The man who led Wollongong's first Anzac march

Anzac Day 2014 in the Illawarra: LIVE BLOG

The Great War had been raging in Europe for almost three years when the first Anzac Parade took place in Wollongong in 1917. Leading the soldiers along Crown Street that day marched an imposing moustached fellow, who despite being obviously older than any of his comrades, still towered above most of them.

Thomas Kennedy Irwin, an Ireland-born veterinarian, with his sons William McIntosh Irwin (left) and Charles Duff Irwin. Pictures supplied.

Thomas Kennedy Irwin, an Ireland-born veterinarian, with his sons William McIntosh Irwin (left) and Charles Duff Irwin. Pictures supplied.

Thomas Kennedy Irwin was born in County Antrim, Ireland in 1856. After leaving home in his early 20s, the young Thomas eventually made his way to Scotland, where he met his future wife, and lifelong partner, Elizabeth. Soon after the birth of the couple's first child, they and another 446 government immigrants boarded the iron clipper Bann and on the 17th of June 1884, arrived in Sydney, Australia.

After a fairly brief stay with relatives in Bathurst, the family settled in Wollongong, where Thomas began his own business attending to horses. While at first offering mainly clipping and some veterinary services, by 1920 he was advertising in local papers as a veterinary surgeon. It is believed he was the first accredited veterinary surgeon in the Wollongong district after the Veterinary Surgeons Act of 1923, albeit one without any formal education in the profession.

Thomas Kennedy Irwin Snr leads the Waratah March.

Thomas Kennedy Irwin Snr leads the Waratah March.

This knowledge of horses would not only provide Thomas Irwin and his rapidly growing family with an income throughout his life, it would also serve him well throughout three tours of duty in two different wars.

In late 1899, at the age of 44, Thomas left behind his family of nine children and enlisted as a gunner in the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry.

Queensland had been the first of the Australian colonies to offer support to Britain in its conflict against the Boers, and Thomas was among the first contingent of Australians to depart for South Africa.

The Australian soldiers had little, if any, training. Men were enlisted, and logistics, equipment and stores organised less than a month before they departed. On arrival at Cape Colony they were faced with appalling conditions. More men (and horses) died from disease than from actual fighting during this time of the war.

This postcard was sent by  Australian army soldier Thomas Kennedy Irwin, who survived three tours of duty in two different wars.

This postcard was sent by Australian army soldier Thomas Kennedy Irwin, who survived three tours of duty in two different wars.

However, Thomas returned safely to Australia in January of 1901.

Almost a year to the day later, he enlisted again, this time with the 1st Australian Commonwealth Horse.

The Boer War was in its third and final stage, and had evolved into what could only be described as a type of guerrilla warfare between British (and Australian) mounted troops, and Boer irregulars.

The Australians were tasked with cutting off Boer support. This involved burning farms, taking families prisoner, and confiscating all livestock, food and wagons. B Company, of which Thomas was a member, took 354 prisoners, including one Jan de la Rey, elder brother of Boer General Koos de la Rey.

The company was personally commended by Lord Kitchener. In a telegram to the company's commander, he wrote: "Capital result. Tell troops I highly appreciate their exertions, and consider results very satisfactory." He also added that this type of praise was "a very rare occurrence".

This was not the only time that a company Thomas was a part of impressed Lord Kitchener. Upon his return to Australia in July of 1902, Thomas settled back into life in Wollongong as a veterinarian. In addition, he was also a Warrant Officer with the Australian Garrison Artillery unit based at Flagstaff Hill in Wollongong. In 1910, Lord Kitchener visited Sydney and looked on as the Wollongong unit narrowly defeated their more fancied Sydney rivals in the annual gunnery competition.

Around this time in Wollongong, workers within the local mining industry were fighting for better conditions. Mining companies were finding it more difficult to ignore their requests, particularly after the fairly recent Bulli (1887) and Mount Kembla (1902) mine disasters, in which a combined 177 miners lost their lives.

Workers were banding together and forming associations to give them a united voice and although details are sketchy, it appears Thomas was the inaugural president of the New South Wales Coke-workers Association.

An article in the Illawarra Mercury in 1911 refers to him as the new association's president-elect, although it is unclear if he actually served in the role, or for how long.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Thomas was 58 years old. According to family historian and great-grandson Edwin Grant, Banjo Paterson requested that Thomas enlist to help take care of the thousands of horses in North Africa.

Whether this request from Paterson was his motivation or not, Thomas did re-enlist in September of 1915 as a veterinarian to support the Light Horse Regiment in the Sinai Desert.

Three of his sons also enlisted during World War I. William and Charles served in Europe, while Thomas jnr served in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Charles did not make it home. He was killed in France in October of 1917 and laid to rest in a military cemetery in Belgium.

Thomas snr returned home in June of 1916 and was discharged from service for the final time.

During his time in the military, Thomas snr was awarded the Queen's South Africa, British War and Victory medals, as well as the 1914-15 Star. After such distinguished service over three tours, it is not surprising that he led the first Anzac March in Wollongong the following year.

Thomas snr was apparently also a long-standing member of the ancient order of Druids.

It can be assumed, although perhaps erroneously, that he was initiated into the order while still living in Britain. It is unclear in what capacity, or how heavily he was involved with the secretive Druids.

Thomas snr continued to work as a veterinarian well into his 60s. Then in June of 1927, he lost Elizabeth and his own health began to fail. Although having led a very full life, Thomas snr and his family had never been well off. Indeed, he even filed for bankruptcy in 1895.

Nevertheless, he was held in high esteem by the Wollongong community, as is evidenced by the local girl guides raising money to pay for a permanent bed at Wollongong Hospital. Then, when he finally passed away in May of 1930, at age 74, he was buried with full military honours and a parade down Kenny Street.

Thomas Kennedy Irwin left a legacy in the Wollongong region that few others have achieved.

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