04/10/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State SLangler’s legacy to Hackettcene -

04/10/2005 - 22:00


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History, like life in general, can be most unkind to some people. Put otherwise, it can be kinder, much kinder, to some while not so to others.

History, like life in general, can be most unkind to some people.

Put otherwise, it can be kinder, much kinder, to some while not so to others.

State Scene was recently alerted to an underplayed detail of a once-leading Western Australian personage, which demonstrates such historical inequity well.

It involves Sir John Winthrop Hackett (1848-1916), about whom a few basic biographical details first.

Sir John – after whom Canberra’s suburb of Hackett, Perth’s suburb of Winthrop, Winthrop Hall at the University of WA, and Hackett Drive alongside Kings Park were all named – was born in Ireland, the son of Church of Ireland clergyman, Reverend John Winthrop Hackett.

Hackett reached WA via Melbourne in 1882 to manage a sheep station in the Gascoyne, a plan he quickly dropped.

Thereafter, in Perth, he moved into the print media to slowly emerge as the tiny colony’s eminence grise. 

By the roaring 1890s he was a senior mason, leading Anglican Church personage, powerful media proprietor, legislative councillor, and adviser to the premier, John Forrest.

Furthermore, he sat on a range of influential community organisations, including being chairman of the boards of Perth High School, Kings Park, State Library and Karrakatta Cemetery, and even headed something called the Acclimatisation Committee.

Hackett also presided over the Zoological Gardens Board, helped establish the museum, attended three meetings of the Federal Council of Australasia, and was at the crucial 1897-8 federal convention, which resulted in the colonies federating in 1901.

In the early 1890s he launched and stubbornly campaigned against government funding of Catholic schools, something fiercely opposed by Irish-born Bishop Matthew Gibney (1835-1925), who was sometimes called the ‘hero of Glenrowan’ since he had “tended the seemingly seriously wounded [Ned] Kelly, heard his confession and gave him the last rites” just after that gunfight at Glenrowan Hotel in June 1880.

In light of all this it’s little wonder WA historian Professor Geoffrey Bolton dubs Hackett “Western Australia’s cultural commissar in the 20 years before his death in 1916”.

Interestingly, Hackett seems to have been forgotten for nearly all these worthy civic-minded efforts.

In a real sense history has therefore been rather unkind to Sir John, though only in relation to his cultural activities.

Even Catholics have forgotten that he financially reversed their church’s educational endeavours in 1895 by succeeding to abolish, against John Forrest’s wishes, the Governor Weld system of assistance to their schools as the tiny colony’s population increased.

But then again it shouldn’t be forgotten that a major inner-city road and an outer southern Perth suburb carries his name, something most people probably give little, if any, thought to.

That, however, isn’t the case with another landmark associated with him – the University of WA and its iconic Winthrop Hall.

A provocative question one can ask is: does Sir John – WA’s original ‘Eddie everywhere’ – deserve the acclamation he’s gained with respect to the university?

And if yes, should all the acclamation go to him alone?

State Scene has recently spoken to someone who is historically well informed, and they believe not.

That thought-provoking, indeed, heretical, view is outlined thus.

When Hackett’s will was read, following his death on February 19 1916, it showed he had financially provided for his wife and children. After this there were “many bequests to charitable and public institutions, including the State Library .. he made the University of WA and the Church of England residual legatees”.

However, the next sentence of this published account inexplicably jumps a full 10 years by stating that: “The estate was realised in 1926 after 700,000 pounds had derived from Hackett’s interests in The West Australian Newspaper Co.

 “The university received 425,000 pounds, which it used principally to establish studentships and bursaries, and to construct Winthrop Hall and the Hackett Buildings at Crawley.

“The church used its 138,000 pounds to build St George’s College.

 “Hackett had given his adopted country a university, a powerful press and an entrenched Legislative Council.”

Well and good, if somewhat overstated. But what of that tiny detail of the 10-year gap between his 1916 death and 1926 when all that cash rolled in?

Well, according to State Scene’s learned contact, what happened over those crucial 10 years was that a gentleman called Alfred (later Sir) Langler (1865-1928) played a key role.

Who is this forgotten Alfred Langler?

He was born in England, reached Perth in 1895 – the year John Winthrop Hackett finally succeeded in abolishing state aid to Catholic schools – and became a sub-editor at The West Australian.

Langler and Hackett obviously became close pals because the former was to be sole executor of the latter’s will and editor and chairman of the newspaper.

But there’s more, much more.

 “When the probate was declared on Hackett’s estate in April 1916 the assets totalled less than the legacies and bequests, but Hackett had stipulated a delay in winding up his estate, giving Langler the opportunity to increase the value of the company, which stood at 93,230 pounds in September 1917.

Between 1916 and 1926, therefore, Langler battled on and in 1926 sold the newspaper to leading Melbourne financial and mining identities, William Baillieu and William Robinson, for 625,000 pounds, with the university’s share capitalised at 425,000 pounds and the Anglican Church’s at 138,000 pounds.

True, this money emanated from Hackett’s estate, but Alfred Langler played a not-insignificant role by dramatically beefing-up the value of the asset over a decade – from 93,230 to 625,000 pounds, almost a seven-fold increase.

Readers will, however, be pleased to learn that UWA didn’t entirely forget Alfred Langler, since he was “memorialised in a mosaic in the entrance to Winthrop Hall”.

But no suburbs, roads, or halls carry either of Alfred Langler’s names, suggesting history has somewhat unkindly ignored him for his crucially important contribution to tertiary education in WA.

That said, history was also rather cruel to the hero of Glenrowan, during whose episcopate his diocese boosted the number of churches by 19, primary schools by 32, superior schools by 18, added two orphanages and two hospitals, one college, one wayward women’s asylum, and a monastery.

Bishop Gibney countered Hackett’s successful campaign to abolish funding WA’s Catholic schools by recruiting dedicated lowly paid teaching nuns and brothers (generally from Hackett’s and Gibney’s beloved Ireland), and naturally resorted to charging modest school fees.

And the Hackett-driven funding setback prompted Gibney to become entrepreneurial.

 “From the late 1890s the church bought many shops, offices, houses, and a hotel,” one biographical account says.

In 1905 Gibney gained control of The Morning Herald, and promptly banned its publication of racing information. This move sent circulation tumbling, and the paper went into liquidation in 1909.

 “Another dubious venture was his partnership in the Greenbushes Development Co. The company operated ineffectively and returns were meagre,” that account says.

“By 1908 the church’s debts were over 216,000 pounds and his vicar-general was found to have been signing documents with Gibney’s signature.”

Word reached Rome and Sydney’s Cardinal Moran, who also played a role in Australia’s federation movement, headed an inquiry, after which Bishop Gibney went into seclusion.

He died in retirement in 1925, nearly a decade after long-time Irish-born antagonist Sir John Winthrop Hackett passed away, and a year before the Hackett money was found to be truly sizable because of Alfred Langler’s forgotten efforts.


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