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William Edward Hearn (1826–1888)

by J. A. La Nauze

This article was published:

William Edward Hearn (1826-1888), by unknown photographer

William Edward Hearn (1826-1888), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1221

William Edward Hearn (1826-1888), political economist, jurist, politician and university teacher, was born on 21 April 1826 at Belturbet, County Cavan, Ireland, second of the seven sons of Rev. William Edward Hearn (d.1855) and his wife Henrietta Alicia, née Reynolds, of Kinsale, Ireland. His father, then curate and later vicar of Killargue, County Leitrim, and of Kildrumferton, County Cavan, was a grandson of Archdeacon Daniel Hearn (d.1766), an Englishman who had settled in Ireland early in the eighteenth century. Hearn married first in Dublin in 1847 Rose (d.1877), daughter of Rev. W. J. H. Le Fanu, rector of St Paul's, Dublin, a member of a celebrated Irish literary family of Huguenot descent, and second at Melbourne in 1878 Isabel, daughter of Major W. G. St Clair, 9th Regiment, Dublin.

After early education at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, Hearn in 1842 entered Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1847; M.A., LL.D., 1863). He had a brilliant career, graduating as first senior moderator in classics and distinguishing himself in logic and ethics. He also studied law at Trinity College under the eminent jurist, Mountifort Longfield, and at the King's Inn, Dublin, and Lincoln's Inn, London. He was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1853.

When the Queen's Colleges, established for Ireland by Peel's Act of 1845, were opened in 1849, Hearn was nominated professor of Greek at the College of Galway. In 1854 he was chosen by a committee, acting in London for the newly-established University of Melbourne, as the first professor of modern history and literature, political economy and logic. By 1857 his formal responsibilities had been reduced to the subjects of history and political economy, but his versatility was shown by his ready assumption in 1855-56 and again in 1871 of the duties of the professor of classics. One of four original professors, Hearn had probably been attracted to Melbourne by the high salary of £1000 with accommodation in the university building. The choice was amply justified by his academic and public career in a small but lively and growing society, to the intellectual and public life of which he contributed much in the generation after the discovery of gold.

Classes in the university were small but Hearn, who arrived early in 1855, taught a wide range of courses almost single-handed. He was a popular lecturer in a discursive style, much respected personally and as a teacher by students who included such men, later distinguished in literature, law and politics, as Alexander Sutherland, Samuel Alexander, Henry Higgins, (Sir) Isaac Isaacs and Alfred Deakin. In 1873 Hearn was appointed dean of the new faculty of law, surrendering his title of professor but retaining the emoluments and privileges of that position, and lecturing in legal subjects including constitutional law and jurisprudence. He played an active and sometimes stormy part in university politics and administration. In May 1886 he was elected chancellor, but his term as a university council member expiring in October, he was defeated in a strenuously fought contest and so was automatically ineligible for re-election to the chancellorship.

Before his arrival in Melbourne Hearn had published in 1851 The Cassell Prize Essay on the Condition of Ireland, and had written, probably in 1853-54, an 'Essay on Natural Religion', a manuscript of some 250 pages defending the argument from design for the existence of a beneficent creator against evolutionary doctrine as it was known in pre-Darwinian form (copy in the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne). In Melbourne he wrote four books, all characterized by a graceful clarity of style and wide learning, if also by cautious and sometimes superficial judgments. The first three were in their time well known outside Australia and still have modest places in the history of their disciplines; they were indeed remarkable books to have emerged from a colonial society. Plutology or the Theory of the Efforts to Satisfy Human Wants (Melbourne, 1863; London, 1864), a textbook of political economy, was highly praised by William Jevons, Marshall, Edgeworth and other eminent economists. Close examination shows it to be less original than they supposed; Hearn drew heavily on a number of writers not well known in England for his reassessment of 'classical' political economy. But his book emphasized a new approach to the question of economic progress, stressing the stimulus of demand rather than the difficulties of supply, and was remarkable for its early, though rather shallow, attempt to apply Darwinian doctrines to the evolution and organization of economic society. Of The Government of England (1867), concerned with the growth of constitutional law and conventions, the jurist, A. V. Dicey, wrote in 1885 that it 'has taught me more than any other single work of the way in which the labours of lawyers established in early times the elementary principles which form the basis of the constitution'. The Aryan Household (1878) was concerned with the early social institutions, such as the family and the household, of the supposed progenitors of Western European peoples. Hearn's last book, The Theory of Legal Duties and Rights (1883), gave the theoretical reasoning behind his practical attempts to codify the laws of Victoria. These books brought the young University of Melbourne to the notice of scholars in Europe and America. He also published various pamphlets and lectures and was an active, though anonymous, journalist, writing extensively until 1888 for the leading 'conservative' Victorian newspaper, the Argus, and its weekly counterpart the Australasian founded in 1864.

From his first years in Victoria Hearn took a prominent part in public affairs. He was an early advocate of adult educational classes and founded the People's College at the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute in an attempt to give, by lectures and examinations, some kind of formal educational qualification other than a university degree. In 1856 he was appointed a member of a board to make suggestions to the Victorian government for the organization of the civil service. Its report, avowedly based on the recent Northcote-Trevelyan report on the British civil service, recommended the establishment of an independent board to control both admission by examination, and promotion. In 1859-60 a royal commission, of which Hearn was a member, presented a weakened version of these recommendations, dropping the board but retaining entrance by examination. An Act of 1862 was based on this report; Hearn argued in 1883, when it was superseded by the more effective Act introduced by James Service, that it had never been fairly tried.

Hearn was a prominent layman of the Church of England, being chancellor of the diocese of Melbourne in 1877-88 and active in the affairs of Trinity College, founded in 1872 as an Anglican residential college of the university. He practised little at the Victorian Bar, to which he was admitted in 1860; his appointment as Q.C. in 1886 was a recognition of his scholarly work in the field of law. His main practical venture in law, his drafting of the Land Act of 1862, had unfortunate consequences. According to the author of the Act, (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy, Hearn was selected by the attorney-general, Richard Ireland, as draftsman because much care and long consideration would be needed. But there were faults in drafting, which Ireland later admitted were well known to him at the time. These allowed the ostensible purpose of the Act, the dispersal of large pastoral estates, to be evaded within the law by pastoralists acting through their agents or 'dummies', though the fault seems to have been Ireland's rather than Hearn's.

In January 1859, to the indignation of the chancellor of the university, Sir Redmond Barry, Hearn offered himself unsuccessfully as a candidate at a by-election for the Legislative Assembly, an action which induced the university council to pass a statute, not repealed for a century, forbidding professors to sit in parliament or to become members of any political association. In 1874 and 1877 he was again defeated in elections to the assembly; he met the university council's protest on the first occasion by pointing out that his standing for parliament was not inconsistent with the tenure of his office, which was now that of a dean, not a professor. In September 1878 he was at last elected to parliament to represent the Central Province in the Legislative Council, at a time when fierce political strife between the 'Liberal' followers of the premier, (Sir) Graham Berry, and the conservative element in the colony had culminated in a prolonged deadlock between the two Houses and a rejection of the annual appropriation bill by the council.

By English standards Hearn was a mild conservative, cautious about state intervention in economic affairs but not implacably opposed to it, and a free trader in a colony where 'liberals' or 'radicals' were almost unanimously protectionists. On such questions his opinions were unchanged during his parliamentary career, and he was easily represented by the Age to be an illiberal reactionary. In fact he soon gained the respect of both sides of the House as being, on most matters, a more or less neutral and well-informed technical critic of legislation, concerned to improve its form and to suggest practical amendments. From 1882 he was regarded as the 'unofficial leader' of the House. In his last years he was engaged in drafting an immense code of Victorian law, based on a Benthamite-Austinian view of jurisprudence. It was introduced as a draft bill, provoked formal admiration and recommended for adoption by a committee to which it was referred. Regarded as too abstract by practising lawyers, it was quietly abandoned in favour of simple consolidation.

When Hearn died in Melbourne on 23 April 1888 Victoria lost a scholar who had tempered the rawness of colonial life with learning and intellectual distinction and brought lustre to the name of its young university. Black-bearded and bespectacled, he was witty and courteous, though ambitious and sometimes devious in controversy. If the width of his reading and the lucidity of his style helped to conceal a certain superficiality in his scholarship, and the extent of his debts to others, it was nevertheless a considerable achievement in his circumstances to have written several books which gained high praise from the leading authorities in their fields, and were still occasionally referred to a century after their publication. He founded no 'school' in the university; post-graduate studies, affected by the example and ideas of an influential teacher, lay far in the future. But he set an example of humane learning, especially in history and law, to many leaders of Victorian and Australian life in the generation after his death.

Hearn was survived by four of the six children of his first marriage. His only son, William Edward Le Fanu, who had been a medical practitioner at Hamilton, Victoria, died in Western Australia in 1893. His second surviving daughter, Rosalie Juliet Josephine (d.1934) married in 1884 James Young, a Victorian grazier. Of their three sons, James was chaplain to the New Zealand artillery in World War I and Charles Le Fanu (d.1921) after serving as captain in that war, was headmaster of the Cathedral Grammar School, Christchurch. Hearn's eldest surviving daughter, Charlotte Catherine Frances (d.1943), and the youngest, Henrietta Alice (d.1927), also moved to New Zealand. By his second marriage Hearn had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • D. B. Copland, W. E. Hearn: First Australian Economist (Melb, 1935)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Political Economy in Australia: Historical Studies (Melb, 1949)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • J. A. La Nauze, ‘Hearn on Natural Religion: An Unpublished Manuscript’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 12, no 45, Oct 1965, pp 119-22
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Apr 1888
  • A. Sutherland, ‘William Edward Hearn’, Argus (Melbourne), 28 Apr 1888
  • University of Melbourne Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. A. La Nauze, 'Hearn, William Edward (1826–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 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

William Edward Hearn (1826-1888), by unknown photographer

William Edward Hearn (1826-1888), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1221

Life Summary [details]


21 April, 1826
Belturbet, Cavan, Ireland


23 April, 1888 (aged 62)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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