1791 - 1865
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James Stirling was the 5th son of Scottish parents Andrew and Ann Stirling who had 15 children in all. He joined the Royal Navy serving aboard the HMS Camel aged just 12 (one source says 13) as a no bounty volunteer - I.e.. he was unpaid. Shortly before his 14th birthday he became a midshipman and finally got paid for his work.
He served aboard the Hercules, Prince George,
Glory (with his uncle Rear Admiral Stirling), Sampson, Diadem
and on the Warspite where at the age of 19 he
was promoted to Lieutenant. After the fall of
Montevideo James was incorrectly listed as killed in action. By the
age of 21 he was acting Commander aboard HMS Moselle and 3
months later was promoted to Commander of the HMS Brazen
which attacked American ports during the Napoleonic wars. (Britain was
technically at war with America during part of this time).
The Stirling family fortunes rose and fell but although James was away for much of the time he did all he could to support his family and made some 3000 pounds - a small fortune - available to his brothers to assist them in their business ventures.
James' first encounter with colonialism was during a time he provided an escort for ships bound for a settlement in Hudson Bay (Canada). When he finished serving in the Americas his Commander in Chief sent the following recommendation to the Admiralty in London:
"I cannot permit Captain Stirling to leave this station without expressing to your Lordships my entire satisfaction with his conduct while under my command. The zeal and alacrity he always displayed in the execution of whatever service he was employed upon are above praise; but it is to his acquaintance with foreign languages, his thorough knowledge of the Station, particularly the Spanish Main, and his gentlemanlike and conciliatory manners, that I am so much indebted for the preservation of friendly intercourse with the foreign colonies in this command. I conceive it will be as gratifying for your Lordships to hear, as it is for me to make, so honourable a report of this able and intelligent officer, whom I detach from my command with considerable regret; but I feel at the same time a very sincere pleasure in thus recommending him to the notice of your Lordships.
James went on to fight the French but when the Napoleonic wars ended, Stirling had no ship to command and was put on half pay."
James was lucky to get so far in the Royal Navy as a cloud hung over the family name when uncle Charles (Vice Admiral Charles Stirling) was brought up on charges at a court martial and the charges were found to be 'partly proven.'
Uncle Charles like his father (Sir Walter Stirling) before him, was a hero of the Royal Navy but he fell foul of certain elements in the navy who were doing very nicely out of a kickback system where Royal Navy vessels transported cargoes for merchants in return for a share of the proceeds. This system went all the way to the top and when Charles Stirling had the temerity to try and stamp it out, he was set up and brought up on false charges. The proceedings were rigged and Charles retired on half pay and was never to be active in the service again.
James may well have languished as a low ranking officer for his entire career but he had ambition and he also had some friends who were to eventually to move into high office.
The Stirling family can be traced back all the way to 1125. They were Scottish nobility and had been supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Their allies were the Murray family and it was George Murray who was to come to prominence in the British Government and assist James in getting his Swan River venture accepted. (Murray Street in Perth was named after George and Stirling also named Hay and Wellington Streets after others who he saw as his allies.)
In 1823 James married Ellen with whom he would eventually have 11 children. Ellen was only half his age but she turned out to be an inspirational choice, totally suited for life in the new colony as the new Governor's wife.
In 1825 he was recalled to active service and sailed the HMS Success. to New South Wales. His mission was to help move settlers from Bathurst Island to Raffles Bay (1) The northern monsoon meant that this trip was delayed and Governor Darling sent Stirling west to examine the prospects for a settlement on the Swan River. (After, it must be said, quite some prompting by Stirling himself.)
Governor Darling also sent Major Edmund Lockyer with a detachment of soldiers and some convicts to establish a fort at King George Sound (Albany) to deter the French from expanding into the area. (They already had established a whaling station at what is known today as Frenchman Bay.)
When Stirling arrived at Port Jackson
there was already a ship in port, a ship flying the tricolour of France! It was
the Astrolabe captained by
Jules Sebastian Cesar Dumont d'Urville.
The French Captain made no bones about the fact that he had been exploring the west and
south coasts of Australia and Stirling must have been alarmed at the prospect of
the French (his old enemies) being so interested in an area he wanted to
establish a settlement in.
Charles Fraser (a botanist with the early exploration party) wrote of the Swan River: “The land on the banks of the Swan is superior to any I have seen in New South Wales east of the Blue Mountains.” A review of the proposed settlement published in England stated: “This colony will be capable eventually of giving support to a million souls.”
Once the exploration had been completed Stirling returned to his original mission and sailed to Melville Island. He helped to establish a new base at Raffles Bay but ultimately both these settlements were to fail and be abandoned.
HMS Success sailed to Java, Madagascar, Penang and finally India where a letter was waiting for him telling him the British Government were not interested in establishing a colony at Swan River. Stirling suddenly fell ill and requested a transfer back to England. It turns out the the illness was a rouse used by Stirling to get himself back to London where he could start actively advocating his proposed new settlement. The gastric ulcer he was supposedly suffering from was miraculously cured the moment he got home.
Stirling now began a process he called 'the assault on Downing Street'. He wrote a series of letters and held numerous meetings with influential people. It was at this time that he met Thomas Peel - something he would later have cause to regret - and a syndicate that proposed to send settlers to the new colony in return for 4 million acres of land. This was negotiated down to 250,000 acres but in the end Peel arrived too late to make the original claim on land south of the Swan and canning Rivers and had to accept land further south along the coast to present day Mandurah.
Despite the problems that Peel was to cause later, the is no doubt that he and his group of rich friends had some influence on Government officials and he must have helped to change a few minds.
Governor Darling now joined the assault sending dispatches complaining of the difficulty of administering so many far flung outposts from Sydney and slowly the wheels of Government began to turn in Stirling's favour.
Stirling ran advertisements to get people interested in his venture which
It was to be this policy, more than anything else, that was responsible for the whole scheme almost coming to an abrupt end. It certainly held up development and led to a long period of stagnation before the colony really began to prosper but all this was in the future.
Stirling received his instructions from Downing Street (dated December 30th 1828) and on Sunday February 8th 1829 the Parmelia and Sulphur finally set sail for Western Australia loaded down with eager settlers and their provisions.
When they arrived at Cape Town there were already rumours that the French had claimed the west coast but progress was being held up as the Sulphur needed some repairs. Stirling's patience eventually ran out and he left in the Parmelia leaving instructions for the Sulphur to catch up when their repairs were complete.
Sadly during this stop over Dr. Tully Daly and his daughter Jessie unfortunately drowned when a boat overturned when returning fro a trip to shore.
The Parmelia arrived
off the west coast on the 31st of May and the ship
dropped anchor off Garden Island.
HMS Challenger (Capt. Fremantle) was already anchored
in the sound so most passengers and supplies were transferred to her. Two days
of fierce winds followed and Stirling made the decision to make landfall on
Garden Island, instead of the mainland. The settlers were not
to move to the mainland until early August.
Stirling returned (temporarily) to England in 1832 to shore up support for the struggling colony and having done what he could returned to the Swan River in 1834. While he was there he was presented with the 'Swan River Cup' inscribed as follows:
"Presented to Captain James Stirling RN, First Governor of Western Australia by the relatives and friends of the settlers at the Swan River in testimony of their admiration of the wisdom, decision and kindness uniformly displayed by him and of their gratitude for his strenuous exertions with the Colonial Department for the benefit of that settlement. London May 1833"
Stirling's return from England did not bring with it the anticipated financial relief. In fact it brought austerity, reduction in the size of Government departments and a new series of regulations about how things were to be done. The free and easy system that had existed to that date was now gone.
J. Allen published the following in ‘The Emigrant’s Friend’ in London:
Long delays in communication between Perth and London meant that Stirling was constantly having to make decisions that could later be overturned by the authorities in England. More than once he was made personally responsible for repaying monies granted in good faith.
The stress of the position of Governor was beginning to tell and Stirling applied for a second leave of absence to see to personal affairs in England. His request was refused and it was at this time he began to consider resignation.
An older James Stirling
As the main supporter and first Governor of the Swan River Colony, James Stirling
was granted large tracts of land in appreciation of his efforts
(and also in lieu of payment for his services). By October
1837, Stirling had had enough and resigned to return home to England. His wife
(Ellen) had borne him no less than seven children (no TV back then) in the time
they had been in W.A. and despite his large land holdings Stirling was never to
return to the place he helped get started.
On January 1st 1839 the Stirling family left Perth for the last time. They stopped in Fremantle long enough to greet the incoming Governor (John Hutt) and took ship for England on January 6th.
He never lost interest in the small colony he had been responsible for founding and whenever he could he would lend his name and support to those at Swan River who needed it.
By the time he died (April 22nd 1865), Stirling had been almost forgotten in the colony he had played such a major role in starting. His death went almost un-reported in West Australian papers.
In 1977 it was discovered that a number of tombstones from the graveyard at St. John the Evangelist church in Stoke, Surrey were about to be removed and dumped at a rubbish tip. Among them was the headstone commemorating the life of Admiral Sir James Stirling. The founder of Western Australia had been forgotten by just about everyone. (Thankfully efforts to save the historic headstone were successful.)
It was not until 1979 that a statue in his honour was constructed in Perth.
Stirling was a very successful naval officer, he was efficient, diplomatic and popular. He was universally respected (if not universally liked) during his time as Governor of W.A. and he is remembered in the names of many significant natural features in the state, not least of which is the Stirling Range north of Albany.