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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Chirnside, John Percy (1865–1944)

by Heather B. Ronald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John Percy Chirnside (1865-1944), soldier, politician and pastoralist, was born on 2 October 1865 at Carranballac, Skipton, Victoria, youngest son of Andrew Chirnside, pastoralist, and his wife Mary, née Begbie. The family soon went for five years to Scotland where they owned Skibo Castle, Sutherlandshire. On returning to Australia, Percy was educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School. He then travelled with a tutor for two years, visiting nearly every country in the world. For the next few years he lived at Werribee Park, the mansion built by his father and uncle Thomas in the mid-1870s; here he shared his enthusiasm for hunting, coursing, polo and shooting with his brothers Robert, Andrew and George.

Bent on a military career, Chirnside was commissioned lieutenant in the Victorian Field Artillery Brigade in June 1887. Two years later his father agreed to contribute to the cost of raising and maintaining a half-battery of horse artillery at Werribee, of which Percy took command. Horses, uniforms, drill hall and stables were provided by Andrew Chirnside, also half the sergeant major instructor's salary. When Andrew died in 1890, Percy and his brother George, who had jointly inherited the Werribee estate, continued to maintain the half-battery. Percy went to England in November for further training at Woolwich and Aldershot and returned next July. He was promoted captain in January 1893, but in February the government disbanded the Werribee half-battery rather than meet the cost of replacing obsolete guns. Chirnside was placed on the reserve of officers in March, retiring in October 1897.

In September 1894, standing as an independent tariff reformer, Percy won the seat of Grant in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. He regarded himself as a 'liberal conservative'. While rarely vocal in the House, he maintained a particular interest in defence matters and was popular among his constituents. He did not stand for re-election in May 1904, when the seat disappeared in a redistribution.

At All Saints Church, St Kilda, on 22 February 1893 Chirnside had married Ethel Mary Fenner. After a honeymoon in Japan, America and England, they returned to live at Werribee, where they built The Manor. Percy ran mainly merino sheep, but also had a stud of milking Shorthorn cattle, importing many top quality animals. By 1910 almost the whole property was let in tenant farms, or had been sold in farm-blocks, and in 1921 he moved to Brandon Park, near Oakleigh, where he founded a stud herd of Jersey cattle.

In June 1905 Chirnside was appointed C.M.G., and after World War I received the O.B.E. During the war he had served in England with the Remount Section of the British Army and was twice mentioned in dispatches. Survived by his wife and three sons, he died in Melbourne on 6 January 1944; a daughter predeceased him. In 1946, when his family was reunited in Australia, a memorial service was held at St Thomas's Church of England, Werribee, and his ashes were scattered from the banks of the river.

Select Bibliography

  • H. B. Ronald, Wool Past the Winning Post (Melb, 1978)
  • W. Perry, ‘The Victorian Horse Artillery’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 43 (1972), no 1
  • Home, 1 June 1921
  • Punch (Melbourne), 19 Nov 1903
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 Jan 1944
  • family papers (privately held).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Heather B. Ronald, 'Chirnside, John Percy (1865–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 27 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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