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Sir John Henniker Heaton (1848–1914)

from Daily Telegraph

London, Wednesday— Sir John Henniker Heaton, M.P., the well-known postal reformer died at 11.30 a.m. on Tuesday, at Geneva, Switzerland.

The late Sir John Henniker Heaton came of a fine old English stock, the Heatons of Heaton, although he was born at Rochester, in Kent, in the year 1848. His father was a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, and he gave his son a good education at Kent, House Grammar School and King's College, London, but in his early years a spirit of adventure attracted him to Australia where he first went in for pastoral pursuits, but, afterwards became engaged in newspaper work. At one time he was town clerk of Parramatta. He was a great personal friend of the late Mr. Samuel Bennett, of the "Evening News," with whom he became associated in many business ventures, and the relationship became more closely cemented when Sir John Henniker Heaton married Mr. Bennett's daughter, Miss Rose Bennett. Sir John Henniker Heaton returned to Europe in the year 1883, when he was appointed to represent the Government of New South Wales at the Amsterdam Exhibition. Two years later he acted in a similar capacity for Tasmania, at the Berlin International Telegraphic Conference, and was successful in securing a substantial reduction in the cost of cable messages to Australia. This was his first noteworthy achievement in the chief ambition of a long and distinguished career — the cheapening of the means of postal and telegraphic communication between the different countries of the world, so as to make them readily accessible to the humblest in the community.

Securing election to the House of Commons for the Cathedral City of Canterbury, at the general election of 1885, Sir John at once plunged himself into the struggle for the universal penny postage. The task was one not easy of accomplishment. The House of Commons, engrossed with Gladstone's Home Rule policy and many other perplexing problems of foreign, colonial, and domestic concern, was not at the moment ready to listen to the postal reformer's pleading; yet the pleading had to be done. Sir John Henniker Heaton's assets were his transparent honesty, untiring advocacy, and absolute disinterestedness, and these, aided by a genial and winning personality, enabled him to win through. For his was essentially a fascinating and lovable character. It mattered not what passages at arms had taken place on the floor of the House between Mr. Chamberlain and Sir William Harcourt, Mr. Keir Hardie and Lord Wolmer, Mr. Johnston of Ballykillbeg and Mr. Tim Healy, political pugilists of the day — nil were forgotten in the delightful company of the "apostle of penny postage." Many men were willing to lend him a helping hand in his great mission, the urgency of which had been forged upon him by his Australian experiences. He received general and unstinted assistance from political friends and admirers on both sides of the House. Allied to this was the soundness of his argument as a business proposition and its strong Imperialistic and sentimental flavor, and as the result Sir John was able to see the first instalment of his scheme an accomplished fact when the Imperial penny postage was adopted in July, 1898.

But his efforts did not cease there. He never lost sight of his ideal — universal penny postage throughout the world. He kept on hammering away with restless energy, at the barriers existing through ancient prejudice, diplomatic difficulties, timidity, and lack of progressiveness on the part of foreign Governments. He was the sworn enemy to all out-of-date postal systems. That his admirers were legion and world-wide goes without saying. In Great Britain alone they included people of every rank and class, from Royalty downwards. Shortly before a recent Australian tour he received a beautiful and touching letter from Queen Alexandra, expressing a wish that he might speedily be restored to robust health.

No letter in Sir John's collection was perhaps more highly appreciated than the following eloquent message from that brilliant, Irish divine. Dr. Lefroy, Dean of Norwich: —

My dear Henniker Heaton. — Universal penny postage is due to humanity. England, as the mother of millions, should facilitate the commerce of her children with those of all lands. Interchange of thought smoothes the angles of insularity, clears the sympathy it deepens, and strengthens mutual respect, it will be the meanest expression of the peddling spirit if the broad and bright reforms you have initiated, and intelligence now desires, is hindered by official parsimony. The great England of to-day should set this matter going. Other nationalities would follow her lead. The old song of Deborah should be chanted as your enterprise expands. "The leaders took the lead and the people willingly followed." We should not suffer this honor to be won by any other Power on earth. You have done wonders, and I heartily hope the blessing of heaven may crown your untiring diligence, your intelligent enthusiasm, your inspiring courage, and your unifying universalism.

Amongst the other noteworthy reforms which may rightly be ascribed to Sir John Henniker Heaton's persistent influence were the telegraph money orders in Great Britain and Ireland, the parcel post to France, the reduction of the postage to India and the principal colonies to one-half the former rates, and important concessions in the cheapening of cables. He was still toiling with grim and dogged persistency for the nationalisation of the cable services when the Great Arbiter of human destiny ruled that to other hands must be committed the task. Despite the great amount of time Sir John expended on his public and parliamentary works, he found time for literary effort, and some of his publications display a vast amount of labor and research, besides literary ability of a high order. Amongst these may be mentioned "The Australian Dictionary of Dates and Men of the Time," a standard work of reference, "The Manners, Customs, Traditions, and Annihilation of the Aborigines of Australia," also "A Short Account of a Canonisation at Rome from an Unsectarian Point of View."

Privately, he was the most urbane, entertaining, and delightful companion. His conversation sparkled with humorous anecdotes and quaint experiences in the lives of many of the great public figures of his time, and he was a capital raconteur. An enthusiastic chess-player, he inaugurated the cable matches between British and American parliamentary teams, and in many other respects showed himself as interested in the comfort of the individual as in the convenience of the nation. The man's natural benevolence, innate philanthropy, and broadness of view scorned the narrow bounds of politics, creed, conventionality, or class. Never was he happier than when relieving the burden of some tottering brother who had grown faint by the wayside. He filled his life with useful works and humanitarian achievements, and the world is poorer for his death. He was the greatest postal reformer the world has probably ever known, and his services were frequently recognised in the greatest cities of the Empire. He was made a Freeman of London in 1899, Canterbury paid him a similar compliment the same year, and he was often asked to accept other honors. On four occasions he declined the K.C.M.G.. but in 1905 he accepted the knighthood, which was recognised as the simple tribute of a nation's thanks. He was made a baronet in 1912.

Sir John Henniker Heaton was in Australia only last year, sent by his doctors for a health trip, for, as he said at the time, he had come to be quiet. Nevertheless, he found time to take part in a number of public functions, and he was one of the interested participators in the Parramatta carnival, held in November of that year. There he told how 44 years before, he came to Parramatta by way of Victoria and was elected town clerk. He took the greatest pleasure in meeting the sons and daughters of old colonists whom he knew in his younger days. He was then full of new schemes of partial reform. He spoke of his desire to see a shilling cable of 12 words established throughout the Empire, and though the day for that has not yet arrived, Sir John had the greatest faith that it would not be much longer delayed.

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'Heaton, Sir John Henniker (1848–1914)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 May, 1848
Rochester, Kent, England


8 September, 1914 (aged 66)
Geneva, Switzerland

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