Perth Stuff > People/Places > Irwin

Frederick Chidley Irwin

irwinThe first military commandant in the colony was also the first person to have a street named after him, along with William Milligan, the first doctor.

THE impending departure of Brigadier Martyn on transfer to South Australia rouses memories of his predecessor, our first Commandant. Captain (late Lieut. Col.) Frederick Chidley Irwin, K.H. His span of office covers the most interesting years of the Colony's history from its birth to adult age.

On November 29, 1827, the British Government wrote to Captain Stirling, R.N., H.M S. Success, Sydney, that it was not the intention of His Majesty's Government to form an Establishment at Swan River. On receipt of this dampening news Stirling hastened home, and as a consequence on November 29, 1828, a year later to the very day, we find Sir George Murray writing to the Commander-in-Chief directing that a Detachment of 60 rank and file, with a proper proportion of officers and noncommissioned officers, be held in readiness 'for embarkation for the Western Coast of New Holland where His Majesty's Government judge it advisable to establish a British Settlement.'

To this instruction General Lord Hill replied on December 3, 1828, that he had ordered the detachment to be drawn from the 63rd Regiment, and that he had also ordered that as large a proportion as possible should be married men. Following this, he informed Mr. Twiss on December 24 that the party would consist of 100 men, women, and children under the command of Captain Frederick Chidley Irwin; while still later, on January 3, 1829, Mr Hay was informed that orders had been dispatched 'by this night's post' for the detachment to embark on H.M.S. Sulphur.

Here I may pause to observe that we have all this written on the map of Perth, so to speak. - We have James-street and Stirling-street, north of the railway, to remind us of our first Governor; Murray street and Hay-street, in the centre of the town, recall Sir George Murray and Under-Secretary Hay to our mind; Hill street, in East Perth, summons up memories of Lord Hill who was Wellington's right hand in the Peninsula, and also at Waterloo, where he routed the Old Guard, Napoleon's last hope; Twiss-street, also in East Perth, but now I think renamed Forrest-avenue, reminded our fathers and grandfathers of Under-Secretary Twiss; while Irwin-street commemorates the man whose story briefly is to follow. It is extraordinary the neglect which has been the lot of the great figures of early Perth, and perhaps Irwin has been none Help Captain F. C. Irwin. Captain F. C. Irwin. a greater victim than any in this respect. Thus the Australian Encyclopedia tells us that nothing is known of him prior to 1829, while the mis-called 'Cyclopedia of Western Australia' only indulges in generalities about him. This is not only unfair, it is ungrateful to one who for nearly 20 years gave to Western Australia all that was In him. As for not knowing anything of him prior to 1829, we know now at any rate that almost immediately after joining the army he was drafted to the Peninsula, where for the next six years he fought in every Important battle; for which service he was awarded: the Peninsula Medal with nine clasps, one for each action he had fought in. Their names bring back all the glamour that surrounds Napoleon's name, though they were actually like so many nails In his coffin: Oporto, Talavera, Fuentes d'Onoro, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajos, Vittorio, Pyrenees, the capture of Madeira, and the taking of the Castle by Escalade in 1812. The Napoleonic Wars over, we next sight Irwin in Ceylon where he was stationed during 1817-1818; but after that I lose sight of him until General Lord Hill names him the Commandant of the Detachment of the 63rd to proceed to Swan River. In the meantime he had become a Captain, and as such he had toured the Highlands as a Recruiting Officer for the British Army a year or two before he was chosen for Western Australia. I know that much from the letters of Dr. Alexander Collie, Surgeon of H.M.S. Sulphur, who writing from the Sulphur to his brother George at Aberdeen asks: 'By the way do you remember the Captain of Infantry who was at Aberdeen a year or so ago looking for recruits? He is here on board as the Commander of the Detachment, a Captain Irwin.' And Collie goes on to say both in this first letter, and In subsequent ones for the next year or so, that Irwin seems to have lost his heart to some unnamed lass at Aberdeen after whom he is always inquiring, but always (much to Collie's amusement) in a roundabout sort of way. It never got further than that, however, for he was later to marry a Perth lady, a Miss Courthope, I think.

The Sulphur dropped anchor in Cockburn Sound on June 8, 1829, and on June 16 1829, Captain Irwin disembarked with his detachment. Taking over the post at Fremantle established by Captain Fremantle, he passed up the river to Perth, or what was to be Perth, on June 18, 1829, and thereafter ranked next to Stirling in the affairs of the Colony. He was the senior member of the Legislative Council called into being in January, 1831, and as such became vice-chairman. When Stirling departed for England, Irwin stepped naturally Into his shoes and became Lieutenant-Governor from September, 1832, until September, 1833. It was a year of trials and troubles, mostly with the natives. Irwin was forced to arrest Yagan and to imprison him on Carnac Island, and when he escaped, and the killing of the Velvick brothers followed, a price was set on the heads of Midgegaroo and Yagan. Midgegaroo was captured and tried by the Lieutenant Governor in Council. He was palpably guilty, Irwin wrote in his dispatch home, and the Council considering he was too old to be reformed—he was 50—it was decided to condemn him to death! Accordingly he was taken out in front of the gaol, now the Deanery, and shot by soldiers of the 63rd Regiment in the presence of Irwin and his Council. Irwin went home in 1833 and took the opportunity to publish a volume: 'The State and Position of Western Australia.' It was one of the first books on the Colony and breathed his deep religious feelings. He was promoted Major in 1836, returned to Perth at Commandant of the Forces, was Lieutenant-Colonel in 1845, and in February, 1847, was once again Governor on the death of his old friend and former comrade-in-arms, Lieutenent-Colonel Andrew Clarke.

Irwin was Acting Governor from February, 1847, until August 1848, but he was never popular and was subjected to bitter criticism during the whole period. This was partly due to the personal antipathy of Dr. Sholl, the editor of the 'Inquirer,' which antipathy is said to have had its genesis in his unsuccessful application for the post of Colonial Surgeon. Irwin roused the antagonism of the sandalwood cutters by imposing a tax on sandalwood for the upkeep of the roads, but compromised by altering it to licence fees for the gutters. To solve the labour shortage he sent the Champion to Singapore for 300 Chinese, but only a few were brought down. Perhaps the most important change he made was the abolition of the General Roads Trust and the setting up of a Central Board of Works for the construction and maintenance of roads. Deeply religious, he was interested from the foundation of the Colony in the establishment of a mission. On retiring, he returned to England and died at Cheltenham on March 31, 1360. Besides Irwin-street his name is commemorated in the Irwin River, and the Irwin district.

References and Links

Cygnet [Cyril Bryan], 'First Colonial Commandant: Frederick Chidley Irwin', West Australian, 14 December 1935: 4.

Wikipedia page for Irwin, whence the photo


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