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Sir John Winthrop Hackett (1848–1916)

by Lyall Hunt

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John Hackett, n.d.

John Hackett, n.d.

photo privately sourced

Sir John Winthrop Hackett (1848?-1916), editor and politician, was born probably on 4 February 1848 (his baptismal record shows 1847) near Bray, Wicklow, Ireland, eldest son of Rev. John Winthrop Hackett of the Church of Ireland, and his wife Jane Sophia, née Monck-Mason. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1871; M.A., 1874), he was called to the Irish Bar in 1874. He migrated to Sydney in 1875 and settled in Melbourne next year as vice-principal of Trinity College, University of Melbourne, and tutor in law, logic and political economy. He contributed to the Age and Melbourne Review and made two unsuccessful attempts to enter parliament.

Hackett went to Western Australia in 1882 to manage a sheep station in the Gascoyne district. Next year he joined Charles Harper as partner and business manager of the West Australian, a Perth tri-weekly newspaper committed to conservative politics and the rural hegemony. From 1885 it was published daily and the Western Mail was launched as a weekly journal of condensed news and advice for farmers. In 1887 Hackett became editor of the West Australian when Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell resigned. He was slow to settle into the role. Racial intolerance was displayed in attacks on Rev. John Gribble who exposed the exploitation of Aboriginals in the pastoral and pearling industries. The paper's image suffered when Hackett sided with Governor Broome in the fracas between governor and officials which saw Chief Justice Onslow suspended. Irresponsible editorials by Hackett led to conviction of the paper's proprietors for defamation. Popular pressure then forced Hackett to take stock. Controversy was inimical to the organic view of society that he wished to project. Henceforth he avoided disputation. His editorials became didactic statements in which it was sometimes difficult to discern a clear line.

Hackett was on safer ground in reversing the paper's policy to argue for responsible government for Western Australia. In a period of rising population, agitation, focused by the Reform Association of which Hackett was a committeeman, saw the Colonial Office yield in 1890. Responsible government confirmed Hackett's rising stature when Premier (Sir) John Forrest proposed him for nomination to the Legislative Council in December. He remained a councillor until his death—consistently returned unopposed for South-West Province after the council became elective in 1894.

Hackett described himself as an 'advanced liberal': he was progressive, for example, on education, female suffrage and lunacy reform. He believed in the freedom of the individual to exploit talents uninhibited by regulation. Hence his approach to industrial regulation was laissez-faire. However on constitutional questions he was conservative. His fears of democracy were confirmed by a radical candidate's success in a Perth electorate in 1888, despite strong advice from the West Australian. The 1890 constitution, as prompted by Hackett, established a bicameral legislature with the Legislative Council controlled by rural interests. This bias was confirmed in provisions for the election of councillors from 1894 which enshrined a propertied franchise and a rural gerrymander. The council had co-ordinate powers with the popular house, the Legislative Assembly, except for the origination of money bills. Even here, the right to 'request' amendments, added to the constitution in 1893 at Hackett's instigation, gave it virtually co-ordinate powers. The responsibility of the executive to both houses was central to Hackett's thinking. Councillors, acting independently, would guard the State against democratic excesses. Hackett always defended this Burkeian concept of the independent member: the West Australian even avoided identifying party affiliations of legislative councillors until 1912.

He cemented his position in Western Australian society through personal links. Some spoke of a triumvirate of Hackett, Forrest and Bishop C. O. L. Riley. Hackett preceded Riley as grand master of the Grand Lodge of Freemasons of Western Australia in 1901-03. He was diocesan registrar of Perth and chancellor of St George's Cathedral and always reported the bishop's sermons verbatim. The premier and the editor, despite occasional differences, co-operated politically. Hackett joined Forrest's confidants who met most Sunday mornings at the premier's home. He refused a position in the ministry, but served as mentor to Forrest and publicist of his policies.

The great theme was development. The gold rush trebled Western Australia's population between 1892 and 1900. Posts and telegraphs, railways, hospitals, harbours, water supplies, schools had to be provided, and Hackett gave consistent publicity. His backing was crucial in winning parliamentary approval in 1896 of C. Y. O'Connor's plan to pump water to the eastern goldfields from the Darling Range. Detractors derided 'the Forrest-Hackett curse' until silenced by its successful completion in 1903. Forrest's other grand scheme—to use the men and monies of the gold rush to settle a 'bold yeomanry' on the land—also had Hackett's support. His paper backed the Homestead Act (1893) and Land Act (1898), the Agricultural Bank Act (1894), and the Bureau of Agriculture which provided land, capital and scientific advice for farmers. Meanwhile the Western Mail prospered as the man on the land's bible. Ironically, Hackett's own rural investments failed.

Hackett considered education the key to society's improvement. He gave long service to Perth High School as chairman and later he led the crusade for a university. In the 1890s, despite Forrest's doubts, he orchestrated the abolition of grants to private schools through the dual system which had provided funds to both government and church schools. West Australian editorials, from 1892 to 1895, focused opposition to this arrangement, which mainly benefited the Roman Catholic Church. Within synod Hackett worked to align the Church of England with opponents of the system. His motives included sectarianism, a desire to improve educational standards in government schools, and a commitment to the separation of church and state. Forrest gave way in 1895. Hackett had been the central figure and the West Australian the instrument of the change, which led to the emergence of free, compulsory and secular education in Western Australia in 1899.

Civic and cultural improvements benefited from Hackett's encouragement and leadership. He advocated the preservation of Queen's Gardens and King's Park and later chaired the King's Park Board. He proposed a deep drainage and sewerage scheme for Perth and the relocation of the city cemetery at Karrakatta; afterwards he chaired the Karrakatta Cemetery Board. The observatory and mint had his backing. In 1897, as chairman of the Acclimatisation Committee, he persuaded Premier Forrest to establish zoological gardens and then nominated the South Perth site, selected Ernest Le Souef as first director, and presided over the Zoological Gardens Board. Similarly he spurred on the commission responsible for opening up scenic caves in the south-west. He helped to establish the Victoria Public Library (1889) and the Western Australian Museum (1895). At his invitation J. S. Battye came to Perth as librarian in 1894. New buildings were opened in 1903 and Hackett remained library chairman until 1913, arranging the merger of the library, museum and art gallery under joint trustees in 1911.

Events modified his laissez-faire attitudes. In 1890, for example, he had opposed industrial arbitration as 'placing too great a limitation on individual freedom'. By 1900, after waterfront strikes, he asserted pragmatically that an arbitration court would 'get rid of strikes'. Yet he could also sympathize with the working man. When it became apparent that timber workers in his electorate were being exploited, he lashed the mill-owners and supported the Truck Act (1899) which ensured that workers received cash wages instead of credit at a company store. However Hackett spoke rarely in parliament on industrial matters. He accepted reluctantly the necessity for major intervention by the Forrest government between master and servant, and then only after the need was apparent and there was wide community support.

Competition from a new daily, the Morning Herald, faced Hackett from 1896. He met it by keeping advertising rates low and by installing the latest linotype and printing machinery. The West Australian was expanded to twelve pages—half of them advertisements—and the Western Mail was illustrated. He established useful contacts with (Sir) John Kirwan of the Kalgoorlie Miner to share reporting and news services. Although Hackett encouraged correspondence and aired divergent views, he ignored local writing and literature reflecting working-class values. He drew inspiration from Britain and maintained contacts while attending the Imperial Press Conference in London in 1909. At home he kept a tight rein on policy, writing most editorials himself in a clear style which contrasted with his prolix and over-qualified speeches. He was firm with staff but progressive on working conditions: the West Australian was said to have been the first Perth firm to introduce the eight-hour day, and it recognized union labour. Yet Hackett opposed the emergence of the political labour movement and election of the first Labor Party members in 1901 because of their sectional interest.

As politician-confidant-editor, Hackett was at the centre of debate over Western Australia's entry into Australian Federation. He supported Australasian co-operation but saw no urgency. At the 1891 federal convention he predicted: 'either responsible government will kill federation, or federation in the form in which we shall, I hope, be prepared to accept it, will kill responsible government'. The epigram pin-pointed the difficulty of grafting responsible government on to a Federal system in which a Senate, representing the States equally, would exercise co-ordinate powers with the popular house. Hackett was the only Westralian delegate to support the 'compromise of 1891', which modified the Senate's co-ordinate powers by denying its right to amend money bills, while conferring a power to 'request' amendments. His intention was not to tip the scale in favour of responsible government but to effect a compromise which would stop short of rendering a Federal government responsible only to the lower house.

By 1895 Hackett had decided that Western Australia's entry into the Federation would have to be delayed until its industries were developed behind tariff walls, which would not be permitted after union. That remained his belief throughout the Federal campaign. He attended the Federal Council of Australasia meetings of 1895, 1897 and 1899 and the more important convention of 1897-98 that set the stage for Federation. He spoke rarely but, in divisions, was one of the more liberal Westralians on social questions. He talked generally of Western Australia's need for concessions in the Constitution but, significantly, abstained on the vote for the protection of the colony's customs revenue through section 95. Some historians have assumed that he contributed crucially behind the scenes through legal skills, influence on Forrest and acquaintance with Federalists, particularly Alfred Deakin.

By 1898 Hackett and Forrest were diverging: Hackett opposed immediate Federation; Forrest heralded a Federal referendum. Both were to be overwhelmed by events. Under pressure from conservatives, including Hackett, Forrest reversed his decision. In turn, Hackett found that popular agitation for Federation could not be contained, despite it being played down in the West Australian. In 1899 both men agreed to seek concessions, including five years complete customs freedom, as the price of Federation. They failed in this endeavour, despite joint approaches to the eastern capitals in January 1900. Reluctantly, Hackett recommended support for Federation on the eve of the referendum, which was carried decisively. He did this, despite Harper's contrary advice, believing that Federation was inevitable and the terms the best available. In the most important issue of his editorial and political career, he had influenced significantly neither the form nor the timing of Federation.

After 1901 Hackett lost his direct access to State premiers and contacted Forrest mainly to assist anti-Labor candidates during Federal elections. Locally, progressive politicians held sway for four years. The most serious challenge came from the government of (Sir) Walter James of 1903-04, when it determined to democratize parliament. Bills to redistribute electorates, extend the franchise and provide deadlock machinery, were anathema to Hackett and the Legislative Council. Protracted wrangling was reported by the West Australian. Finally the Upper House permitted only minor amendments and a redistribution. Hackett was the key to this failure to achieve a democratic constitution for Western Australia.

On 3 August 1905 Hackett married eighteen-year-old Deborah Vernon Brockman at Busselton. With conservative governments in office in 1905-11, he could be less assiduous in his parliamentary duties. The couple travelled widely and entertained lavishly, inhibited only by Hackett's ill health. A wealthy man, he was said to draw £9500 annually from the West Australian. When Harper died in 1912 Hackett acquired full ownership for £88,000. Soon afterwards the paper was converted into a public company.

From the 1880s Hackett had looked to a university as the coping-stone of the education system and open to all who might benefit. He educated the public to the idea through his newspaper. In 1909 he chaired the royal commission that recommended the establishment of the University of Western Australia; lectures began in 1913. A decision to charge no fees was made by the senate on his casting vote as chancellor and he endowed the chair of agriculture.

Distinguished in appearance by meticulous dress and clipped beard and moustache, Hackett was not handsome, being gaunt with prominent eyes, one of which was defective. He was not robust but highly strung. Aloof and imperious, with a strong sense of duty, he yet could charm with his melodious Irish voice.

Hackett was made an honorary doctor of laws by the University of Dublin in 1902; he was knighted in 1911 and appointed K.C.M.G. in 1913. Having suffered from Parkinsonism, he died in Perth on 19 February 1916 of a heart condition and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. After providing for his wife, son (later General Sir John Hackett) and four daughters, and adding many bequests to charitable and public institutions, including the State Library (where a marble bust of Hackett by E. E. Benson is displayed), he made the University of Western Australia and the Church of England residuary legatees. The estate was realized in 1926 after £700,000 had derived from Hackett's interest in the West Australian Newspaper Co. The university received £425,000, which it used principally to establish Hackett studentships and bursaries, and to construct Winthrop Hall and the Hackett Buildings at Crawley. The Church used its £138,000 to build St George's College. Hackett had given his adopted country a university, a powerful press and an entrenched Legislative Council. His posthumous portrait by William Dargie hangs in the university.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • P. Loveday et al (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • L. Hunt (ed), Westralian Portraits (Perth, 1979)
  • C. T. Stannage, The People of Perth (Perth, 1979), and (ed), A New History of Western Australia (Perth, 1981)
  • Australian Economic History Review, pt 3, 1968
  • Historical Studies, Oct 1968
  • Studies in Western Australian History, Mar 1978
  • West Australian, 21 Feb 1916, 5 Jan 1933
  • R. Gore, The Western Australian Legislative Council, 1890-1970—Aspects of a House of Review (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1975).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Lyall Hunt, 'Hackett, Sir John Winthrop (1848–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Hackett, n.d.

John Hackett, n.d.

photo privately sourced

Life Summary [details]


4 February, 1848
Bray, Wicklow, Ireland


19 February, 1916 (aged 68)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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