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Thomas Chirnside (1815–1887)

by J. Ann Hone

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Andrew Spencer Chirnside

Thomas Chirnside (1815-1887), and Andrew Spencer Chirnside (1818-1890), pastoralists, were born in Cockburnspath, East Lothian, Scotland, sons of Robert Chirnside, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Fair. Thomas sailed from Liverpool in the Bardaster, arrived at Adelaide in January 1839 and went on to Sydney in March. By April he had bought sheep on the Murrumbidgee, but because of the drought he left them there and went to Melbourne where he joined his brother Andrew who had arrived later in 1839. Together they went north, bought cattle and overlanded them to Adelaide. By way of Hobart Town they returned to Sydney, found the country improved by rain and took their sheep to the Port Phillip District. By May 1840 they had reached the Loddon and taken up a run which they sold early in 1842 and in April established a station at Mount William in the Grampians. Later that year Thomas acquired a station on the Wannon and was the first in that district to employ Aboriginals as station hands. In 1843 the brothers bought Mokanger station and during the next few years acquired a chain of runs in the Western District including Victoria Lagoon in the Grampians, Kenilworth South, Wardy Yallock, Curnong and Carranballac. In 1846 they formed a station under occupation licence forty miles (64 km) east of Guichen Bay, South Australia, but the venture was not successful. Just before the gold rushes the brothers began acquiring land at Wyndham (Werribee). There Thomas settled, later building a bluestone mansion and gaining a freehold of 80,000 acres (32,375 ha). Andrew made his base on 50,000 acres (20,235 ha) at Carranballac, near Skipton; he also owned the 38,900-acre (15,742 ha) Mount Elephant station; his son later acquired 23,800 acres (9632 ha) of Koort-Koort-nong, near Camperdown. In the 1870s he and his family moved to Wyndham to live with Thomas.

To Thomas, Port Phillip was the Eden of all the colonies and he found the people in the Western District 'thoughtful for the future, industrious and persevering, willing to put their shoulder to the wheel and overcome all difficulties'. At Wyndham Thomas bred Herefords and imported bloodstock: one shipment brought him thirty high-class brood mares and stallions. He was an excellent judge of horses and a great sportsman, one of his axioms being that a man could not be thoroughly healthy unless he rode fast and straight to hounds. He imported foxes, hares, pheasants and partridges, and his red deer from England formed the nucleus of the herd of the Anakies and You Yangs.

A burly man and something of a despot with a rough tongue and manner when crossed, Thomas had a kind heart. Strictly Sabbatarian, he would allow no work on his properties on Sundays. He donated an acre (0.4 ha) of land and £100 for the first church in Werribee. In 1883 he was largely responsible for inviting Rev. William White from Scotland to take charge of St Thomas's Presbyterian Church. On 5 February 1884 Thomas laid the foundation stone of the second Presbyterian Church in Werribee. Earlier he and Andrew gave £1000 to Ormond College, University of Melbourne.

In the 1840s Thomas Chirnside was a member of the Geelong and Portland Bay Immigration Society Committee. In 1860-63 he was a director of the National Bank of Australasia. However, he was mostly busy with pastoral activities and with the manorial responsibilities that the Chirnsides felt to be theirs. These included entertaining the shire ratepayers and their families; on such occasions a picnic with games, bands and dancing for a thousand people was not unusual, and Thomas's appearance on his familiar horse would be greeted by resounding cheers.

Andrew Chirnside was also extremely fond of horse-racing. He was founder and president of the Wyndham Racing Club, and steward of the Geelong Racing Club. He won the Melbourne Cup in 1874 with Haricot, the Newmarket and Midsummer Handicaps in 1876 with Sultan, the Geelong Gold Cup in 1880 with Zambesi, and the A.J.C. Championship in 1881 with Spinningdale. He was also a patron of coursing. In 1874 he was elected a trustee of Presbyterian church property and in 1886 a trustee of the Mechanics' Institute and Free Library. For many years he presided over the Wyndham Shire Council but took little other part in public affairs. In 1889 he created a half-battery of horse artillery, equipped and maintained at his expense and commanded by his son, John Percy.

From 1884 Thomas Chirnside was plagued by sickness and he became morbidly depressed. A bachelor, he had transferred most of his estate to his brother and nephews but, believing himself bankrupt, shot himself on 25 June 1887, leaving an estate valued at £104,596. Andrew was left in possession of Werribee Park but died on 30 April 1890, survived by his wife Mary, née Begbie, four sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • T. F. Bride (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers (Melb, 1898)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • Australasian Sketcher, 11 Feb 1882
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 May 1890
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 May 1890
  • Werribee Shire Banner, Mar-Apr 1962.

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Chirnside, Thomas (1815–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Cockburnspath, East Lothian, Scotland


25 June, 1887 (aged ~ 72)
Victoria, Australia

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