Frederick Whirlpool – Hawkesbury’s forgotten Victoria Cross recipient

Frederick Whirlpool was possibly the only Victoria Cross recipent to live in the Haekesbury. He died at McGraths Hill in 1899 and only one mourner attended his funeral. In his later life, he had built a slab hut in the McGraths Hill bush, in which to live, and was rarely seen, becoming a hermit. His only visitor was a local shopkeeper, John Dick Smith, who had befriended him.

It is usual for every Victoria Cross winner to have a memorial noting their bravery on their headstone, but as Whirlpool lies in an umarked grave, he is believed to be the only Victoria Cross recipient to have neither a memorial or headstone. No photos exist of Whirlpool, either in military uniform or in his later life.

Whirlpool was born in Liverpool, England in 1829 to Irish parents. In 1854, aged 25, Whirlpool enlisted in the British Army at Glasgow. It was during his service with the 3rd Bombay European Regiment as part of the Indian Mutiny in 1858 that he received the Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry issues to British and Commonwealth troops. Whirlpool received the VC for his bravery and valour during the actions at Jhansi and Lohari, as described in this report from the London Gazette, dated the 21st of October 1859:

“For gallantly volunteering on the 3rd of April, 1858, in the attack of Jhansi, to return and carry away several killed and wounded, which he did twice under a very heavy fire from the wall; also, for devoted bravery at the Assault of Lohari on the 2nd of May, 1858, in rushing to the rescue of Lieutenant Doune, of the Regiment, who was dangerously wounded. In this service, Private Whirlpool received seventeen desperate wounds, one of which nearly severed his head from his body. The gallant example shown by this man is considered to have greatly contributed to the success of the day.”

Invalided out of the army in 1859, and disliking the attention he was receiving as a Victoria Cross winner, he decided to emigrate to Australia. Arriving in Melbourne, Whirlpool was presented with his Victoria Cross by Lady Barkly, the wife of the Victorian Governor, in the presence of some 10,000 spectators.

Australia Post commemorative letter of Whirlpool's VC presentation.
Australia Post commemorative letter of Whirlpool’s VC presentation.

His was the first Victoria Cross ever presented in Australia, and Whirlpool received an annual pension of £10. By 1865 Whirlpool was earning his living as a schoolmaster, firstly at Wisemans Ferry and later at Pitt Town.

Unfortunately the privacy that he wanted did not occur when he had emigrated, and Whirlpool changed his name several times to avoid being discovered as a Victoria Cross winner. He used Frederick Conker, which was his birth name, changing it again to Frederick Humphrey James, before finally adding Whirlpool.

Around the 24th of June 1899, Whirlpool had a heart attack in his little slab hut and passed away, aged 70 years. He was found by the delivery man from John Dick Smith’s shop, when he called with his usual weekly delivery of groceries. Whirlpool is reputedly buried in an unmarked grave at the Methodist Cemetery at McGraths Hill. The Victoria Cross that was awarded to Whirlpool is held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

For a man whose gallantry earned him the highest award in Britain and the Commonwealth, he ended his life the way he chose, as a quiet man withdrawn from society.

This blog post is based on the article “Frederick Humphrey James Whirlpool: 1829-1899” by Carol Carruthers, from Issue No 3 (2014) of the Journal of the Hawkesbury Historical Society Incorporated.

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3 thoughts on “Frederick Whirlpool – Hawkesbury’s forgotten Victoria Cross recipient

  1. Frederick Whirlpool’s was born “Humphrey James” and educated at Dundalk Educational Institution – when his family were resident in Ireland in the mid 19th century. He appears to have assumed the surname “Whirlpool” when he enlisted in the British Army.

    Note: “Dundalk Educational Institution” has been known as “Dundalk Grammar School” since 1921. Two other past pupils have also been recipients of the Victoria Cross.

    Cyril Drury
    Headmaster Dundalk Grammar School (2005-2016)

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