FREDERICK WHIRLPOOL VC: An obscure life revealed

Frederick Whirlpool VC

Australia’s Hidden Victoria Cross

By Alan Leek 

Published by Big Sky Publishing 

RRP $29.99 in paperback; 265pp

ISBN: 9781925675719

Alan Leek grew up in a post-World War II world where he describes films of the period cementing in his young receptive mind some understanding of the conflict, sacrifice and heroism of the men who fought and, in particular, a reverence for the Victoria Cross, which is why he was intrigued by the unknown story of the first VC recipient to be awarded the medal in public dressed in an Australian uniform, despite the award having been earned during the Sepoy Mutiny in India. 

Frederick Whirlpool – an adopted name – was really Irish-born Humphrey James. Born in 1831, he joined the Honourable East India Company army in 1854, and was posted to No 5 Company, 3rd Bombay European Regiment, where he apparently took the opportunity for furthering his education, which was encouraged. It’s likely that he even engaged in teaching his fellow recruits. Teaching was to become a passion in later life. 

Leek does a good job of unravelling the complexities of the Indian mutiny in the period 1857-58, which some latter-day Indian historians have described as ‘India’s first war of independence’. He uses various sources to throw light on the actions that saw the badly wounded Whirlpool singled out by his commanding officer for the highest military honour. 

With his army career over, Whirlpool arrived in Victoria in 1859, becoming a volunteer rifleman and school teacher. His VC was finally presented in Melbourne in 1861. He was however uncomfortable with the attention he received.

Fragments of his story were known, but since 1895, they have been tainted by error, guesswork and in one recent British work, pure fantasy. This latest work solves an old mystery.

It reveals his true identity and early life in Ireland before joining the East India Company Army.

His later life was no plain sailing. Alcohol abuse and his natural reclusiveness saw him end his days alone. 

Leek has done a good job of detective work in piecing it all together and throwing light on a life that was little known, beyond his acts of valour. The VC now resides in the Australian War Memorial’s Hall of Valour.


This book is Alan Leek’s first book with Big Sky Publishing (published in 2018). In 2019, he has returned to the more familiar setting of police work with his latest book, The Killing Chronicle, Police, Service and Shattered Lives. Leek is a 34 year veteran of the NSW Police.


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