Robert Heaton Rhodes was born on 27 February 1861 at Purau, a farming locality on the shore of Lyttelton Harbour, the eldest son of Sophia Circuit Latter and her husband, Robert Heaton Rhodes, a substantial landowner. As he had the same name as his father, the family always called him Heaton.
Heaton Rhodes moved to Christchurch with his parents in 1866, where his father built a large house, Elmwood, on Papanui Road. He attended Mrs Alabaster's school in Cranmer Square, then the Reverend Charles Turrell's school in Upper Riccarton. When the family travelled to Europe in the 1870s, Heaton went to a school at the Château de Lancy near Geneva to improve his French. He was then sent to England and enrolled at Hereford Cathedral School in 1876, where he excelled in rowing and cricket. About 1880 Rhodes entered Brasenose College in the University of Oxford. Completing his MA in 1887, he was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple, London, but in 1888 returned to New Zealand, where he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court in Christchurch.
On the voyage home Rhodes befriended a young Australian, Alister Clark, of Glenara, Victoria, who then visited New Zealand and later married Rhodes's sister Edith. Their bridesmaid was Alister's sister Jessie, who had already caught the eye of Heaton Rhodes on a previous visit: they were married at Bulla, near Melbourne, on 20 May 1891. His father's death in 1884 made him an exceptionally wealthy young man, enabling him to give up the law and adopt a new career as a farmer and country gentleman.
From about 1893 Rhodes bought farmland near Taitapu, nine miles south of Christchurch; the farm eventually comprised some 5,000 acres. Rhodes commissioned Frederick Strouts, architect of his new house at Elmwood (the previous one burned down in 1882), to design a grand country house. The result, completed in 1895, was a three-storeyed 40-room timber and slate house, Otahuna.
Otahuna soon became a popular venue for the garden parties of Canterbury's social élite, and for polo matches, in which Rhodes was a keen and expert participant. But his main preoccupation for the next decade was the design and planting of a large garden, on a scale rarely seen in New Zealand. An artificial lake was constructed, and several acres were laid out in trees, lawns, avenues and flower beds.
Heaton Rhodes took a close personal interest in this remarkable garden, and from his intimate knowledge of its shrubs and flowers he became an expert horticulturist, much in demand as a judge at flower shows in Canterbury. He was elected president of the Canterbury Horticultural Society in 1903, and held this post for the next 53 years. Otahuna soon became famous for its fields of daffodils, and on open days between 1928 and 1954 thousands of people visited. Surplus bulbs were donated to the Christchurch Hospital and the Government Domain (later the Botanic Gardens), forming the nucleus of the daffodil beds which now line the Avon River.
Rhodes was highly respected as a model farmer, and was elected president of the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association for 1896. In 1898 he established the first herd of Norfolk red poll cattle in New Zealand, and championed the merits of this breed so well that he became the first president of the New Zealand Red Poll Cattle Breeders' Association in 1921. Otahuna was also noted for its fine flocks of English Leicester and Corriedale sheep, while its Clydesdale stud competed successfully at shows and ploughing matches for many years. Rhodes often surprised visitors (and his own farm manager) with his detailed knowledge of farming practice and animal husbandry.
Horses were another early interest, leading directly to over 30 years of military service. He was a member of the team that won the first Savile Cup for polo in 1890 and kept it for the next three years. Besides playing polo, he became a steward of the Canterbury Jockey Club, and joined the Christchurch Hunt Club, becoming its president in 1892. He had joined the Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry Volunteers in the 1880s, and was appointed lieutenant in 1896 and captain in 1902. In January 1902 he volunteered for service in the South African War, and was appointed captain commanding F Squadron of the South Island Regiment of the Eighth Contingent. He took his own horses, and had others sent from Otahuna. He proved himself 'a very popular and respected officer' as assistant camp adjutant. He was later awarded the Queen's South Africa Medal with four campaign clasps. Rhodes commanded the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Brigade until 1921.
Rhodes attempted to enter politics in 1890, but was defeated in Heathcote by a labour candidate, W. W. Tanner. In 1899 he won the Ellesmere seat from W. H. Montgomery, as an 'old-style Liberal'. Rhodes joined William Massey's cabinet in 1912 as postmaster-general and minister of public health. He gained a reputation as an able and energetic minister. He was hard-working, efficient and honest, but not forceful or ruthless enough to make a big impact in politics. In 1915 he resigned from cabinet to facilitate the formation of a wartime coalition government.
Rhodes never remained unoccupied for long, however. In September 1915 the New Zealand government appointed him a special commissioner to visit Egypt, Malta and Gallipoli to investigate complaints about the transport and treatment of sick and wounded New Zealand soldiers. His report led directly to many improvements which saved lives and earned him much public esteem in New Zealand. Parliament voted £500 to cover his expenses, but he refused to accept the money for himself, and, adding £500 of his own, asked that it be used to set up a scholarship fund for the sons of returned soldiers. This became the nucleus of the Kitchener Memorial Scholarship.
In November 1917 Rhodes was sent to London as the special commissioner of the New Zealand Branch of the British Red Cross Society and he supervised its work in hospitals in France and England 'with unqualified success' until August 1919. His decorations at the end of the First World War included an award from the Serbian Red Cross and the French Légion d'honneur. He was made a KBE (military division) in 1920.
In 1920 Rhodes was appointed minister of defence. He was instrumental in helping to establish what became the Royal New Zealand Air Force, with the acquisition of the Sockburn airfield which later became Wigram air force base. Rhodes was also appointed commissioner of state forests in 1922. In these years the foundations were laid for New Zealand's future exotic timber industry. Under Rhodes, the area planted in state forests doubled and revenue increased five-fold. Forestry officials praised Heaton Rhodes as their most supportive and effective minister to date.
On medical advice Rhodes retired from politics in 1925. He was promptly appointed to the Legislative Council, and became its leader in 1926 during F. H. D. Bell's absence. He was deputy leader for two further terms until his final retirement in 1941. During the royal tour of 1927 Rhodes was minister in attendance on the duke and duchess of York, and, in recognition of this service he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order – his second knighthood.
During the tour, one of the interests he found he had in common with the future King George VI (on which they corresponded for many years) was stamp-collecting. Rhodes had begun collecting as a boy, and his appointment as postmaster-general in 1912 had revived his interest. He took a close interest in all the new stamp issues, personally choosing the design and colours of the George V issue. He amassed the most complete collection of New Zealand stamps anywhere in the world. (The collection was later donated to the Canterbury Museum.) Rhodes was one of only three New Zealanders to have his name on the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists. From 1912 until 1915 and from 1921 to 1956 he was president of the Philatelic Society of New Zealand (later the Royal Philatelic Society of New Zealand), and he was the first person to achieve the distinction of being a fellow of both the New Zealand society and the Royal Philatelic Society, London.
Heaton Rhodes supported a wide range of charities and community activities over a long span of years, and was a regular attender at a remarkable diversity of committee and annual general meetings in Christchurch. He served on the board of directors of the Christchurch Press Company, the Canterbury University College Council, the board of governors of Christ's College, the Synod of the Diocese of Christchurch, the Canterbury Provincial Buildings Board, the Christchurch Cathedral Chapter and several local bodies. His benefactions were legion, but rarely publicised; they ranged from the Canterbury Museum and Royal Christchurch Musical Society to the Boy Scouts' Association. He was also for many years chairman of the board of trustees of the Rhodes Convalescent Home. He gave the land for a new school in Christchurch, which was named Heaton Intermediate after him.
Rhodes was highly respected by the Māori of Banks Peninsula for taking the trouble to learn their language; he once acted as interpreter for an elder addressing the governor-general. Before he left for the South African War, local Māori presented him with two valuable greenstone mere. His family's early connection with Akaroa gave him a special interest in this part of the peninsula, and when the little Māori church at Ōnuku was being restored for the 1940 centennial he arranged for a new altar to be carved at Rotorua by Māori craftsmen.
Rhodes first became involved in humanitarian work through the friendship of his sisters Edith and Emily with the young matron of Christchurch Hospital, Sibylla Maude, in the 1890s. His financial support, channelled through his wife, was crucial in helping Nurse Maude to set up her district nursing scheme, the first in New Zealand, in 1896. But his most significant humanitarian work was with the St John Ambulance Association. In 1920 he was appointed St John's first director of ambulance in New Zealand, a post which he held until 1931. He was made a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John in 1912, and donated property to the Christchurch centre. Heaton Rhodes became a vice president of the Christchurch centre in 1912 and was president from 1927 until his death. He was the first chairman of St John's Dominion Executive. When the Commandery in New Zealand of the Order of St John was formed in 1931, Rhodes was the obvious choice for its first knight commander. In 1947 he became the first New Zealander to be appointed Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order of St John. Rhodes was also elected president of the New Zealand Red Cross Society in 1939, and became a councillor of honour in 1945.
Heaton Rhodes enjoyed a long and happy marriage, but Jessie's health was always delicate and they had no children. She suffered a mental breakdown in 1909 and withdrew from public life for nearly a decade. In 1917 she accompanied Rhodes to London and with the cheerful companionship of a new maid, Vera Hynes, made a full recovery. Vera returned with them in 1919 and lived at Otahuna as their surrogate daughter. The greatest blow Rhodes ever suffered was Jessie's sudden death in 1929. He commissioned Cecil Wood, the architect, to design a church in her memory, and St Paul's, Taitapu, was consecrated in 1932. This lovely little church was built with stone from Mt Somers and the Otahuna estate, and from Australia. One wall incorporates a stone from St Paul's Cathedral, London.
This was not Rhodes's first or only benefaction to the Taitapu district. In 1904 he gave £200 and the land for a new public hall, and in 1921 he donated land for a new sports ground, the Rhodes Park Domain. The new Tai Tapu School which opened in 1931 was largely a result of his quiet generosity, and the new library opened in 1932 was financed from the proceeds of Daffodil open days at Otahuna.
Rhodes obviously enjoyed the role of benevolent country squire. Each year on prize-giving day he sent buckets of cherries to Tai Tapu School, and on Christmas Day he visited all of his employees on the Otahuna estate, with a leg of lamb for the wives, cash for the men and sweets for the children. Otahuna was the venue for one of Canterbury's first demonstrations of aerial top-dressing in 1949.
Although he used a wheelchair in his final years, Heaton Rhodes retained good health and a lively mind. Always an energetic individual, he enjoyed riding, golf and swimming well past middle age. He usually started the day with a cold shower or swim. He died at Taitapu on 30 July 1956, aged 95. Apart from substantial public bequests to his favourite charities and life annuities to his numerous nieces, nephews and godchildren, his will directed his trustees to pay sums up to £100 to every employee on his various properties.
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. Bishop Warren's tribute referred to 'a quality of gentleness and quiet charm,' coupled with friendliness and helpfulness which endeared him to many. Daffodils still bloom at Otahuna, and the house remains his most tangible monument.