19 June 2020

Bushrangers and bushfire: the story of a Eurobodalla town’s monument to police bravery

| James Coleman
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The O’Grady Monument

The O’Grady Monument, following its restoration in 2016. Photo: Eurobodalla Shire Council.

A four-metre-high sandstone pillar at the heart of a small village in the Eurobodalla Shire will be among the first structures to be restored following the summer’s bushfires.

“It seemed one small thing we could do to lift spirits in a pretty horrible environment,” South Coast Police District Superintendent Greg Moore says.

“The monument holds a pretty sentimental place in their hearts.”

The O’Grady Monument stands in the middle of the main road of Nerrigundah. It was built over 150 years ago in honour of Constable Miles O’Grady, and its story proves this isn’t the first time this place has been devastated or that emergency services have stepped in to prevent even worse.

In 1866, Nerrigundah was bustling with gold-rush hype. The town had three policemen, but on Monday, 9 April, Sergeant Hitch was away, Constable Smyth was overseeing the barracks, and Constable O’Grady was in bed with a fever. Unbeknownst to them, the nearby Clarke Gang were plotting.

Ever since the Hall Gang had taken over Bathurst, taking over a town had become something of a badge of honour in the bushranger’s world. Brothers Thomas and John Clarke and their accomplices had Nerrigundah in their sights.

That evening, five of them crashed Wallis’s London Tavern, robbing passers-by before locking up as many locals as they could find inside. Constables Smyth and O’Grady soon caught wind of this, and despite being begged not to go, O’Grady replied, “I will do my duty”.

The two of them headed for the tavern.

A shoot-out ensued, during which O’Grady fatally wounded one of the gang members before the oldest Clarke brother allegedly fired back. The constable made it to another nearby hotel where he died three hours later.

The Clarke Gang went on to haunt an area stretching from Braidwood to Bega, Moruya to Nelligen for another year before the brothers finally surrendered and were hanged in 1867. But Nerrigundah never became that other Bathurst.

In honour of his valiant efforts, the NSW Government sent money to O’Grady’s family in Ireland and erected a memorial on the site in Nerrigundah where he was shot. There it stood for decades, gradually falling into disrepair.

In 2016, Eurobodalla Shire Council maintenance coordinator, Andrew Gillies, noticed the stone pillar sitting atop a mound of dirt in the middle of the street, and went to take a closer look.

“I’d driven past it 100 times but never really stopped to read what it was all about. One day I stopped and read it, and did some research. It needed some love.”

So 150 years later, the O’Grady Monument was returned to its former glory. However, a massive bushfire was only a few short years away, one which was to not only scar the monument, but also destroy 20 of the village’s 25 homes and claim the life of a 71-year-old man.

It was the same horrible experience shared across the Eurobodalla Shire and beyond over Christmas and the New Year – “a roaring, deafening sound with a red glow”, unlike anything most firefighters had ever seen.

Fire captain Ron Threlfall took charge and huddled 12 of the residents within the fire station shed, where they waited out the storm.

“This door pushed in and the crew had to push up against it to stop the door caving in,” he said.

“We had sparks flying in here and smoke everywhere.”

Nerrigundah had no power for almost two weeks afterwards and lived off donated water, food, clothing and fuel. But they were quick to get up and dust themselves off.

“We’re going to get a big skip in to clean up the area and start rebuilding,” a resident said at the time.

Come June and recovery is well and truly underway. Near the top of the to-do list is the O’Grady Monument.

The Council’s director of infrastructure, Warren Sharpe, says this is to support the local community and thank the police for their effort during the bushfire crisis.

As the monument’s plaque itself reads, “thus setting a noble example of bravery in the discharge of public duty”.

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