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Heaton, John Deakin (1817–1880), physician and advocate of provincial civic pride, was born at 7 Briggate, Leeds, Yorkshire, on 23 November 1817, the younger of the two children of John Heaton (1769–1852), bookseller and stationer, and his second wife, Ann (1774–1841), daughter of William Deakin, a farmer. The art collector was his elder sister. Growing up surrounded by the literature and debate of his father's bookshop (regular visitors included Edward Baines, publisher of the Leeds Mercury), Heaton was from an early age enveloped in a culture of rational knowledge which underpinned his public life. And while he later abjured his father's Independent faith, the inquiring nonconformity in which he grew up proved highly influential on his vision of civil society.

After some ill-performing years at a local day school, Heaton was in 1830 admitted to Leeds grammar school. In 1834 his practical-minded father withdrew him from school to take up an apprenticeship with a Leeds surgeon, Mr Braithwaite. A year later Heaton combined his technical training with an academic course at the Leeds school of medicine. He excelled at the subject, gaining prizes in anatomy (1837), chemistry (1838), and forensic medicine (1839). After the conclusion of his apprenticeship in 1838 he spent an unhappy term at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, before entering University College, London, where he won the Fellowes gold medal for clinical medicine and the silver medal for botany awarded by the Apothecaries' Company. He graduated MB from London in November 1841 and MD in November 1843.

Before returning to Leeds to begin his professional career Heaton followed the fashion of other wealthy middle-class young men and embarked on a grand tour. After summer school in Paris he travelled extensively through Italy and southern Europe. On his return to Southampton, customs officers confiscated his numerous fine art acquisitions. In October 1843 he was elected physician to the public dispensary in Leeds, and took up residence at 2 East Parade, purchased by his comfortably retired father.

For Heaton the contrast between the architectural wonders of Renaissance Europe and the ugly, insanitary vista of industrializing Leeds was stark. His duties as physician led him to the overcrowded, fever-ridden courts and lanes surrounding Kirkgate, while his civic sensibilities were appalled by the filthy, narrow streets and utter absence of urban patriotism. It was a determination to transform the enfeebled cultural and physical fabric of Leeds that inspired his public life.

Under the aegis of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society (of which he was a council member from 1845 and president from 1868 to 1872), the Leeds Conversation Club, and the Leeds Improvement Society, Heaton placed himself at the heart of a benevolent oligarchy of merchants, professionals, and industrialists. A commitment to science, progress, and reform—the ethos of his father's bookshop—provided the guiding ideal. Through public speeches, debates, and conversazione this tightly knit, civic élite lobbied for public improvements from street widening to smoke inspectors.

Heaton's most productive intervention in Leeds came during the debate over a new town hall. Like others in his circle he was convinced that ‘a noble municipal palace … erected in the middle of their hitherto squalid and unbeautiful town … would become a practical admonition to the populace of beauty and art’ (Reid, 142). Supported by Baines's Leeds Mercury, he attacked narrow-minded ratepayers and—in a speech to the Philosophical and Literary Society—urged his fellow citizens ‘to show that in the ardour of mercantile pursuits the inhabitants of Leeds have not omitted to cultivate the perception of the beautiful’. The hall's new clock tower was, for instance, ‘to serve as a lasting monument of their public spirit and generous pride in the possession of their municipal privileges’ (Reid, 147).

Heaton's campaign proved a success. He was rewarded with a significant position during Queen Victoria's opening of the town hall in September 1858: a ceremonial sanction for Heaton's belief in architectural ambition, civic pride, and provincial autonomy. Meanwhile, his public, if not private, medical career flourished. In addition to lecturing at the Leeds school of medicine from 1844 until 1878 he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (1868) as well as physician to Leeds General Infirmary (1850) and the house of recovery. On 3 April 1850 he married Fanny Heaton (1828–1893), daughter of the Leeds stuff merchant John Heaton, and in 1856 they moved into 23 Clarendon Road, known as Claremont. During the 1860s and 1870s this idiosyncratic Georgian mansion became the hub of Leeds civic society. Dinners for visiting dignitaries from the British Medical Association, meetings of the Conversation Club, and receptions for the British Association governed the Claremont calendar.

Despite his alliance with the Baines family, Heaton remained a committed Anglican and in 1870 was elected to the Leeds school board on the establishment slate. Unhappy with the public profile of elected office, he demurred from standing for re-election in 1873 and instead used his position on the Yorkshire board of education to promote the creation of a college of science for Yorkshire. For Heaton, the college was to be another symbol of Leeds's urban identity, moral improvement, and intellectual capacity. Working closely with Lord Frederick Cavendish, Heaton proved an adept fund-raiser and institutional entrepreneur. He was the first chairman of the council of the Yorkshire College of Science, which opened in 1874. His wife was active in the movement for promoting the higher education of women in Leeds.

Even with foreign travel and the company of his six children, Heaton's final years were marked by depression. The death of his favourite daughter, May Rucker, in August 1877 produced a further weakening of spirit. Heaton himself died from pneumonia at Claremont on 29 March 1880, and was buried in the vault of St George's Church, Leeds, on 2 April. Inspired by the history of continental city states, Heaton typified those progressive middle-class professionals who so determinedly nurtured the elusive civic pride of mid-Victorian Britain.

Tristram Hunt


T. W. Reid, ed., A Memoir of J. D. Heaton, M.D. (1883) · E. Kitson Clark, The history of 100 years of life of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society (1924) · D. Payne and B. Payne, Claremont (1980) · Extracts from the journals of John Deakin Heaton, M.D., of Claremont, Leeds, ed. B. Payne and D. Payne, Thoresby Society, 53, pt 2 (1871), 93–153 · Munk, Roll, 4.161 · BMJ (10 April 1880), 570 · The Lancet (1 May 1880), 698 · P. H. J. H. Gosden and A. J. Taylor, eds., Studies in the history of a university, 1874–1974 (1975) · I. Jenkins, The Yorkshire Ladies' Council of Education, 1871–91, Thoresby Society, 66 (1979), 27–71 · m. cert. · d. cert.


H. H. Armstead, marble bust, 1882, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds · J. Pettie, oils, 1884, U. Leeds Art Collection · H. Adlard, engraving, repro. in Reed, Memoir

Wealth at death  

under £60,000: resworn probate, Feb 1882, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1880)