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Sir John Waters Kirwan (1869–1949)

by Pat Simpson

This article was published:

John Waters Kirwan (1869-1949), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

John Waters Kirwan (1869-1949), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23385974

Sir John Waters Kirwan (1869-1949), journalist and politician, was born on 2 December 1869 in Liverpool, England, son of Nicholas John Kirwan, gentleman farmer, formerly of Woodfield, Galway, Ireland, and his wife Mary, née Waters, grand-daughter of Garrett Byrne, a rebel leader in 1798. After leaving school Kirwan worked for two years for the Dublin Morning Mail and Evening Mail while doing some freelance work. He wrote 'Our Dublin Letter' for the Drogheda Argus whose editor considered him 'one of the most promising and talented journalists of the Dublin press'. On 25 May 1889 he sailed with his sister for Australia to join his brother Edmund, a journalist on the Brisbane Courier.

Employed for several months on the Courier, Kirwan resigned and travelled via Sydney to Melbourne, arriving in December 1889. He briefly worked for the Daily Telegraph, then for rural bi-weekly newspapers at Kerang and Casterton. By 1893 he was back in Sydney, moving to New Zealand later in the year to write commissioned articles for Australian newspapers. He accepted there an invitation to become editor of the Port Augusta Dispatch in South Australia. Under him, the paper supported the Kingston ministry and he was publicly thanked by the premier for services to the Liberal cause. A municipal farewell was tendered to Kirwan on the eve of his departure in November 1895 to become editor of the Western Argus and Kalgoorlie Miner in Western Australia. (Sir) Hal Colebatch, who held the position temporarily, later described Kirwan as 'the ideal journalist, of tireless energy, making himself familiar with all the needs and aspirations of the community and unsparing in his advocacy of what he believed to be right'.

Shortly after his arrival in Kalgoorlie, Kirwan became part-owner with the Hocking brothers of the two papers. The Kalgoorlie Miner soon became the sole daily paper in Kalgoorlie and Boulder and a political force respected by parliament and government. It spoke for the most volatile third of the population, a politically conscious and vocal section which Kirwan kept informed on issues affecting their well-being and future prosperity of the goldfields.

By 1898 he had become a harsh critic of the Forrest ministry, contending that it discriminated against the goldfields population by inadequate parliamentary representation and in other ways. During the year an action for an alleged breach of parliamentary privilege brought against the Kalgoorlie Miner failed and Kirwan's criticism of the government continued unabated. He argued for more goldfields members, campaigned successfully for withdrawal of the 'ten foot' regulations which had led to exaggerated reports of near-riots, and perhaps most importantly he played a key part in the Western Australian Federation movement. The reluctance of the Forrest government to hold a referendum on Federation, after the Constitution had been accepted by that method in the eastern colonies, provoked Kirwan to campaign in the Miner for separation. Goldfields and Esperance residents, he urged, should petition the Queen for separation from Western Australia in order to join the Commonwealth as an independent State. The campaign culminated in December 1899 in the formation of the Eastern Goldfields Reform League and its presentation of a petition to the Queen signed by 27,733 male residents. The government reconsidered its position and, in the ensuing referendum, 44,800 voted 'Yes' and 19,691 'No'; more than half the 'Yes' vote came from the goldfields.

Kirwan had failed to win the Legislative Council seat of North-East Province in 1898 by ninety votes. When he stood for Kalgoorlie in the first Federal election he won comfortably: the vote reflected his efforts for the Federation movement and the standing of his paper. In the House of Representatives he supported free trade, opposed compulsory military service overseas but favoured the creation of a military college. Like all West Australian members, he urged a transcontinental railway but with a link with Esperance to counteract the Forrest government's deliberate centralization of trade and services in Perth. He was deputy chairman of committees, a member of the Elections and Qualifications Committee and a member of the royal commission on the bonuses for manufacturers bill in 1902-03.

Defeated in the election of December 1903 by a local Labor Party grown strong, Kirwan returned to his editorial chair but was soon forced by poor health to take a long vacation in Britain and Europe. In 1908 he entered the Western Australian Legislative Council as an Independent member for South Province; he retired from the seat in 1946. He continued to support the building of the Esperance railway link (eventually completed in 1927) which he believed would prolong the life of many of the mines, lower prices and introduce thousands of farmers to the area between Esperance and Norseman. In 1923-26 he was chairman of committees and was president of the council from 1926 until he retired.

During his parliamentary career Kirwan took considerable interest in the Empire Parliamentary Association as a foundation member and senior president of the Western Australian branch. In 1931 he was Australian delegate to the seventeenth Conférence Parliamentaire Internationale du Commerce at Prague and in 1933 to the eighteenth conference at Rome, where he was considerably impressed by the achievements of Mussolini. His outstanding position in the newspaper industry was recognized in his appointment as a delegate from Western Australia to the first Empire Press Conference in London in 1909, to the second in Ottawa in 1920 and to the third in Melbourne in 1925. In 1912 he was appointed a foundation member of the Senate of the University of Western Australia and remained a member until 1924.

In 1896 Kirwan had been appointed a justice of the peace and in 1906-23 was a member of the East Coolgardie Licensing Bench. In 1904 he had become the first Federal parliamentarian to have conferred on him for life the title of Honourable. He was knighted in 1930 and appointed K.C.M.G. in 1947. On 2 May 1912 in Sydney he had married Teresa Gertrude, daughter of Timothy Francis Quinlan, a Western Australian politician. They had three sons, one of whom was killed in action in World War I.

Sir John Kirwan was a member of the Western Australian Historical Society and contributed articles to its journal Early Days. He was also a frequent contributor to The Times, Empire Review, Review of Reviews and Nineteenth Century, and author of The Financial and Economic Structure in Australia (London, 1931), A Hundred Years of the Legislative Council in Western Australia (Perth, 1932), An Empty Land (London, 1934) and his genial and generous reminiscences, My Life's Adventure (London, 1936).

Kirwan died at Subiaco on 9 September 1949 after a short illness and was buried in the Catholic section of Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £14,138.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1913)
  • J. Raeside, Golden Days (Perth, 1929)
  • Government Gazette (Western Australia), 9 Nov 1906
  • West Australian Mining and Commercial Review, Nov 1938
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Dec 1889
  • Morning Herald (Perth), 4 Apr 1901
  • West Australian, 12 June 1902, 14 May 1908, 10 Sept 1949
  • D. Mossenson, Gold and Politics: The Influence of the Eastern Goldfields in the Political Development of Western Australia, 1890-1904 (MA thesis, University of Western Australia, 1952)
  • J. S. Bastin, The West Australian Federation Movement (MA thesis, Melb, 1952)
  • Kirwan papers (National Library of Australia and State Library of Western Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Pat Simpson, 'Kirwan, Sir John Waters (1869–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Waters Kirwan (1869-1949), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

John Waters Kirwan (1869-1949), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23385974

Life Summary [details]


2 December, 1869
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


9 September, 1949 (aged 79)
Subiaco, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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