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Richard Heales (1821–1864)

by Margot Beever

This article was published:

Richard Heales, by Thomas Chuck, 1872

Richard Heales, by Thomas Chuck, 1872

State Library of Victoria, H29442

Richard Heales (1821-1864), politician and temperance reformer, was born in London, son of Richard Heales (1801-1882), an ironmonger who migrated to Victoria, and his wife Elizabeth. He served an apprenticeship as a coachbuilder in London and at 19 married Rhoda, née Parker; in February 1842 they arrived at Melbourne as bounty emigrants in the Himalaya. At first unable to find work except as a day labourer, Heales was by 1847 listed in the almanacs as 'coachbuilder, Collins Lane'; later he had a business in Lonsdale Street.

A fervent believer in temperance, Heales had probably been active in the cause in London, and soon became its most energetic leader in Victoria. In February 1843 he was made secretary and his father president of the newly-formed Total Abstinence Society. Heales was mainly responsible for the building of the Temperance Hall in 1847 and by 1850 was widely known as a temperance speaker. In November he entered the Melbourne City Council, defeating John O'Shanassy in Gipps ward. He had told his constituents that he hoped the time was near when 'the nomination and the poll would no longer be the arena of vice and intemperance, but when the election of the candidate would be the pure result of the people's choice', and proposed, successfully, that the practice of holding council elections in public houses be discontinued. This success, his support for secret ballot, anti-transportation and early closing, together with his temperance work, won him repute as a democrat and reformer dedicated to the social and moral improvement of the working classes.

About 1852 Heales went into partnership with Edmund Ashley, a fellow passenger in the Himalaya and an abstainer, and in December sailed for England where for three years he worked for temperance and probably the affairs of his business partnership. By 1857 Ashley & Heales were established in Therry Street, Melbourne, as importers and suppliers of coachmaking materials, and active in the blackwood timber industry in the Dandenong Ranges. Back in Melbourne Heales found that the corrosive forces of the gold rushes had almost destroyed the temperance movement. He set about resuscitating the Total Abstinence Society and organized aid for the Temperance Hall which was in severe financial difficulty. In April 1857 the movement was reviving and he established the Temperance League to co-ordinate the work of existing societies. He was president of the league and of the Total Abstinence Society until 1864.

Heales resumed his political career in August 1856 when he agreed to stand for the Melbourne seat in the Legislative Assembly. His policy was popular and included the establishment of a general system of education and a system which would provide land for bona fide agriculturists but leave no opportunities for speculators. A working man himself, he told a meeting at North Melbourne that if elected he would be 'the exponent of the wishes and opinions of the working classes'. Despite support from two meetings of working men, Heales was not elected, but in 1857 won a by-election at East Bourke and in 1859-64 represented East Bourke Boroughs. Although a working-men's representative, Heales asserted often in 1857-60 that he sought justice for all and would not legislate for any particular class. In 1857 he supported William Haines's land bill, believing that although large tracts of land should always be available for agriculturists, squatters should be allowed to keep their runs at a fair rent until required for closer settlement. He opposed the introduction of the Chinese tax, supported the recognition of homeopathic doctors and in 1859 brought in a bill to abolish ministerial pensions. As was to be expected, he often advocated better regulation of liquor trading and in 1859 moved for a select committee to investigate the subject.

Heales came suddenly into political prominence in August 1860 when, with Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, he moved that the assembly support only a government pledged to go ahead with the land bill over which the Nicholson ministry had resigned. Though the motion was lost, Governor (Sir) Henry Barkly asked Heales to form a government. After approaching Nicholson without success, he negotiated with Duffy but they withdrew when it became clear that the late government and its opposition would unite against them, and Barkly refused to guarantee a dissolution in the event of their defeat. Nicholson resumed office but was defeated in November and, after much confusion and factional manoeuvring, Heales became chief secretary in a ministry brought together by John Brooke. Its members were radical in outlook but depended on the conservative support of Charles Ebden and O'Shanassy who, unwilling to take office themselves, allowed Heales to assume the burden. They gave him little co-operation. He was defeated on a no-confidence motion in June 1861 after achieving important reforms in the civil service but little else. He then persuaded Barkly to grant a dissolution and announced a very radical policy of Legislative Council reform as a preliminary to land reform, protection to industry and a general system of education. Also included was payment of members which Heales had earlier opposed. With the support of the Protectionist League and the goldfields electorates, the ministry was narrowly returned but lasted only until November.

Heales's term of office had been humiliating but he emerged from it a stronger, bolder and more skilful politician with a flair for compromise as he showed next year when he forced past the antagonistic O'Shanassy government a bill to establish a single board of education. The common schools system established by this Act was far from Heales's voluntaryist ideal, but it was a substantial advance towards a secular system and probably as much as parliament could then be persuaded to accept. When (Sir) James McCulloch took office in June 1863 Heales joined him as minister for lands, hoping at last to achieve a liberal land bill which could not be evaded. He had opposed the 1862 Land Act as likely to favour the squatters and brought in two bills to amend it; his provisions included the reservation of ten million acres (4,046,900 ha) for agricultural selection and very strict conditions of payment. Both bills were returned by the council and allowed to lapse. In April 1864 Heales was granted leave from parliament for the sake of his health. Aged 42 he died on 19 June at his Elsternwick home from tuberculosis, aggravated by overwork. He was survived by his wife, six sons and two daughters. Parliament voted £3000 for his family's support and Healesville was later named after him.

Heales was one of the first of Victoria's public men to die in office, but the crowds who lined Swanston Street to watch his funeral procession from the Alma Road Congregational Church to the Melbourne general cemetery were not merely seeking a spectacle. He was a popular figure, honoured for long devotion to the temperance cause, respected for his unselfishness, humility and honesty, and admired for his business success and his increasingly important political work. Even the conservative Argus regretted the loss of a serviceable politician; to the Age his death was a public calamity.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vol 1 (Melb, 1888)
  • International Temperance Convention, Temperance in Australia (Melb, 1889)
  • C. G. Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol 2 (Lond, 1898)
  • J. B. Cooper, The History of St. Kilda: From its First Settlement to a City and After, 1840 to 1930, vol 2 (Melb, 1931)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Nov 1850, Aug, Sept 1856, 20 June 1864
  • Leader (Melbourne), 15 Mar 1864
  • H. Bolitho, The Heales Ministry, 1860-61 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960)
  • J. S. Gregory, Church and State in Victoria, 1851-72 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951).

Citation details

Margot Beever, 'Heales, Richard (1821–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Richard Heales, by Thomas Chuck, 1872

Richard Heales, by Thomas Chuck, 1872

State Library of Victoria, H29442

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


19 June, 1864 (aged ~ 43)
Elsternwick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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