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Henry Parke Airey (1842–1911)

by Chris Clark

This article was published:

Henry Parke Airey (1842-1911), soldier, was born on 3 August 1842 at Kingthorpe, Yorkshire, England, son of Henry Cookson Airey, Indian Army officer, and his wife Emily, née Parke. Educated at Marlborough College and the East India Co.'s Military College at Addiscombe, he went to India on graduating in 1859, and was commissioned ensign in the 101st Regiment (Royal Bengal Fusiliers) in 1861. He served on the north-west frontier for six years and was promoted lieutenant in 1863.

Airey retired from the army in 1866 and arrived in Sydney in August. By 1868 he had established himself as a sugar-planter at Cleveland, Queensland; in February that year he married Florence Ada McCulloch at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, New South Wales. He later bought a property at Georges Hall near Liverpool, and when a third battery was added to the colony's permanent artillery he obtained a lieutenancy in 1877.

In 1885 he accompanied the New South Wales contingent to the Sudan and served as aide-de-camp to General Sir Arthur Fremantle, governor of Suakin, during the advance on Tamai. On his return Airey applied for a captaincy with the New South Wales Field Battery, but his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel W. Spalding, refused to recommend him because he had 'displayed a want of zeal and energy' in carrying out his duties as a field battery officer on active service. A court of inquiry, convened in December 1885, exonerated Airey and he was promoted captain with effect from the previous March.

In 1886 he volunteered to accompany the Burmese Expedition as a special-service officer and was attached to General Sir George White's staff. He was severely wounded, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for 'coolness under fire and marked gallantry', and was thanked by the Viceroy of India. On returning to Sydney he resumed duty with the colony's field artillery forces. He was promoted major in June 1893, then spent several months training in India; he became lieutenant-colonel in August 1895, and was appointed honorary aide-de-camp to the governor in November 1896.

In February 1900 Airey left for South Africa in command of the New South Wales Citizens' Bushmen's Contingent which saw action in Rhodesia and the Transvaal. His force was present at the relief of Mafeking and was ambushed by a strong Boer commando near the Magato Pass on 22 July. After eight hours of fighting, reinforcements arrived and the Boers were driven off; at one stage Airey had tried to surrender his whole force to the enemy by insisting that a white flag raised by one isolated party applied to the whole unit. From November he commanded 'B' area of Cape Colony. He returned home in January 1902 with a reputation for being a 'dashing officer' and an 'intrepid and popular leader', and was appointed C.M.G. that year.

Airey retired, albeit reluctantly, on 1 September 1902 with the rank of honorary colonel. Soon afterwards he went to South Africa where he became a stock and grain farmer; after a long illness he died at Panplaats, Transvaal, on 9 October 1911, survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters. Though always a controversial figure, Airey was undoubtedly a gallant and able soldier and, in spite of his domineering personality, was popular with the men he commanded. His interests, in keeping with his restless nature, were riding, hunting and driving. He was a particularly skilled horseman and for several years was master of the Sydney Hunt Club.

Select Bibliography

  • C. N. Robinson, Celebrities of the Army (Lond, 1900)
  • L. Creswicke, South Africa and the Transvaal War, vol 6 (Edinb, 1901)
  • J. Stirling, The Colonials in South Africa, 1899-1902 (Edinb, 1907)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1883-84, 6, 335, 338, 417, 1885-86, 1, 207, vol 2, 237, 1887-88, 1, 189, 1894-95, 5, 402, 1896, 1, 324, 1900, 4, 807 and report
  • Journal (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1885-86, 40, 495-551
  • C. D. Clark, ‘The Aireys’, Sabretache, Jan 1974
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Feb 1900, 16 Oct 1911
  • Sydney Mail, 18 Jan 1902
  • Times (London), 16 Oct 1911
  • Bulletin, 19 Oct 1911
  • E. Barton papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Airey, Henry Parke (1842–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 7 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]


3 August, 1842
Kingthorpe, Yorkshire, England


9 October, 1911 (aged 69)
Panplaats, Gauteng, South Africa

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