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Timothy O'Hea (1846–1874)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published:

Timothy O'Hea (1846-1874), Victoria Cross winner and explorer, was born in Bantry, County Cork, Ireland. He enlisted in the 1st battalion, the Prince Consort's Own Rifle Brigade, and went with his regiment to Canada during the Fenian troubles. On the night of 9 June 1866 a truck, loaded with gunpowder and attached to a passenger train carrying 800 German migrants, caught fire. O'Hea, one of four soldiers escorting the ammunition, gave the alarm, and called for assistance in the Queen's name but was urged to stand back. He found a bucket, water and a ladder which he mounted nineteen times and single-handed put out the fire after nearly an hour. A military board recommended him for the Victoria Cross; he was gazetted on 1 January 1867. Recent changes in the regulations allowed the award to be made in peacetime 'for conspicuous courage under circumstances of great danger'.

O'Hea left the army and went to New Zealand where he served in the mounted constabulary. He moved to Sydney in June 1874 and two days later begged to join Andrew Hume, who had been released from prison on a charge of horse-stealing to substantiate his claim that a survivor of the expedition of 1848 led by Leichhardt was living with Aboriginals in north-west Australia. F. E. Du Faur who had financed Hume arranged for O'Hea to join him at Maitland. They lingered on the way to south-west Queensland because of Hume's weakness for 'the cursed grog shops' and at Mungindi were joined by Lewis Thompson, an English ex-soldier. The party spent about six weeks at Thargomindah station owned by V. J. Dowling, who was absent.

Growing impatient, the expedition did not wait for Dowling's return and left Nockatunga station on 1 November. Next day they headed for Cooper's Creek and camped at Graham's Creek, where Hume refused to allow O'Hea to fill the large water-bags. Unaware that Cooper's Creek after running north and south to Naccowlah suddenly turned west to the South Australian border, Hume travelled parallel with it. Despite a desperate search they could find no water and after three days Hume decided to return to Graham's Creek. On 6 November O'Hea collapsed and Thompson left the others to seek water, which he found and staggered back to Nockatunga. A search party found Hume's body and O'Hea's was probably later found by Aboriginals. Thompson claimed that they 'were as fine companions as I have ever met'. Dowling told Du Faur that 'it seems inexplicable to me that an experienced bushman like Hume should have so mismanaged … I know that the risk run was unnecessary and unwise. The fact is simply this: Hume was over confident'.

O'Hea had left his V.C. with Du Faur's brother-in-law, who presented it to the Art Gallery of New South Wales where it was found in a drawer in 1950 and later given to Field-Marshal Lord Wilson, colonel-in-chief of the Rifle Brigade, to be placed in the Regimental Museum, Winchester, England.

Select Bibliography

  • O'M. Creagh and E. M. Humphris (eds), The V.C. and D.S.O., vol 1 (Lond, 1924)
  • A. H. Chisholm, Strange New World, 2nd ed (Syd, 1955)
  • T. Dunbabin, ‘Tim O'Hea's Canadian V.C.’, Citizen (Ottawa), 10 Aug 1951
  • Town and Country Journal, 9 Jan, 6, 13, 20 Feb 1875
  • A. H. Chisholm, ‘The V.C. of Timothy O'Hea’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Feb 1950
  • V. G. Dowling press contributions, Holdings 81 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'O'Hea, Timothy (1846–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Timothy O'Hea (1846-1874), by unknown engraver , 1875

Timothy O'Hea (1846-1874), by unknown engraver , 1875

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN24/03/75/37 [O'Hea (left) with Andrew Hume and Lewis Thompson]

Life Summary [details]


Bantry, Cork, Ireland


1874 (aged ~ 28)
Queensland, Australia

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