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Sir John Henniker Heaton (1848–1914)

by B. K. De Garis

This article was published:

Sir John Heaton, J. Russell &​ Sons, c.1880s

Sir John Heaton, J. Russell &​ Sons, c.1880s

National Library of Australia, 49148718

Sir John Henniker Heaton (1848-1914), journalist and postal reformer, was born on 18 May 1848 at Rochester, England, the only son of Lieutenant-Colonel John Heaton and his wife Ann Elizabeth, née Henniker. Educated at Kent House School, Rochester, and King's College School, London, he went in 1864 to New South Wales where he spent several years as a jackeroo before turning to journalism. He worked on the Cumberland Mercury, the Goulburn Evening Penny Post and while on the Cumberland Times served for three months as acting town clerk of Parramatta in 1869-70. He joined the Sydney weekly Australian Town and Country Journal and travelled widely in country districts on its behalf. In 1880 the Bulletin, which later lampooned him unmercifully, credited the paper's early success to his 'unceasing labours'.

On 16 July 1873 at the Holy Trinity Church Heaton had married Rose, daughter of Samuel Bennett. Though he had independent means and in 1878 his wife inherited a one-fifth share in her father's newspapers, Heaton continued to work as a journalist as well as interesting himself in public affairs. In 1879 he published a pioneer reference work, Australian Dictionary of Dates and Men of the Time. As no local press was equipped for such a job, the government printer was authorized to print it at the author's expense. To Heaton's indignation he insisted on censoring the text, lost part of the manuscript and among other cuts deleted a paragraph under the head of 'Pure Merinos' which did not relate to sheep. Heaton's later court action against the government printer failed and the book was published in London; though crammed with useful information, it was marred by many inaccuracies.

In 1883 Heaton left New South Wales and by 1884 was settled in London. In 1886-1910 he represented Canterbury as a Conservative in the House of Commons. However, business and sentimental ties often drew him back to Sydney; he also acted for the colony as a commissioner at the 1883 Amsterdam Exhibition and the 1886 Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London. He was a member of the Colonial Party led by Sir Charles Dilke and James Hogan in the House of Commons and was dubbed 'the Member for Australia' by the English press; this sobriquet was resented and ridiculed by Australian radicals and nationalists.

Heaton hoped that Australian nationalism would not sever ties with Britain but his imperial federationism was practical; planning 'to stick the Empire together with a penny stamp', he campaigned long for cheaper postal and telegraphic charges. His original scheme for imperial penny postage was derided in 1886 but in 1898 became the rule from Britain to all parts of the empire except Australia. Heaton argued that the shipping contracts which kept Anglo-Australian postal charges high bore no relation to the cost of transporting mail but were a form of subsidy to the merchant marine. In 1905 the first penny letter from Britain to Australia was posted and in 1911 Australia at last reciprocated. By then Heaton had espoused a new cause, penny-a-word telegrams throughout the empire. Long critical of the monopolistic practices of the major telegraph companies, he had represented Tasmania with some success at the 1885 International Telegraphic Conference in Berlin and had given evidence on the subject to the 1887 Colonial Conference in London. He won many deductions in cable rates, brought international telegrams within the reach of the ordinary man and enabled Australian newspapers to give a fuller coverage of world news.

In London Heaton was a fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute and the Royal Society of Literature, and lectured to the latter on Australian Aboriginals. Chess was his favourite recreation; he also collected Australiana and at one stage owned the Endeavour journals of Sir Joseph Banks. Heaton had four times declined a knighthood and in 1912 was made a baronet but his health was deteriorating. Taken ill while travelling on the Continent, he died at Geneva on 8 September 1914. He was survived by his wife, four sons and two daughters.

Heaton had an attractive personality and was a devoted husband and father as well as an urbane clubman and celebrated raconteur. Abuse and ridicule never disturbed him and despite stubborn pursuit of his enthusiasms he made no enemies. Happily self-aware, he recognized that he owed his remarkable success as a postal reformer to being 'a sort of Paganini' who played 'perfectly on one string'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Salmon, Twelve Men of Today (Lond, 1892)
  • R. Porter, The Life and Letters of Sir John Henniker Heaton (Lond, 1916)
  • H. Robinson, Britain's Post Office (Lond, 1953)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1878-79
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1885 (127, 128)
  • Bulletin, 6 Mar 1880
  • Australasian, 6 Jan 1906
  • Daily Telegraph (London), 21 Feb 1912, 10 Sept 1914
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Mar 1914, 10 Apr 1915
  • Henry Parkes letters and document 654b (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

B. K. De Garis, 'Heaton, Sir John Henniker (1848–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 19 July 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

Sir John Heaton, J. Russell &​ Sons, c.1880s

Sir John Heaton, J. Russell &​ Sons, c.1880s

National Library of Australia, 49148718

Life Summary [details]


18 May, 1848
Rochester, Kent, England


8 September, 1914 (aged 66)
Geneva, Switzerland

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