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Henry James Feakes (1876–1950)

by J. V. P. Goldrick

This article was published:

Henry James Feakes (1876-1950), by unknown photographer

Henry James Feakes (1876-1950), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24101818

Henry James Feakes (1876-1950), rear admiral, was born on 16 March 1876 in London, son of John James Feakes, civil servant, and his wife Jane, née Chappell. After overcoming his father's opposition to a naval career he entered the Thames Nautical Training College, H.M.S. Worcester, as a cadet. Although he was appointed chief cadet captain in his final year he failed to receive a warrant as a midshipman in the Royal Navy but was admitted to the Royal Naval Reserve. After leaving the Worcester he spent four years in sail to qualify as an officer in the merchant marine and in 1896 joined the renowned Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co.'s Far Eastern service.

Feakes kept up his naval training, spending as much time as possible with the Royal Navy, and when he learned in 1904 that the infant Commonwealth Naval Forces of Australia needed officers he applied for an appointment; he was accepted in 1906. He was precisely the sort of man who was needed. With the arms race against Germany under way and the Royal Navy undergoing great expansion there were few R.N. officers willing to come to Australia on loan. Feakes, with his long experience in the R.N.R. and the merchant service, was a very good second best. On reaching Australia he found that parliament had not yet approved the plans of Captain (Sir) William Creswell, director of the Commonwealth Naval Forces, to begin construction of a destroyer flotilla and personnel recruiting on a large scale. However, he remained, possibly because he was courting an Australian girl, and on 17 June 1907 was gazetted a navigating sub-lieutenant in the C.N.F.

Feakes's first months, spent in H.M.A.S. Cerberus, were disappointing but he soon learned that he was earmarked to commission one of Australia's first torpedo-boat destroyers, then under construction in England. On 25 September 1907, at Scots Church, Melbourne, he married Corona Patterson and next year was promoted lieutenant. By this time he was on his way to England with nucleus crews for the new destroyers, H.M.A.S. Parramatta and H.M.A.S. Yarra. The next eighteen months were among the most rewarding of his career; apart from training the crews of the two ships and acting as Australian naval liaison officer in London, he also undertook gunnery and torpedo courses to fit himself for command. His efforts were commended by the Australian high commissioner, Sir George Reid, and British naval authorities as well as the senior officer of the Australian flotilla, Commander C. L. Cumberlege. When the Parramatta arrived in Australia he was lieutenant-in-command.

In June 1912 Feakes returned to England to do a navigation course before being posted to the dreadnought H.M.S. Orion to gain experience in heavy ships. Next February he joined the new light cruiser H.M.A.S. Sydney as navigator, to commission the ship and bring her out to Australia. He served in the Sydney for over eighteen months, leaving her as a lieutenant-commander after operations against German possessions in the Pacific in 1914. In mid-1915 he was appointed captain as an acting commander of the old cruiser H.M.A.S. Psyche for patrols on the East Indies and China stations, and later became senior naval officer of the Burmese coastal patrol. Conditions were appalling but, despite the ship's aged machinery and the strain of the tropical climate, Psyche's efficiency and Feakes's keenness earned excellent reports from successive British commanders-in-chief. On 1 October 1917, after his return to Australia, Feakes was promoted commander, Royal Australian Navy.

He was successively appointed to the training ship H.M.A.S. Tingira, the battle cruiser H.M.A.S. Australia as executive officer, and the light cruiser H.M.A.S. Melbourne, before being promoted captain on 1 July 1921. Although gratifying, this promotion was to have unfortunate consequences. To maintain efficiency it was decided at this stage that all R.A.N. officers should do a period of exchange service with the R.N. at least once in each rank and be recommended for promotion to the next rank by a senior R.N. officer. Feakes had done no service with the R.N. as a substantive commander and this meant that the Admiralty would not accept him for command of a British ship. He therefore had no chance of becoming a flag officer on the active list. In the 1920s he held a succession of the highest Australian commands: he was captain superintendent at Flinders Naval Depot, Victoria, in 1925-27; he represented the R.A.N. at the 1927 Naval Disarmament Conference as well as serving as Australian naval liaison officer in London in 1927-29; and was second naval member of the Australian Naval Board in 1930-33. By the late 1920s, however, he realized that he could go no further in the service.

By 1930, with the reductions which were being effected in the R.A.N., Feakes was faced with the prospect of unemployment until he retired. He was reprieved by the request of Rear Admiral E. R. G. R. Evans (of Antarctic fame) that he be appointed to the seaplane-carrier H.M.A.S. Albatross under Evans's command in the Australian Squadron. He accepted the post with delight and spent a year in command in 1930-31 before going to his last appointment as captain superintendent of naval establishments at Sydney and captain-in-charge, New South Wales, in 1931-33. Though he was considered for temporary command of the Australian Squadron as a commodore after Evans's return to England, the first naval member, Rear Admiral (Sir) Francis Hyde, and the Admiralty rejected his appointment because of his lack of sea service with the R.N.

Feakes retired in February 1933 and was placed on the retired list in September as a rear admiral; that year he was appointed C.B.E. The rest of his life was spent largely in the study of naval strategy and history. In the 1930s he was among those who warned against Japanese expansionism and the inadequacy of Australian and British reaction. He travelled extensively in the Far East and, as a senior officer of great experience and journalistic ability, was able to express his views on defence not only in professional circles but in the Australian press.

Feakes's second major interest after retirement was the writing of a popular history of the navy's part in the development and defence of Australia. This task took up most of his time after World War II. By then his health had begun to fail but his White Ensign—Southern Cross (1951) was accepted for publication before he died in Sydney on 24 April 1950. He was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife survived him; their only child, a daughter, had predeceased him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Jose, The Royal Australian Navy (Syd, 1928)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 9 Apr 1927
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Apr 1929, 22 Jan, 14 Feb 1930, 23, 27 July 1931, 25 July 1932, 12 Jan, 11 Feb, 3 June 1933, 4 Aug 1936, 25 Apr 1950, 18 Aug 1951
  • Queenslander, 30 Jan 1930.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. V. P. Goldrick, 'Feakes, Henry James (1876–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Henry James Feakes (1876-1950), by unknown photographer

Henry James Feakes (1876-1950), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24101818

Life Summary [details]


16 March, 1876
London, Middlesex, England


24 April, 1950 (aged 74)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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