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Sir Peter Richard Heydon (1913–1971)

by J. R. Nethercote

This article was published:

Sir Peter Richard Heydon (1913-1971), public servant, was born on 9 September 1913 at Croydon, Sydney, son of native-born parents Vigar Crawford Heydon, schoolteacher, and his wife Emily, née Sinclair. Educated at Fort Street Boys' High School, Peter won an exhibition to the University of Sydney (B.A., 1933; LL.B., 1936). After completing articles with the solicitors Vickery & Wilson, he was admitted to the Bar in 1936 but did not practise. In March that year Heydon joined the political section of the Department of External Affairs in Canberra. He served as private secretary to Sir George Pearce from July to November 1936, to (Sir) Robert Menzies on his 1938 visit to Britain and Europe, and to S. M. (Viscount) Bruce, the Australian high commissioner in London, when he came to Australia in 1939. In September-December Heydon was liaison officer with the Department of Defence in Melbourne.

His diplomatic career was fully launched in January 1940 with his appointment to the staff of R. G. (Baron) Casey, the Australian minister in Washington. On 7 March 1942, in Ottawa, Heydon married Muriel Naomi Slater, a Canadian who was Casey's personal assistant. Heydon was one of the external affairs officers whom H. V. Evatt distrusted, apparently because of his prior connexions with Menzies and Pearce. In November Evatt sent Heydon and his Washington colleague (Sir) Keith Officer to the Australian legation in the Soviet Union which opened at Kuibyshev in January 1943. The 'difficult and delicate task' of representing Polish interests in the Soviet Union gave Heydon valuable experience in 1943-44.

Early in 1945 he returned to Canberra where he was briefly in charge of the department when (Sir) William Dunk and J. W. Burton took leave. Heydon was posted to London in 1947 as head of the external affairs staff at Australia House. From May to October 1950 he was chargé d'affaires in The Hague. That posting was followed by two years as minister in Rio de Janeiro and by high commissionerships in Wellington (1953-55) and New Delhi (from 1955). The appointment to New Delhi brought him 'most satisfaction and happiness'. Under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, India was a major force among non-aligned powers. Despite numerous difficulties—India's perception that Australia favoured Pakistan in the dispute over Kashmir, India's sensitivity to Australia's membership (with Pakistan) of the South-East Asia Treaty Organization, the conflicting attitudes of Australia and India towards the People's Republic of China, Australia's support for Anglo-French policy in the Suez crisis of 1956, and clashes between India and Australia at the United Nations over Australia's trusteeship of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea—Heydon was able to win Nehru's trust.

Back in Australia in 1959 as assistant- (later first assistant-) secretary, he frequently acted as departmental head in the absences of Sir Arthur Tange. Heydon saw the department grow to a staff of four hundred in Canberra and seven hundred overseas, and gave particular attention to building its relations with parliament, the press and the universities.

On 6 November 1961 Heydon succeeded Sir Tasman Heyes as secretary of the Department of Immigration. To his new department he brought a broad appreciation of the workings of government, a network of contacts in Australia and abroad, and a concern about the public standing of the immigration programme. He won respect and admiration for his businesslike approach to administration, his tactical sense, his appreciation of what was viable, his capacity in drafting ministerial submissions and his ability to inspire confidence. Conscientious in attending to his duties, he identified priorities, formulated staffing levels, set high standards and developed esprit de corps. Both he and his minister (Sir) Hubert Opperman persuaded the government in 1966 to liberalize the White Australia policy. With the aim of ensuring better settlement of immigrants, in 1969 Heydon successfully pressed for the establishment of a committee to facilitate the recognition of foreign professional qualifications. In 1959 he had been appointed C.B.E.; he was knighted in 1970.

A keen reader, especially of history and biography, Heydon wrote a memoir of Pearce, Quiet Decision (Melbourne, 1965); he also published biographical essays and articles on immigration and diplomacy. A 'big and exuberant man', and an able public speaker, he was in private conversation a 'splendid (and tireless) raconteur'. His stories were often about the ministers he had served, but he could make himself the butt of his jokes; he related how he once arranged a flag for Evatt's official car in London only to be informed by the minister that it was in fact the flag of New Zealand.

Heydon shared his family's enthusiasm for golf, and retained an interest in cricket and Rugby Union football. He had been troubled by high blood pressure from his mid-thirties though he did not allow it to restrict his enjoyment of life. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, he died of a myocardial infarction on 15 May 1971 in Canberra; after a service at the Presbyterian Church of St Andrew (where he had been an elder) he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp (ed), Peter Richard Heydon 1913-1971 (Canb, 1972) and for publications
  • Canberra Times, 17 May 1971
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 1971.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

J. R. Nethercote, 'Heydon, Sir Peter Richard (1913–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 September, 1913
Croydon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


15 May, 1971 (aged 57)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.