Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Irving (c. 1760–1795)

by A. J. Gray

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John Irving (d.1795), a convict 'bred to surgery', was found guilty of larceny at Lincoln, England, on 6 March 1784 and sentenced to transportation for seven years. While in the hulks on the Thames his surgical training was mentioned to Superintendent Duncan Campbell by one of the visiting surgeons, Dr Erskine. Campbell commended Irving to Under-Secretary Nepean who seems to have directed that he be employed professionally on the transports. He embarked in the Scarborough, but was transferred to the Lady Penrhyn on 20 March 1787 as surgeon's mate and apparently acted in this capacity until 27 April when Surgeon Altree returned from sick leave.

There is no conclusive evidence that he assisted the surgeons on the voyage, but on landing at Sydney Cove he was employed immediately as an assistant at the hospital. During the next two years the surgeons found him such 'a very useful man' that on 28 February 1790 Governor Arthur Phillip emancipated him in recognition of his 'unremitting good Conduct and meritorious Behaviour', and directed him to proceed to Norfolk Island in H.M.S. Sirius as assistant to Surgeon Dennis Considen. Lieutenant Ralph Clark rejoiced in the knowledge that Irving was on board because he was 'the best Surgeon amongst them'. Watkin Tench, who reacted against the view that the convict settlement was bound to be a sink of infamy, accepted Irving's emancipation, the first granted at Sydney Cove, as a pleasing proof 'that universal depravity did not prevail'.

On his return to Sydney towards the end of 1791 Irving was posted to Parramatta to assist Surgeon Thomas Arndell. He was granted thirty acres (12 ha) of land on 22 February 1792 on the north side of the creek leading to Parramatta, between the grants made to Philip Schaffer and Robert Webb, and by 16 October he had nine acres (3.6 ha) under maize and two ready for planting.

Of his professional work, which became increasingly heavy, a few specific records have been preserved. His deposition on the post-mortem of Simon Burn and his evidence at the trial of John Hill for Burn's murder showed his skill in stating matters simply, clearly and convincingly. Irving died at Parramatta and was buried in St John's cemetery on 13 September 1795. No stone marks his grave but one of Parramatta's streets bears his name. When Collins said that his death 'was much regretted' and that 'his loss would be severely felt' he expressed the popular estimate of Irving's worth.

Select Bibliography

  • A. J. Gray, ‘John Irving: The First Australian Emancipist’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 40, part 6, 1954, pp 316-31.

Citation details

A. J. Gray, 'Irving, John (c. 1760–1795)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Aderson, John
  • Anderson, John
  • Law, John
  • Irvine, John
  • Irvin, John

c. 1760


12 September, 1795 (aged ~ 35)
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Key Events
Key Places
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: death
Commuted To: 7 years
Court: Lincolnshire
Trial Date: 6 March 1784


Occupation: surgeon


Children: Yes (1)