Patrick Freehill.

Patrick Freehill: Baker who promoted Benevolent Asylum and Philanthrop

In his latest Times Past column, Jonathan Smyth looks at Patrick Freehill, the baker who promoted benevolent asylum and philanthropy...

Another family who are worthy of further research and who possibly are related to Frank Duff’s Freehill antecedents are the family of Bernard Freehill and Mary McKernan Freehill of Snugborough, in the civil parish of Tomregan, Ballyconnell, which is closely situated to Belturbet. Born in 1817, at Snugborough, Patrick Freehill was the son of Bernard and Mary who one day would make his name in Australia whilst his sons also became prominent citizens and set up one of the country’s most extensive Law firms, known as Freehills. Another of Patrick’s sons, Francis Bede Freehill, was to become the Australian Consul for Spain.

He arrived in Australia as an assisted immigrant in 1842 and began to operate a bakery at 109 George Street, Sydney. The Dictionary of Sydney records Freehill’s active Christian outlook demonstrated through his kindness towards Irish families who wished to make their home in the Irish colony at Sydney and his close relationship with Catholic causes in that city included ‘attending the meeting instigated by Archbishop Polding to establish St John’s College, where he contributed 100 pounds, as well as subscribing to the upkeep of St Mary’s Cathedral’.

It was always said that the Irish priests in Australia had a place to stay when they called to the Freehill homestead and he was a supporter of the Irish National cause and as a devoted church member, he was described by the Catholic Press (Sydney), as a ‘good Irishman and Catholic’ whom they believed was ‘naturally the best citizen’ and his support of everything that improved ‘the welfare’ of Australian citizens was noted. His position on the George-Street Benevolent Asylum allowed him to influence the group’s aid towards the Irish families who arrived in Sydney and his own money was generously applied to ‘all philanthropic movements’. He was a lifelong friend of the statesman William Bede Dalley who championed Catholic causes. Patrick Freehill took an active interest in politics and developed strong friendships with Sydney’s leading citizens.

Freehill relished in the celebrations held for St Patrick’s Day and was one of the organisers of the annual Irish Regatta and according to the Catholic Press he ‘also took a prominent part in organising the famous St Patrick’s Day banquets that were held in Clarke’s Assembly Rooms, now the home of the Royal Society’ and ‘in fact he was in the thick of every Irish movement in the colony’.

Unfortunately, the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1868 by Henry O’Farrell, helped put an end to the celebration of St Patrick’s Day when he shot and wounded the Duke, Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, and part of the punishment was aimed by the authorities at the Irish settlers. The Dictionary of Sydney recorded the strong reaction by the British rulers, saying that ‘although the prince was only slightly wounded, the event set off a rash of anti-Irish feeling in Sydney, and O’Farrell was hanged in record time’. St Patrick’s Day celebrations were not officially restored in Australia until 1988.

Freehills which became one of Australia’s largest legal firms, later known as ‘one of the big six’ was founded in 1871 by Bernard Austin Freehill, a son of Patrick Freehill. Sadly, Bernard died in 1880 and his brother Francis Bede Freehill, also a qualified solicitor, would take over the firm. On 27 January 1880, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the death of Bernard Austin Freehill aged 31 years, who died the day before, at his residence, Erskineville, MacDonald Town.

Patrick Freehill’s most notable achievements were helping to establish St John’s College, within the University of Sydney, and serving on the building committee behind the erection of St Mary’s Cathedral. Quoted as being a liberal minded politician he was responsible for completing several ‘important’ government contracts. Following Patrick’s death in January 1900, Mr Charles Lovely, JP, sent in a tribute to the Freeman’s Journal (Sydney), in which he said: ‘I have learnt with regret of the death of a very old colonist, whom I had the pleasure as a boy of knowing. Mr Freehill was one of a type now fast fading away … men who made men. They were bold, self-reliant, and of a very industrious character … I recollect well Mr Freehill’s kind, genial manner; that fine richness of feature which makes his countrymen conspicuous. We who have Irish blood in our veins must never forget those grand old faces now passing away’, he concluded.

On 12 May 1900, the Freeman’s Journal (Sydney), reported on the death of Mrs. Margaret Freehill Snr who having survived her husband by almost three and half months. Her obituary supplied some useful background information on where she came from, her marriage and the length of time it took her and her husband to sail from Ireland to Australia. Margaret was born in Belturbet, Co Cavan, and was later married locally to Patrick Freehill before they both set off on a six month journey to Australia in 1841. They lived in St. Patrick’s parish, Sydney, until he retired in 1877 at which time they moved to the Western Suburbs. To her friends and acquaintances, she was ‘a simple-mannered, soundly-sensible, kind-hearted, and unaffectedly-religious woman’.

Mrs Freehill died on May 7, 1900, at her son-in-law Mr Hollingdale’s residence, Lucas Road, Burwood at the age of 76 years. She was survived by her son F.B. Freehill and daughter Mrs E.J. Hollingdale. In attendance at her funeral were other relatives including her grandchildren, E.J. Hollingdale jnr., Bernard Hollingdale, Gerald Hollingdale and Eustace Hollingdale, and her nephews John Baxter, B. Gaffney, Arthur Cosgrove, and John Louis Cosgrove. The Irish Rifles corps, of which her son F.B. Freehill was a senior captain, had sent a ‘special message of condolence.

I would like to acknowledge Ann-Maree Whitaker who suggested Patrick Freehill’s life story as a topic for Times Past.

For further reading about Patrick Freehill, have a look at The Catholic Press (Sydney), January 6, 1900. In next week’s column, the subject is Francis Bede Freehill, founder of the Catholic Press and Australian Consul for Spain.