Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Herbert Heaton (1890–1973)

by Helen Bourke

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Herbert Heaton (1890-1973), economic historian and educationist, was born on 6 June 1890 at Silsden, Yorkshire, England, son of Fred Heaton, blacksmith, and his wife Eva, née Waterhouse. Educated at Batley Grammar and Morley Secondary schools, he studied history and economics at the University of Leeds (B.A., 1911; M.A., 1912; D.Litt, 1921). He worked on industrial life in eighteenth-century Yorkshire at the London School of Economics in 1911-12 for his M.A. thesis, and was appointed assistant lecturer in economics under (Sir) William Ashley at the University of Birmingham (M.Com., 1914). He received his doctorate for his work The Yorkshire Woollen and Worsted Industries (Oxford, 1920). Through the Co-operative movement, Heaton had been introduced to the Workers' Educational Association and its founder Albert Mansbridge, and at Birmingham had lectured for the W.E.A. He was chosen by Mansbridge and Ashley to follow Meredith Atkinson to Australia to organize tutorial classes: his post was lecturer in history and economics at the University of Tasmania. He arrived in mid-1914, having married Ellen Jane Houghton at St Paul's Church, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on 11 April.

Within the university, Heaton developed the study of economics and encouraged research into Australian economic history. However his extramural lectures for the W.E.A., particularly his objective comments on the war, provoked the censure of conservative sections of the Tasmanian press and public. In 1917 he was appointed director of tutorial classes and lecturer in history and economics at the University of Adelaide. There he expanded the infant discipline of economics and developed the diploma of commerce. His W.E.A. lectures were published in his Modern Economic History with Special Reference to Australia (Adelaide, 1921). Again his forthright comments on contemporary issues sparked continual controversy. Adelaide businessmen regarded his left-liberal position on the war and the peace, and his expositions of socialist theory, as evidence of the danger of teaching economics. Heaton argued that 'all the evils and aches of individual and corporate life [had] their ultimate cause in capitalism' which, he predicted, would 'give place naturally to socialism'. Consequently, the university refused to establish a degree in economics, and by implication a chair, while Heaton led the discipline. Appreciating the forces against his advancement in Australia, Heaton accepted a chair of economic and political science at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. His departure in August 1925 caused considerable public comment and regret.

He had been one of the founders of the modern social sciences in Australia. His pioneering research on Australian economic history appeared in the Economic Journal and the Quarterly Journal of Economics. In Australia he had contributed with great heart to many causes, such as the Co-operative Union and the League of Nations Union; in Adelaide he was the founder of the community singing movement and a member of repertory theatre. Australia could ill afford to lose such a vigorous citizen, progressive teacher and active intellectual.

In 1927 Heaton moved to the University of Minnesota, United States of America, where he pursued a distinguished career as professor of economic history until he retired in 1958. His works include Economic History of Europe (1936), long the standard text, and his tribute to Edwin Gay, A Scholar in Action (1952). On 24 January 1973 he died in Minneapolis, survived by his three Australian-born children and his second wife Marjorie Edith Ronson whom he had married in London on 6 August 1959.

Select Bibliography

  • American History Review, 78 (1973), p 1171
  • Mercury (Hobart), 16 Sept 1915
  • Register (Adelaide), 17 June 1925
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 Aug 1925
  • Heaton papers (University of Minnesota Archives)
  • files of University of Adelaide 1917-25, and Board of Commercial Studies, University of Adelaide 1917-25.

Citation details

Helen Bourke, 'Heaton, Herbert (1890–1973)', 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

Life Summary [details]


6 June, 1890
Silsden, Yorkshire, England


24 January, 1973 (aged 82)
Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America

Cultural Heritage

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