Sir Robert Heaton Rhodes (1861 – 1956)

Few New Zealanders have achieved such prominence or popularity, received such high honours, or been more sincerely admired and respected in their own lifetime than Heaton Rhodes. Blessed with intelligence, talent, good looks and wealth, he made the most of his advantages. He excelled at many things, and is remembered in Canterbury as the province’s outstanding public figure of this century.

Geoffrey Rice

To be honest, I have avoided doing this article since I read my first ‘anything’ on Sir Heaton Rhodes (I mean I never start my own articles with the words of another historian but why reinvent the wheel when Geoff has hit the nail on the head) but as this story now enters into my thoughts every day, it is time to grab the bull by the horns.  What am I afraid of?  I am afraid that will never be able to do Heaton true justice with what I write.  There is no one else like him, his life was crammed full from beginning to end, and I find it all overwhelming.

So here’s the deal!  I have simply listed his top achievements and titles (and I know some will slip through the net so please forgive me) and chosen to invest my scribbles in telling you about the child that stumbled while playing in the tall reeds of Purau, the playmate of Willie Barker who killed a Morepork with a slingshot in Cathedral Square, the man of honour and substance, the husband of Jesse Cooper Clark, the much loved historic Cantab and the most well known member of the Rhodes family…Sir Heaton Rhodes.

1880’s – 1900’s Volunteer for the Canterbury Yeomen’s Cavalry
1896 – 1896 President of Canterbury Agriculture and Pastoral Association
1899 – 1925 Member of the House of Representatives
1902 – 1921 Member of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade
1903 – 1956 President of Canterbury Horticultural Society
1912 – 1915 Postmaster General/Minister of Health
1912 – 1956 Knight of Grace of the Order of St John
1916 – 1919 Commissioner of the New Zealand Red Cross
1916        Helped establish the beginnings of the Royal New Zealand Air Force with H.F. Wigram.
1920 – 1926 Minister of Defense
1922 – 1926 Commissioner of State Forests
1925 – 1941 Member of the Legislative Council
1927 – 1956 Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order

Served on the following boards: Christchurch Press Company, Canterbury College Council, Christ College Board, Canterbury Provincial Chambers Board and the Christchurch Cathedral Chapter.

Financially supported the following: The Canterbury Museum, Royal Christchurch Musical Society, Boy Scouts Association and Nurse Maude.

The first time the Rhodes Family and Canterbury met was when Heaton’s Uncle, William Barnard Rhodes, sailed his ship – The Australian – into Whakaraupo (Lyttelton Harbour) in 1836.  He made the climb up the Port Hills and liked what he viewed from all sides.  The old term of Port Cooper (Lyttelton), Port Cooper Plains (Canterbury Plains) and Port Levy came from him honouring his two employers back in Australia.  William returned to Banks Peninsula a few short years later and after forcing his livestock overboard, these wet creatures became the first hoof-stock to step foot on Canterbury soil, at Red House Bay in Akaroa Harbour.  William did not stay though, leaving his farm under a manager while he made his life in Port Nicholson (Wellington).  He did write back to his hometown of Yorkshire to invite his younger brothers to join him in New Zealand.

The first brother to arrive in Port Cooper was George Rhodes and he took over William’s South Island business interests.  He made the main hub of operations at Purau, Port Cooper.  Just before the arrival of the First Four Ships, Robert Heaton Rhodes – Heaton’s father – made the journey to New Zealand and joined George at Purau.  By the time the First Four Ships arrived, the Rhodes Brothers were already great land owners, their Canterbury cattle station sweeping around from Purau to the Scarborough Heads and over the Port Hills into Tai Tapu.  Although not proven, I believe the Rhodes named Scarborough after their childhood haunt back in England.  The Scarborough of England (where some of their mother’s family lived) looks very much like ours and the brothers spoke of it fondly.  William claimed it was there that he first fell in love with the sea.

In 1851, the Rhodes took an interest down south with the purchase of 75,000 acres.  It was decided that George would move down to manage the new station which was named ‘The Levels’.  This old farm is now the township of Timaru.  Meanwhile back at Purau, Robert and his wife Sophia Circuit Latter had begun having a family of their own.  In 1861, the pair welcomed their first son, named after his father but was known mostly as Heaton – his grandmother’s maiden name.

One can imagine the childhood that Heaton would have had, growing up in the wilderness of Purau.  But his young life changed forever with the death of his uncle George in 1864.  George had been babysitting Purau while Robert and the family were out of town and they were still a few days away from returning home when George passed away suddenly from a bad chill.  He had been up to his waist in a cold sheep dip over a couple days when he became ill.  The shock waves proved too much for William and Robert and their partnership dissolved over the next year.  This sadly meant that Robert couldn’t afford Purau anymore and plans were made to move into Christchurch.  George was buried at Lyttelton Anglican Cemetery.

Robert decided to purchase the bottom paddocks of the Strowan Estate that sat on the corner of Papanui Road and what we now know as Heaton Street.  Strowan (now St Andrew’s College) was owned then by Thomas Smith Duncan – the founder of Duncan and Cotterill – who made the property into a landmark with its gardens.  Robert named his slice of this land Elmwood and built a fine homestead there.  The name of Strowan and Elmwood are remembered today as names of two of our suburbs.

Heaton was soon shipped off to receive the best education in Europe.  As he grew into his teenage years, he proved to be a good scholar and enjoyed rowing and playing cricket.  He graduated in 1884 and pursued a career in law.  He passed his bar in 1887 and made plans to return home to Christchurch.  On the ship voyage back home, he became friends with an Australian named Alister Clark.  As the custom in those days, the Clark family was invited to spend Christmas at Elmwood.  It was there that Alister’s sister Jesse first caught Heaton’s eye.

Jessie then left to tour the world – as a rich young single lady of leisure usually did – but Heaton was never far from her thoughts.  As she took in the sights and turned down numerous marriage proposals – just in case Heaton ever got around to asking her – Heaton was making his way in the world as a lawyer at Christchurch’s Supreme Court.  Their chance came when they were reunited when Alister married Heaton’s sister Edith.  Their fate was sealed so to speak.  They married on the 20th May 1891 in Bulla which is near Melbourne.

“I think I am the luckiest of girls,” Jesse wrote to Alister, “and can scarcely believe it to be true. Like you I have no doubt as to the wisdom of the step I am taking. I have not a shade of doubt this time…Fancy him really caring about me, and before I went to England too! Well, everything comes to those who wait – for I also cared for him for years and could find no one equal, in spite of my travels…”

But with the death of Heaton’s father in 1884, Jesse had married a very rich man.  Heaton was able to leave law behind him and he chose to become a country gentleman.  But this no way meant that Heaton took the easy road in life as he could have easily chosen, but became busier than ever.  He threw himself into committees and government positions that sent him into the thick of Wars (Boer & WWI) more than once.  I think one of Heaton’s most proudest moments was being amongst the young New Zealand soldiers during World War I, spending time talking with them, sharing their letters from home with them, making sure their needs were met in every way possible.

In a wonderful twist in 1893, Heaton was able to purchase back some of the land that was once owned by his father. He and Jessie settled into the simple caretaker’s house that was on this site until their beautiful mansion – Otahuna – was finished.  At the time, the estate was named Gray Cliffe and was situated at Tai Tapu.  Elmwood remained as a guest house in Christchurch and was sold in the 1950’s.  It was bulldozed to make way for Heaton Normal Intermediate School.  Between the school and Papanui Road sits Circuit Street, a quiet memorial to Heaton’s mother, whose middle name was Circuit.  Elmwood Park – further south on Heaton Street was once Heaton’s polo grounds and where his horse stables one sat.

In 1925, Heaton attempted to retire from his political life due to bad health but really didn’t leave that arena until 1941.  In 1929, Heaton recalls with great sadness that the 12th October was a lovely spring day.  Jessie had been bright and cheerful, enjoying the church service they had been to that afternoon. Heaton, who always loved to be at his wife’s side, even recalls her singing that day. She happily chatted with neighbours afterwards and then invited the Vicar and his wife back to Otahuna for a cup of tea.

On returning home, Jessie rushed forward to find seating for her guests when she suddenly collapsed. In a few short hours, it was all over.  Heaton was thankful that Jessie’s passing had been without suffering or pain. Jessie had died from a cerebral hemorrhage.  Although he and Jesse had had a happy marriage, they had been unable to have children.  After discovering that the problem lay within Jesse, and even after several painful surgeries, nothing worked in favour of the couple.
Later in life, wracked by guilt, Jesse suffered a complete mental breakdown.  She disappeared from public life for a decade and these years were clearly the worst for Heaton.  After a few attempts to take her own life, she had to be watched constantly.   She even took up carrying around toy dolls and chatting away to them as if they were real.  Jesse did recover and spent her last years at Heaton’s side at all his public engagements.  What a courageous lady!

Heaton was to outlive his wife by another 30 years!  In her memory, he gifted the land and had St Paul’s church built.  This church still remains today.  Another memorial to the Rhodes that sits in Tai Tapu today is the Rhodes Park Domain.  Once farm land, Heaton purchased it so the people of Tai Tapu had a recreational area to enjoy.  At the gates is a war memorial, proudly listing those of the district that lost their lives.

In the last years of his life, he was a much loved old man of Tai Tapu. Just the sight of his car driving through the small township would send the children running out of their classrooms to wave at him as he went past.  Every Christmas he would send boxes of cherries to the children so no surprises to why they loved him so!

Heaton is one of my favourite historical figures; I have enjoyed studying him and felt his ups and downs.  So as 1956 ticked by slowly for Heaton, I will return to historian Geoff Rice to finish this article just like he started it.

Heaton’s was a lingering death.  Feeble and sleepy, with failed kidneys and all appetite gone, his heart simply refused to stop.  All those years of daily walks and swims, all those plain English meals and moderation with alcohol and tobacco, together with his unquenchable optimism and good humour, had made him a wiry old bird, one of the last survivors of his generation.  His lawyer Jack Rhodes had advised his bank manager that he was very ill and ‘sinking fast’ on the 23rd July, but Heaton held out for another week, until his heart finally stopped beating on 30th July 1956.

Geoffrey Rice

Heaton was buried with Jesse at St Paul’s Anglican Church at Papanui.

* Beginning paragraph courtesy of Geoffrey W. Rice. ‘Rhodes, Robert Heaton’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012

* Last paragraph courtesy of Geoffrey Rice, from his book ‘Heaton Rhodes of Otahuna’*

* Photo of Heaton and Jesse’s grave taken by Annette Bulovic*
* Image of Otahuna courtesy of*

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