Sir John Winthrop Hackett

Winthrop Hackett: the first bequest

Like many of UWA’s landmarks, including Winthrop Avenue, Winthrop Hall, Hackett Hall and Hackett Drive, the Winthrop Society is named after Sir John Winthrop Hackett KCMG (1848–1916), the key figure in the University’s early history.

The founding of a university in Western Australia was, for many, a controversial proposition. Conservatives thought a university was an unnecessary luxury. Many on the other side believed universities produced useless snobs.

Not so Sir John Winthrop Hackett KCMG (1848–1916) – known throughout his life as Winthrop Hackett – an influential politician, agriculturalist, editor of the colony’s main newspaper, The West Australian, and, in time, the new university’s inaugural Chancellor.

Born in County Wicklow, Ireland, Sir John read law at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1875, he emigrated to Sydney, where he was called to the New South Wales bar. During this time, he contributed pieces to The Sydney Morning Herald. Moving to Melbourne, he became vice-principal and tutor in law, logic and political economy at Trinity College (University of Melbourne) and wrote for The Age and The Melbourne Review.

He finally settled in Western Australia in the 1880s. He became more involved in the newspaper business, and quickly rose to be the editor of The West Australian. A strong advocate of responsible government for the colony, in 1894 Sir John was appointed to the Legislative Council. He won the seat again when first elections were held, and continued to hold it until his death in 1916.

Campaigning for a new university, including via his newspapers, Sir John at last became the Chairman of the Royal Commission that led to the establishment of The University of Western Australia. After decades of debate and tireless work by many, including Sir John Winthrop Hackett, UWA opened its doors in 1913.

In what was a pressing issue at the time, it was his casting vote as Chancellor that decided UWA would not charge fees to students. This made UWA unique in the British Empire, and it was a highly unorthodox position in the days when ‘economic rationalism’ ruled. To many less-affluent Western Australian families, it was a cause for hope, as university education became a possibility for their children.

Having devoted much of his life to working for the benefit of the Western Australian community, Sir John left a gift to UWA in his will – the equivalent of more than $32 million, which established an endowment enduring to the present day.

His bequest has supported a Chair in Agriculture and almost a hundred years of Hackett Scholarships, which have changed the lives of generations of students. Perhaps most visibly, the Hackett bequest funded the construction of UWA’s most recognisable buildings: Hackett Hall and Winthrop Hall. In time, the clock tower of Winthrop Hall would become UWA’s, and one of Perth’s, most recognisable landmarks.

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