Fremantle Stuff > people>

John & Minnie Irvine

John Irvine 1844-1895 & Minnie Irvine (née Taylor) 1860-1923

Story by Tim Irvine—with amendments from Harvey Leys

John Irvine

Born 1844 in Banffshire, Scotland. He married Minnie Taylor 3 March 1877 in Westport NZ when he was working on the construction of the harbour/breakwater in Hokitika on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
A story that has existed in the family is that he financially assisted Minnie Taylor to complete her schooling - then they married when she was 18 years old and he was 34.

Hokitika Harbour Construction

After the discovery of gold in the Taramakau Valley in 1864, prospectors started arriving at the Hokitika River mouth, the closest anchorage to the diggings. During 1865 a flood of gold prospectors and traders arrived, and the town was occupied and booming within less than a year. While most miners lived close to the diggings where they worked, Hokitika was the town they went to for supplies, recreation and to sell gold. For a short period, Hokitika had a population of over 4,000. Hokitika was officially gazetted as a port on 8 March 1865. The hazardous entrance to this river port caused many ships to come to grief with about one shipwreck every ten weeks in 1866. In 1867, the port of Hokitika ranked first in New Zealand in both the number of vessels entered inwards and in the total value of exports; principally gold. As a result of this the port facility and harbour entrance were upgraded with the construction of a breakwater.

John and Minnie did not take too long before they started to have and raise their large family. While living in Hokitika they had John Taylor Irvine in 1879 & William Edward Irvine in 1880.

The Move To Australia

They moved to Australia October 1883 to the Clarence River and what is now known as Yamba on the northern NSW coast. They came to Australia so John could work on the Clarence River harbour breakwater construction.

Clarence River Harbour >

In 1885 an eminent engineer from England, Sir John Coode was in Australia and invited to offer advice which was
1. to remove the reef to a depth of 18’ (5.4m)
2. that breakwaters be constructed out to sea, the southern one to be the longer
3. the inside training banks to follow a straight line to Freeburn Island to create a main channel

< Clarence and Richmond Examiner, 2 November 1889

Their third child, Minnie, was born at sea 7 October 1883 between NZ and Australia. (Minnie Irvine married William Mason in the U.K. 19 August 1914.) Whilst living in Clarence they had 3 more children, in 1885 James Irvine, Clarenza Irvine in 1886 (presumably named after the Clarence River area), and Harvey Irvine in 1890.

The move to Western Australia

With the discovery of gold in the Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie areas in the early 1890’s there was a need to develop an all-weather safe port to cater for the ever increasing influx of miners and their supplies. At the time the mouth of the Swan River was shallow and enclosed by reef.

CY O’Connor assessed several options and successfully lobbied for his vision for an Inner Harbour scheme within the entrance to the Swan River.
Work began in 1892. The first major task involved the construction of the North and South moles, using rock quarried from Rocky Bay (Swan River) and Boya (south side of Greenmount Hill in the Mundaring Shire).
Next came drilling and blasting, with six dredges then used to remove about 7.3 million cubic metres of sand and rock to create the harbour.

The wharves are of marginal design (constructed along the shoreline) rather than the finger piers (at right angles to the shore) that were favoured by most Australian ports at that time. This foresight to construct a port with greater width was a key decision in enabling the port to provide for future shipping.

CY O’Connor had worked with John Irvine on the construction of the harbour in Hokitika and was obviously impressed with his work so he requested he come to Western Australia as one of his Superintendent or Harbour Works.

Once in Western Australia they settled in a small cottage in De Lisle North Fremantle – presumably a workers cottage provided by the Public Works Dept responsible for the construction work.
More offspring continued, Violet Irvine in 1893, and Marian (Shaw) in October 1895, 8 months after John Irvine was killed. So Minnie was approximately 1 month pregnant when he was killed.

In Minnie’s death notice it also mentions a Mrs W. Mason of Mt Hawthorn as one of her children. This would be her third child, Minnie Irvine, born 1883, who married William Mason.

The unfortunate death of John Irvine

John Irvine was responsible for the excavation of the rock used to form the North and South Mole breakwaters forming that channel to the new harbour for Fremantle. This involved drilling and blasting the rock quarried from Rocky Bay and in the foothills of the Darling Ranges.
During this excavation work at Rocky Bay they were trialling a new kind of explosive named Taipo developed in New Zealand. On the 7th of February 1895 at Rocky Bay John Irvine was carrying out the experiment with the inventors to test this new explosive. Taipo had only been recently invented and it had received a patent just three weeks earlier. From all accounts the explosive was correctly set however some of the charge was stuck in the hole. It appears John Irvine tried to clear it with a “pricker” which must have struck the side of the hole and created a spark setting off the charge. John Irvine was thrown up and out over the ledge he was standing on and landed on rocks below. He was not killed outright but was badly injured with severe lacerations to the neck, a broken jaw in two places and his left eye destroyed. He was taken to casualty and treated for these injuries, but when they turned him over they found his back was fractured and had no sensation below the waist. He died next morning 8th February 1895.

Report from the West Australian, Saturday 9 February 1895, p. 6

THE EXPLOSION AT ROCKY BAY. DEATH OF MR. IRVINE. YORKE'S CONDITION SERIOUS. MR. PURKISS' EYESIGHT IN DANGER. The sad sequel to the terrible explosion which took place at the Rocky Bay quarries, on Thursday afternoon, is the death of Mr. John Irvine, the late officer in charge of the Harbour Works at Fremantle. On Thursday night Mr. Irvine suffered torturing pains at the Casualty Ward, where he was constantly attended by his wife, and visited by Dr. Hope. He was conscious that he was about to die, and in order to relieve his agony morphia was administered by Dr. Hope. The sufferer, who had been in acute pain from the dislocation of the spine and the terrible injury to his jaw from tie time of the occurrence of the accident, passed a peaceful night, but at about 6 o'clock yesterday morning he again became conscious of pain, and with returning sensibility he began to sink and died at ten minutes to seven o'clock. Mr. Irvine leaves a wife and seven children, the eldest of whom is 16 years of age. He was for many years connected with harbour works in New Zealand, notably at Hokitika and Westport, and was a recognised practical authority upon all details connected with the construction of timber and stone piers. He was 51 years of age at the time of his death. Yesterday was a gloomy day at Fremantle and North Fremantle, where the deceased was well known and esteemed. Upon the news of his death being made known yesterday morning, flags were half-masted at the business places in the town and on the shipping in port. Work was entirely suspended at the Rocky Bay quarries during the day, and the men lately employed under the deceased officer, numbering nearly 350 in all capacities, testified feelingly their heartfelt regret at the untimely death of their popular superintendent. The funeral will take place to-day. The procession will consist of upwards of 500 men engaged in the various sections of the harbour works and over 200 railway employees, besides the large number of townspeople who were numbered as Mr. Irvine's friends. The funeral leaves the late residence of the deceased at North Fremantle, near the railway station, at 11 o'clock, and tbe Executive Engineer requests all employees to assemble at 10.30 a.m. The greatest sympathy is felt for Mrs. Irvine, who is bravely bearing the terrible shock of ber husband's death, and the many friends of Mrs. Irvine and her family are unanimous in their expressions of condolence. Wreaths of white dahlias and geraniums have been sent to accompany the remains by the employees of the Government Stores, with the inscription "A tribute of respect to our late friend and fellow officer, from the officers and men of the Government Stores Department of Western Australia." The wreath sent by the Locomotive Department employees bore the inscription "With deep regret, from the employees of the Locomotive Workshops." A handsome wreath was sent by the Permanent Way man bearing an appropriate expression of feeling. Numerous other wreaths have been sent by the friends of the deceased. The condition of the special ganger, Timothy Yorke, is serious. The unfortunate fellow, who is highly spoken of by his fellow employees, is terribly disfigured. Upon his wounded face being dressed, it was found that his chin and lips were almost effaced, a fearfal gash being inflicted under the jaw. Several severe contusions were noticed on various parts of the body, and the sufferer experienced great, pain until noon yesterday, when he became clear mentally and was able to sit erect. His left eye has been extracted and the right one is [ seriously injured, and though the doctors have given it a chance it is feared that its sight will be hopelessly lost, even if the eye has not to be taken out altogether. Mr. Purkiss, solicitor, of Perth, who is about to enter into partnership with Mr. R. S. Haynes, appears to have received much more serious injury than was at first believed. He is unable to see, and Dr. Kelsall has a grave case in hand to restore his sight. Various statements are made as to the nature of the explosive " taipo," which was the | cause of the lamentable disaster. Mr. M. McCardell, who is stated to be the inventor and patentee of "taipo" (which in Maori language signifies the devil) does not consider the compound to be dangerously sensitive The object of the fatal trial of the explosive at Rocky Bay on Thursday afternoon was to ascertain its relative effect to that of and dynamite. It was in the interests of the public expenditure that Mr. Irvine conducted the trial, for he had been assured that the new explosive was equal if not superior in effect to dynamite, while it could be manufactured something like 50 per cent, cheaper. Mr. McCardell does not disclose the chemical components of the explosive. It is open to question whether any explosive compound of an unknown chemical composition should be tried without a chemical analysis such as is demanded in many continental countries in Europe and elsewhere. The tamping rod contact, which appears to have caused the explosion, was the usual safe copper-ended instrument used for dynamite and powder.

< Obituary notice placed by his children

His Funeral

It was estimated that over 500 people attended either the funeral or the funeral procession through Fremantle, flags in the port town were flown at half mast, and quarry works were closed down for the day, such was the respect that he had from his work mates and colleagues at the PWD. Although not wealthy and of simple means his grave was bestowed with a very elaborate tomb stone, presumably paid for by fellow workers and others.

< John Irvine's Grave - more on this later

The Fob Watch >

One piece of family memorabilia is a fob watch which was presumed to have been presented to John Irvine.

Faintly inscribed "J T Irvine PWD Perth 1895"

Since it was inscribed J T Irvine I assume that it was presented to his oldest son John Taylor Irvine (1879-1958) by the PWD after the tragic loss of his father.

Minnie Irvine (nee Taylor)

Nothing is known of Minnie prior to her marriage to John Irvine.
Her life up until the time of her husband’s death was very much of the loving wife, mother and homekeeper. She, with the ever-growing tribe of offspring, followed John Irvine as he moved from the colony of New Zealand to Clarence River in Australia and finally to Fremantle in the Swan River colony.

At the time of his death it would appear that she was approximately 1 month pregnant with her 7th (or 8th) child. It would have been very tough trying to raise a family of 7 as a widow with no other immediate family for support.

The next record of Minnie is a marriage to William John Shaw in 1896. Little else is recorded about William Shaw after that. He does not appear in any more records including no mention of him in shire & electoral records where Minnie is recorded.

Not long after John’s death she moved with her family to Maylands area and ran cafes and eating houses. There is a record of her applying for a licence to run an eating house at 380 Hay St, Perth, which is where Mercedes College is now located.

On the 1903 electoral roll she is recorded as living at 231 Adelaide Terrace, Perth which is virtually directly behind 380 Hay St. Also listed at that address were John Taylor & William Edward Irvine. The other children would not have been adult age so not included on the electoral roll.
In 1917 she is recorded on the electoral roll at 123 Charles St, Perth.

In 1914 she took a trip to UK with her daughter Violet Irvine. They had gone to attend Minnie Irvine’s wedding to William Mason. Violet is mentioned on the marriage certificate as a witness.

Extract from passenger list White Star Departing Liverpool 12th Nov 1914

Minnie Irvine’s Death

Minnie passed away in 28th June 1923 aged 64 at St John of God Hospital (Subiaco). There is no record of how she died but given the tough life she had, to live to 63 obviously showed what a strong and determined lady she had been.

She was buried at the old Fremantle Cemetery in the same plot as John Irvine & infant Marian Irvine. Although this cemetery had been closed down in 1899, this was permitted because it was a family plot. She was the last person interred at the old Fremantle cemetery.

The Family Plot

One would have thought this was the end of the story of John & Minnie Irvine but on reading the article regarding the relocation of some of the graves from the old cemetery to the new cemetery in Carrington St, I did some investigation. In 1933 some of the graves were relocated however out of the hundreds there it was limited to just forty to be relocated. They were chosen as being in the best condition and from well-known West Australian families. Because John Irvine had a very prominent tombstone paid for by his work colleagues and others it appears that his was selected as one of the forty to be relocated to Carrington St.
The tombstone (shown further up this page) is now located in one of the older sections of Carrington St cemetery just off one of the main avenues. I have walked right past this area a number of times not realising the significance to our family.
The tombstone bears the names of John Irvine, Minnie Irvine and Marian Irvine (no mention of the name Shaw).

Six Generations of John Irvines

The name John Irvine has since been carried down from generation to generation and to date there have been 6 John Irvines, 4 of them being John Taylor Irvine in recognition of these two very remarkable people.

References, Links, Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Tim Irvine, great-grandson of John Irvine, for sharing his family story, and to Harvey Leys, another great-grandson, for his additions, and also the gallery of family photos.

Family photos

Courtesy of Harvey Leys:
John Irvine, his wife Minnie, and two of their sons, James and Harvey Irvine.

Harvey Leys: James had a very eventful life. Initially in the merchant navy, he was at San Francisco after the earthquake and fire in 1906. He was in the British navy on HMS New Zealand at the battle of Heligoland and Dogger Bank. He was a lieutenant in the RNR commanding a patrol flotilla of trawlers commandeered by the navy to patrol the English Channel when his ship hit a mine. The whole crew was killed on 23 March 1916. I have his medals and lots of correspondence - even the broken wrist watch recovered from his body. The boat was HMS Corona.

Harvey Leys: Harvey Irvine was in the merchant navy in the crew of SS Calulu, which was a coal carrier. He and two others were inspecting a hold when a gas explosion killed him instantly on 6 December 1917.  The ship was in Melbourne harbour.

Garry Gillard | New: 17 July, 2020 | Now: 9 October, 2021