Timothy O’Hea VC

b. 1843 Schull, County Cork, Ireland. d. 11/1874 Tirari Desert, Australia. (disputed).

Timothy O’Hea (1843-1874) was born in Schull, Bantry, County Cork, Ireland in 1843. O’Hea’s life and death  is shrouded in mystery and little is known about him prior to enlistment with the Rifle Brigade (later Royal Green Jackets).

Timothy O’Hea VC

Soon after his enlistment, O’Hea found himself stationed in Quebec, Canada, where on 9th June 1866, he would be involved in the incident which would lead to the first (and to date only) VC action on Canadian soil. It is also an action which if it occurred now, O’Hea would probably have been awarded the George Cross not the Victoria Cross as he was not under enemy fire when the incident occurred.

On the afternoon of 9th June 1866, a railway train from Quebec stopped at Danville. Locked in converted boxcars were 800 German immigrants. In another boxcar was 2000 pounds of ammunition for use against the Fenian raiders and it was Timothy O’Hea’s job along with four other men of the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade to guard it. 

Late in the afternoon, O’Hea noticed that the boxcar containing the ammunition was on fire and after shouting an alarm, discovered the railwaymen and other soldiers had fled. O’Hea grabbed the keys to the boxcar from a dithering Sergeant and climbed aboard. He ripped burning covers off ammunition cases and tossed them outside, then for almost an hour, making 19 trips to a creek for buckets of water, he fought the flames, the immigrants cheering him on unaware of their peril.

Timothy O’Hea fought on alone and won. By evening, the ammunition had been loaded into another car and the train – immigrant coaches still attached – was on its way again. O’Hea not only displayed great courage and total disregard for his own life in putting out the fire in the boxcar, but also saved 800 immigrants from certain death had the ammunition exploded.

His VC was gazetted on 1st June 1867, which was two months after he had actually received the medal on 26th April whilst still serving in Canada. Where more mystery surrounds O’Hea is the circumstances around his death. He is believed to have died in November 1874 in the Tirari Desert, Australia whilst searching for a lost member of the Leichhardt Expedition. He is believed to be buried at Noccundra Station, Queensland.

There was another theory about his death in that he died in Ireland, shortly after his discharge from the Army in 1868, and the man who died in Australia, was his brother, John who had assumed his identity. After his death, his medal disappeared for nearly 75 years, when it was discovered in a drawer in an art gallery in Australia. The medal is now owned by the Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester.