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Frederick Chidley Irwin (1794–1860)

by David Mossenson

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Frederick Chidley Irwin (1794-1860), soldier and administrator, was born on 22 March 1794 at Drogheda, Louth, Ireland, son of Rev. James Irwin, who was born near Enniskillen, Ireland, and became headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Raphoe, County Donegal. He was descended from a family which had migrated from Scotland in the reign of James I. Frederick began his military career in 1808, seeing active service in Spain and Portugal in 1809-14 and taking part in several of the major sieges, retreats, and battles of the Peninsular war. In 1816-17 he was stationed at the Cape of Good Hope, and then in Ceylon until 1823. Late in 1828 with the rank of captain, Irwin was commanded to assume charge of a detachment of the 63rd Regiment which comprised another officer and sixty-six other ranks, and was to provide military protection for the colony at Swan River, then in the process of establishment.

Irwin arrived in the colony with his detachment in the Sulphur in June 1829, six days after the Parmelia, which brought the lieutenant-governor and the first settlers. After more than four years in the colony Captain Irwin was transferred to England, where in July 1834 he married Mary Russel. After her death, in December 1836 he married Elizabeth Courthope, whose brother was auditor-general and registrar-general at Swan River. They had seven sons and five daughters. In 1837, after promotion to major, he returned to the colony and again became commandant of the military forces, an office that he retained for the remainder of his army career. In November 1846 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel. He retired from the army in 1856, and returned to England with his family two years later. He died at Cheltenham on 31 March 1860.

Irwin was a severe and stern officer who identified himself with spiritual welfare and religious observance. He devoted much energy to sponsoring the Church of England in the settlement; a bush church called the 'rush church', being walled with rushes, was built not far from the present Anglican cathedral in Perth. In the early days Irwin often organized and conducted church services in his home on the Upper Swan. While in England in 1834-36 he pressed the case of the Western Australian Aboriginals with the Church of England missionary societies, although he had more success at that time in his endeavours to obtain additional clergymen for the young colony, and four arrived in 1841-43. Irwin's sternness and his fondness for moralizing explained some of his unpopularity as an administrator: he tried to found a temperance society in Perth to combat drunkenness, and he encouraged prayer meetings among his troops.

From the beginning Irwin formed a strong and enduring attachment to the new colony, reciprocated by the naming of the Irwin River in Western Australia’s mid-west region in his honour in April 1839 by the explorer (Sir) George Grey, and Irwin Street in Perth. He received an early allotment of land in Perth. Together with Judge Advocate William Mackie, to whom he was related by marriage, he built one of the first brick houses in Perth. Later he built another home at Henley Park on the Upper Swan, where he lived after his marriage and return to the colony. During his years in England in the 1830s Irwin actively espoused Western Australia's cause in general affairs as much as in the religious field. At that time the colony's reputation was low, the early hopes and promises had failed to materialize, and the need for migrants and capital was very real. In London Irwin helped to form the Western Australian Association in order to disseminate information, create goodwill, and combat unhappy rumours about the colony. His The State and Position of Western Australia, Commonly Called the Swan-River Settlement (London, 1835) is a valuable source book for the early days of the settlement.

As commandant Irwin was automatically a senior member of the Swan River administration and he acted twice as head of the government. On the first occasion, in the temporary absence of Governor (Sir) James Stirling from September 1832 to September 1833, the pressing problem was trouble with the traditional owners of the Swan Valley, the Noongar Wadjuk people. Irwin by some accounts sought to foster friendliness with them, but  in May 1833 the executive council ordered the execution by army firing squad of one of the Noongar leaders, Midgegooroo, for the alleged murder of three settlers. This was “summary justice” as there had been no trial. Although Irwin subsequently tried to achieve a reconciliation with the Noongar people, the death of Midgegooroo inflamed the situation as far as his son Yagan, a renowned warrior, was concerned. He had been outlawed with his father by Irwin, and declared that he would spear three white men in vengeance for Midgegooroo’s death. Remaining at large and dangerous, Yagan was fatally shot in July 1833 for the bounty offered; he remains a hero to the Noongar people.

Irwin was again head of the Western Australian government from the death of Governor Andrew Clarke in February 1847 until the new governor, Captain Charles FitzGerald, arrived in August 1848. These nineteen months were difficult because of the long depression into which the colony had sunk. Despite the personal respect he commanded Irwin's administration was intensely unpopular, partly because of the state of the colony, partly because of his manner, and partly because of the attack to which he was subjected by W. H. Sholl, the editor of the Inquirer, who had failed to obtain appointment as colonial surgeon. Despite the criticism he received, and the relief and pleasure with which FitzGerald was greeted, Irwin's period of office achieved some important results. One of his most bitterly disliked measures was the imposition of an export tax on sandalwood. Another example of his vigour was the method he employed to overcome the labour shortage: because the revenue had improved slightly and because he was opposed to convictism which was beginning to attract support in the colony, he chartered a schooner and brought a number of Chinese labourers from Singapore to Perth.

It was in the educational field that the acting governor's policies achieved more enduring results. The Catholic Church had been recently established in the colony under the care of Bishop John Brady. Although his congregation was quite small, Brady brought a large party of priests and several nuns of the Irish Sisters of Mercy to Perth. When Brady proceeded to found schools which Protestant children attended, Anglican leaders including Irwin became infuriated, for at that time the Church of England could not afford schools of its own. Governor Clarke had refused Brady's application for state aid for his schools, and had also attempted to found National schools, though with little success. When Irwin assumed control he pursued Clarke's policy with greater vigour. He clashed with Brady over a proposed marriage bill, over an allotment for a Catholic cemetery, and over the prelate's title of address on official correspondence. In particular Irwin was determined to challenge the superior position in education which the Catholic Church had achieved. Accordingly in 1847 he created a General Board of Education of which he and several other prominent Anglicans were members. Assisted by government subsidies for teachers' salaries, the board founded schools based upon broad Christian principles in Perth and in the other main centres of population. In this way the board originated the state school system of education in Western Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • J. S. Battye, Western Australia (Oxford, 1924)
  • CO 323/132
  • J.M.R. Cameron (ed), The Millendon Memoirs: George Fletcher Moore’s Western Australian Diaries and Letters, 1830-1841 (Carlisle, WA, 2006)
  • B. Purdue, Legal Executions in Western Australia (Carlisle, WA, 1993)

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Citation details

David Mossenson, 'Irwin, Frederick Chidley (1794–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 4 March 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]


Enniskillen, Fermanagh, Ireland


31 March, 1860 (aged ~ 66)
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England

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