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

    • Hello Graham and Cyril. Just a few notes. I have found that the Hunter autobiography is not available for copyright reasons, so I will contact Dr Swan for assistance. It has become more important to do this because I have just been informed the UK rights to my book have been taken up and it will be published there next year, so I would like to add the information about Hunter.

  1. Thanks for the further information Cyril. The Hunter autobiography is available via Google Books, but I haven’t managed to navigate their system yet. They directed me to their app store. When I opened it, I was confronted with the greatest load of rubbish I have ever seen. Not really being sure of what was needed, indeed, what exactly was an app – I ran. Thanks for the information on Kenny – it was just a passing observation, always curious. The Dundalk Grammar School would also know about the Rev Elias Thackeray’s cousin’s visit, as Michael Angelo Titmarsh, William Makepeace’s nom de plume. He gives a full account of the workings of the school (institute) and its standing in the community – and further afield. I give his account a bit of a run in my book. Alan . enquiries@alanleek.com.au

  2. Hello again Graham and a message for Cyril Drury. I have located the autobiography of Thomas Hunter and it is available from Google Books – although I haven’t managed to download it yet. I think I need a kid to do it for me. Wish I had known this stuff before going to print, but will get it up on my site when I get hold of it. Many thanks to both of you, Alan Leek

  3. Hello Graham and Cyril. Fascinating story about Humphrey James and Dr. Thomas Hunter. They were both born in 1831. Do you have more detail on Hunter’s biography Cyril? Wish I had this information earlier, but isn’t that always the way it turns out? Humphrey James joined the Honourable East India Company Army as Frederick Whirlpool, not the British Army – confusing I know, but the HEIC was a strange arrangement.

    I also note Cyril, that William David Kenny VC is cited by the Dundalk Grammar School as a former pupil, although he was born in Co. Down in 1899. Is it possible that William Kenny VC, born 24.8.1880 at Drogheda, Co. Louth was the student at Dundalk Grammar? Does his proximity make him a more likely candidate? I understand that the school records were destroyed by billets at the school in WWI.

    Thackeray VC was not a pupil at Dundalk, I have found, although he was a cousin of Elias Thackeray and William Makepeace Thackeray.

    Graham, sorry, I missed your reply. I wrote about Whirlpool because it was begging to be unravelled and I was concerned that he didn’t have a headstone over his grave. Simple as that. So many errors clouded his story and I wanted to right them. Six years later…. I will work on the memorial in due course.

    Cyril, my book ‘Frederick Whirlpool VC – Australia’s Hidden Victoria Cross’ has been released and the launch will be held at the Hawkesbury Regional Museum, Windsor NSW on Sunday 7 October (not that it is much help to you) . A Google search of ‘Frederick Whirlpool VC Alan Leek’ will find it readily. Thanks for your input, regards . Alan

    • Hi Alan: You are right about the Institution records being used as heating fuel when the school was in abeyance during the war years but I am confident that William David Kenny, Co Down is the correct past pupil. The Institution always drew a significant number of pupils from Co Down over the years. (I am also fairly confident that his family have been in touch with the school over the years.)

      Very interesting to see you confirm that Humphrey James and Thomas Hunter were indeed both born in the same year. You might like to contact former Chairperson of the Board of Governors Dr Laurence Swan via the school (admin@dgs.ie). He has a copy of Dr Hunter’s autobiography. (By the way I have told him about your publication and I know he has a couple of copies on order!).

      Congratulations on the book launch – I look forward to reading it when a copy has made its way to Dundalk. Cyril

  4. Interesting comments, particularly those of Cyril Drury. Interested to know if Lt. Thackeray was one of the Dundalk VC recipients and if so, who the other one was. Rev. Elias Thackeray was the minister of St. Nicholas’ Church in Dundalk and principal of the Institute. He was a cousin of William Makepeace Thackeray. My work, ‘Frederick Whirlpool VC -Australia’s Hidden Victoria Cross’ will be published by Big Sky Publications, Sydney in mid-October 2018. It reveals the whole Whirlpool story. Regards Alan Leek, Camden Head.

    • The other past pupils of Dundalk Educational Institution awarded VC were James Emerson (Collon, Co Louth) killed in action France 1917 and William David Kenny (Saintfield, Co Down) killed in action India 1920. Dundalk Grammar School (as the Educational Institution is now known) will definitely be keen to acquire a copy of ‘Frederick Whirlpool VC -Australia’s Hidden Victoria Cross’ whenever it is published so please do publish details of its availability online. Best wishes to Alan on the forthcoming publication.

      A boy called Humphrey James (very likely Whirlpool) is referenced in an autobiography by another past pupil of the school, Dr Thomas Hunter (b1831), who emigrated to the USA after qualifying as a teacher and became a renowned educational reformer and founding President of Hunter College New York. Hunter tells the story of how as pupils he and Humphrey James were on the receiving end of regular beatings from another boy. The two boys formed an alliance – ” A Solemn League and Covenant” – to stand up to the bully and put an end to the beatings – possibly by delivering a “trashing” of their own!

  5. 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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