Frederick Whirlpool VC

October 18, 2018

Frederick Whirlpool VC

It probably needed the skills of a former police investigator to get to the bottom of the mystery of Frederick Whirlpool, the first person in Australian uniform to be presented with the Victoria Cross. His medal hangs in the Australian War Memorial, but his name wasn't really Whirlpool. We now know a lot more about him thanks to former police officer and former art gallery director, now turned historian and writer, Alan Leek, whose book, Frederick Whirlpool: Australia's Hidden Victoria Cross, I had the pleasure of launching at the Hawkesbury museum.

Whirlpool's links with the Hawkesbury are strong. He moved to Victoria in 1859 but then found the Hawkesbury, hiding his past and some of his demons, and, with those, he hid the story of how he came to be awarded the VC. Humphrey James was his real name, and he was awarded the VC for services during the 1857-58 Indian mutiny, where he suffered 17 severe sword wounds that ended his military career.

I'm always fascinated by the stories behind the soldiers who serve in battles and events not of their own making. This era of colonisation by the British took their soldiers around the globe. It was the peak of the East India Company, formed in 1600 for the exploitation of trade with East and South-East Asia and India. The Indian mutiny led to the dissolution of the East India Company and forced the British to reorganise the army, the financial system and the administration in India. It resulted in India being administered directly by the British government in the new British Raj for nearly 100 years.

My point is that this was a time of tumultuous change in parts of the world, and there is so much that we don't know about the lives of the individual men who were part of that time. That's why I say that true investigative skills were needed to reveal the details of Whirlpool's life. Alan Leek honed his skills during his years in the New South Wales Police Force, including leading the investigation into Australia's first political assassination. Whirlpool was presented with his VC by Lady Barkly, the then Victorian governor's wife, when he was a member of the Hawthorn and Kew Volunteer Rifles. His grave, though, now lies in South Windsor, in my electorate, unmarked and neglected. I'm hoping to find a way to fix that and ensure that the Hawkesbury can provide appropriate recognition for a VC awardee, the first to be presented their award publicly in Australia and the first to someone wearing an Australian uniform.