Frederick Whirlpool VC

b. 1831 County Carlow, Ireland. d. 24/06/1899 Windsor, New South Wales, Australia.

Frederick Humphrey Whirlpool (1831-1899) is one of the more unusual VC recipients. He was born in Ireland in c.1831 as Humphrey James,  one of eight children of Humphrey and Lavinia James. In Ireland,  Frederick received a good education at the Dundalk Institution, now Dundalk Grammar School. Humphrey James used the name Frederick Whirlpool instead of his father’s name due to their tempestuous relationship, when he chose to enlist with the Honourable East India Company’s 3rd Bombay European Regiment in Glasgow on 23rd October 1854. At his enlistment he claimed that he was born in Liverpool.

Frederick Whirlpool VC
Medal Australian War Memorial

On the 3rd April 1858, during the storming of the fort of Jhansi, the 3rd Bombay Europeans made up the assault party and at 3am, they charged the heavily defended wall. Using scaling ladders, they managed to force an entry despite musket fire and being pelted with boulders. Predictably, there were many casualties until the rebels were forced to abandon the walls. Before this, Frederick Whirlpool was seen twice to rescue wounded comrades under heavy fire and carry them to safety.

He was also cited for the VC for a second action on 2nd May 1858 when he went to the rescue of Lieutenant Donne of the Bengal Europeans, who was dangerously wounded. Private Whirlpool was hit and wounded seventeen times, one of which nearly severed his head from his body. Apparently, when Whirlpool was being carried off to the surgeon, he was said to remark “Take care, lads! Don’t shake my head or else it will come off!” Despite the crude medical treatments available, he recovered from his terrible wounds after five months in hospital. He was medically discharged from the Army on 2nd February 1859.

Without employment, he decided to emigrate to Australia, where he changed his name by deed poll to Frederick Humphrey James. He did, however, enlist with the locally-raised Hawthorn and Kew Rifle Volunteers and it was in their uniform that he received the VC. On 20th June 1861, in Albert Park, Melbourne, he received his VC from Lady Barkly, the wife of the colony’s Governor, Sir Henry Barkly. Whirlpool became the first VC presented on Australian soil.

Although he never rose above the rank of Private, he was nonetheless an educated man. He was accepted as a teacher with the New South Wales Board of National Education and took charge of a school in Wiseman’s Ferry, north of Sydney. Apparently, his volatile temper seems to have caused a dispute with the school secretary, who alleged serious impropriety against him. The parents supported him but the secretary was believed and he was sacked.

With only his £10 annual pension as a VC holder to support him, he withdrew from society and became a hermit, living as a recluse in a slab hut near Windsor, New South Wales. He died alone, and was found on the 26th June 1899 by his Scotsman friend who was delivering his weekly groceries. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Windsor Presbyterian Cemetery. His medal is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.





Steve Lee – Image of Whirlpool VC Medal at Australian War Memorial, Canberra.