 and on the Channel and Australian Stations to 1876. That year he was promoted Lieutenant.

Retiring from the Navy in 1877, Collins was appointed Lieutenant in the Permanent Victorian Naval Forces. In 1883 he was sent to England to assist in bringing to Victoria two gunboats and a torpedo boat. After courses of instruction in gunnery and torpedo practice on the HM Ships Excellence and Vernon he returned in command of the gunboat HMCS Albert in June 1884, offering his vessel for service in the Sudan War at Suakim on the way. He was promoted Commander in December. Becoming Secretary for Defence on 12 April 1888, he continued as Commander on the unattached list until 1896 when he was retired with the rank of Captain.

For twelve years Collins presided over a Defence Department which, though affected by financial depression, was the largest in the Australian colonies. In matters of policy he was a 'navalist', for example, in February 1890 he opposed an increase in the Victorian military forces, suggesting that the money would be better applied to naval reparations. An equally ardent Federalist, he believed defence should be one of the powers unreservedly given to a central government. He argued for a reduction of dependence upon England, and, against the Admiralty's scheme of 1898 for a Royal Naval Reserve in Australia, he proposed the termination of the 1887 Naval Agreement, whereby the colonies subsidised an Australian Auxiliary Squadron. He wanted a locally manned and maintained fleet, with continuing Imperial naval ties-basing his plan on the implications of the Colonial Naval Defence Act (1865). His ideas were accepted at a conference of naval officers from New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland in August 1899, but it was not until 1907 that such principles were adopted by the Deakin Government.

On the foundation of the Commonwealth in 1901 Collins became Secretary to the new Department of Defence. Under several Ministers, he ably administered the Department in a time of rapid growth but financial stringency: colonial forces were amalgamated and defence policy hammered out, particularly under the direction of Sir John Forrest. Melbourne Punch observed that "Officers did not love him because he curbed expenditure, and steadfastly set his face against vain display...Widely read, always posted up-to-date, wise with the wisdom of experience and a shrewd judge of human nature, he was a match even for Sir Edward Hutton", with whom he quarrelled. Punch commented that "His light, ladylike figure is no index to his character...dressed with the daintiness of a dandy and the art of an artist...a first class clerk". He left behind him "a smoothly working Department on the clerical side" when, in March 1906, he was seconded to London as official representative of the Commonwealth.

The London position, which Collins had sought as early as February 1901, was planned to handle large orders for defence stores, to obtain information on defence matters, and to pave the way for an Australian High Commission. His appointment was generally well received, the Australasian observing that "he is an official with a special aptitude for checking, criticising and organising". (Sir) Timothy Coghlan's criticism of his social ambition was probably stirred by jealousy of Collins' capture of the plum job. In London Collins cooperated with Coghlan and the other agents-general and established a "sound nucleus around which the larger more complex office of High Commissioner could be built", but he bemoaned his meagre allowances and regretted the disinclination of the government to use him more as a supplier of naval intelligence.

When Sir George Reid arrived as High Commissioner in 1910 Collins stayed on as Official Secretary. In 1906 he was a member of the British Royal Commission on Shipping Rings and in 1913 as Commonwealth representative attended the international conference in London on safety of life at sea. On Reid's election to the House of Commons in 1916, Collins advocated abolition of the High Commission in favour of permanent Australian representation in the British cabinet. After his retirement in September 1917 he sat for a year on the committee for Australia of the Imperial Institute. From 1919 he resided at Bath, where he campaigned against litter and roundabouts. A Conservative, he bitterly opposed socialism. He had been appointed CMG (The Order of St Michael and St George - Companion) in 1904 for his administrative services during the South African War and was knighted in June 1919. In September he returned to Australia for a brief visit.

Collins died on 19 April 1927 at Bath. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth, née Brush, whom he had married on 30 July 1885 at All Saints Church of England, St Kilda, Victoria; and by one son, Major Howel Collins. Although his influence on government policy was minimal, and his social pretensions made him slightly ridiculous, Collins was a capable administrator in both the Colonial and Commonwealth service.