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An O'Grady Path into New Zealand History
by P. Danenberg, M. Murtagh & R. Murtagh

Life and Times of Sgt-Major Thomas O'Grady


In the first two parts of the O'Grady Path, we have given our best considered opinions on the origins of our O'Grady ancestors in Co. Clare. We think that they can be traced back fairly conclusively to the 1500s or even the 1300s in Ireland, but we have no scribed Irish records that confirm even just whom the parents of our Thomas O'Grady were. However, we did unearth over 80 references that provide good circumstantial evidence and some definite facts behind our opinions. In contrast, the family history of Thomas and his descendants in New Zealand is quite well documented, and when supplemented by the usual newspaper and official records that are available for the last 150 years leading up to the present, we can obtain a good picture of their lives in NZ, as presented in the second, and this third part.

Also in the first two parts, we've given the essential steps that led Thomas into the NZ Police force. Firstly, that with fate and circumstances denying him any prospects of significant inheritance, and no prospects of a military career, and perhaps not being inclined towards a religious career, Thomas was left with few options for an active and worthwhile life. As in the English system of inheritance, which the Irish adopted under Henry 8th's agreements, such lower level sons found career paths difficult to find. In this respect, Thomas was lucky to be steered towards the RIC, where, although not highly paid, he could nevertheless have a life of some adventure and interest.

After four years of disciplined training and experience in the RIC, the prospect of then accompanying his sister to Christchurch offered a release from local policing in Ireland. With the further prospects available from being given a capital remittance from his father's estate, Thomas's way forward was determined. And when after arrival he happened to be accommodated just next door to the police barracks in Christchurch, where the doors had just opened for the intake of recruits, he must have thought that he was indeed destined for such a path.

In this third part of Thomas O'Grady's story, we recount his particular history with the New Zealand Police Force. In this overview, we should point-out two special aspects of his career:

Firstly that it started soon after the Force had been established as a national, coordinated body, separate from the NZ Army, to maintain legal order among the citizenry of NZ. At that time, New Zealand was involved both with the Maori Wars which had started in 1860 and also with the social unrest created by the opening of the Otago gold fields in 1861. These situations had led to the creation in the South Island of a number of paramilitarized police forces that were modelled on the Victorian Forces (in Australia) and utilized men who had been trained under gold-rush conditions in the Victorian Force and in the Irish Constabulary. So Thomas was in an ideal position with his experience to become a founding employee of the resulting NZ Police Force that was established to supercede those existing fragmented bodies.

Secondly, that nearly all of his whole working life of 44 years in NZ was devoted to that career, during which time he served in a wide variety of locations and encountered a wide variety of policing situations. Furthermore, it was norm in his career for the local populace to commend him highly for his work when it came time for him to move to another location. So then it was more than appropriate at the time of his retirement for him to be referred-to as "The Father of the New Zealand Police Force", because he was genuinely seen as a wise and competent policeman who had much experience with the variety of people in NZ, and who was prepared to do the best that he could for his 'family' of citizens who looked to him for authority.

In the following paragraphs, we provide a broad overview of Thomas's career in the many places where he was stationed, and of the major problems that he experienced. As indicated, a parallel account has been researched by Ann O'Grady who provides photographs and detailed newspaper reports and notices about his day-to-day adventures. These items all add to the overall story which provides a record of a very interesting life in NZ's very early days. We acknowledge with thanks that we've used a few dates and other details from her work that we didn't have, but which help to coordinate both Ann's and our record of his life.

For our part, we've mentioned more of the human aspects of his story, and in particular how Thomas, as an obviously Catholic Irishman had to deal with a largely Protestant community in which he had a lot of responsibility but not much power. It is noticeable that he seems to have been moved into a number of 'difficult' areas in this embryonic period of NZ history. Thus although he was retained at a number of towns within Canterbury during the times of the Maori wars in the North Island, nevertheless he was moved to Russell near Waitangi in the very north in 1880, and then across to Thames for three years at the time of the major gold rushes in that area. The retention of law and order among wild gold-miners was a potentially difficult job, but Thomas seems to have coped as his superiors would have wished. And from there he went to similarly wild circumstances on the West Coast for three years. His family's escape from a burning cottage then perhaps initiated a move to Napier for three years, before finally moving to Oamaru where he saw out his career. In hindsight, we think that although some people did attempt to denigrate Thomas on occasions, he seems to have forestalled them with his basic honesty and impartial approach to people of different backgrounds and religions.

The Table, below, summarizes to the best of our knowledge, the various stages in his career, and relates them to both the location and births of his children.

Location Dates and Reference Material Children Born
Heathcote Police Station opened in March 1861, & was closed in Nov. 1867. Thomas appointed in charge in 1863 until Nov. 1866. He was later joined by a Sgt-in-charge. Thomas William, b.Oct 1864 Heathcote Valley Georgina, bap.Jul.,1866, Heathcote Valley
Ferrymead Station opened 1863. Thomas O'Grady in charge from 15 Nov 1866 until 27 June 1867. Station closed 26 July 1867.  
Rangiora Sgt. Thomas O'Grady in charge from 27 June1867 until March 1871 Harry, b. March 1868, Rangiora. Frances Mary, b.Feb 1870, & d. Nov. 1872; buried in Rangiora from Shands Trk, ChCh.
Leithfield Station completed 1866, Sgt Thomas O'Grady in charge 25 Feb 1871 until May 1874. Closed 1877. Fanny, b.Sept 1872, Leithfield
Lyttelton Newly appointed Sgt.Major Thomas O'Grady took command on 1 May 1874 until 22 May, 1880. Solved a brutal sex-murder in 1875 - see Note (a) below. Harold Mortimer, b.Mar.1875, Lyttleton Francis Carl, b.Oct 1879, Lytt.
Thames After a six-months appointment in Russell, Sgt O'Grady was transferred to Thames, where he ran the Station for about 3 years. He was No. 1357 on the Thames Electoral Roll in 1881, & was blamed for reporting the notorious James Farrell who laid 21 charges in 1882. He was then transferred to Greymouth, 1883.  
Greymouth 883 Restord to Sgt Major in 1884. Removed to Napier in 1885 because "he was openly anti-catholic in his views. Mary Maude, b 1883, Greymouth
Napier In charge Byron St Station, 1885. Reprimanded by Insp. Bullen Jan., 1886, but won his hearing. Bullen could not be moved, so O'Grady was sent to Oamaru Feb 1887. Patrick Joseph b. 1885 in Patea, Taranaki, perhaps in transit to Napier?
Oamaru In charge 9 Feb 1887 to 31 Dec 1901, when he retired aged 62.  

Career Notes
Heathcote - Thomas O'Grady's first posting in NZ was to Heathcote, which lay on the short route between Christchurch and its important gateway, the port of Lyttleton. Thomas was in charge from 26 Aug 1861 to 14 Nov 1866. We found in the Christchurch Archives, a number of Thomas's hand-written reports from this early period. In 1864, he was involved in resolving a dispute over a fence that had been constructed around his Station, with one local publican claiming that it would reduce customers' access to his premises. Then in 1865, Thomas attempted to use the railway phone system to warn the Christchurch police of the imminent arrival from Lyttleton of an unsavory character. However, he was refused permission which prompted the report, below, showing that Thomas had a good eye for using technology to help the war against crime. Note that the blue paper that he used made copying difficult.

At Ferrymead Police Station from 15 Nov 1866 until 27 June 1867, but it was closed a month later, presumably because it too became redundant with the availability of the rapid rail link between Lyttleton and ChCh.


Rangiora - The Rangiora police sub-district included the borough and the surrounding settlements. Sergeant O’Grady was in charge from June 1867 until Feb. 1871. From Thomas’ diary entries it wasn’t unusual for him to work seven days a week with only the occasional few days leave of absence. He patrolled on foot and on horseback and was required for duty at events in Christchurch such as the races and the flower shows. He would cross the Waimakariri on horseback as there was no bridge, and this could be dangerous !

Leithfield - Sergeant O’Grady was in charge of Leithfield Station, 35 miles north of Christchurch, for the period Mar. 1871 until May 1874. It so happens that one of the Station Diaries (held at the National Archives Canterbury) covered almost exactly that period in which Thomas was at Leithfield. ... "Thomas O'Grady arrived from Rangiora on Tuesday 7th March 1871 and assumed charge of the district." At that time the district had only one horse, until 30th June 1871 when another was obtained. From the daily entries in that diary Thomas appeared to work seven days a week, here too, with the occasional leave of absence for a few days. An example of a typical workday would be "in charge of station and patrol town 10.00am to 12 noon, 4.00pm to 6.00pm, 10.00pm to 11.00pm." He sometimes patrolled on foot and at other times on horseback. Examples of occasion's when he left the district: On leave Monday 19th February 1872 - left for Christchurch at 1.00pm and arrived back 7.00pm Saturday 24th February. On Thursday 22nd May 1873 he "left for Christchurch at 10.00am to do duty at the races and flower show and arrived back in Leithfield at 6.00pm on Sunday 25th May". On Wednesday 5th November 1873 he left for the north at 3.00pm (with horse) and was away for the rest of the week. It is noted in the station duty and occurrences diary that each police officer (and police horse) had their own record for each day headed up Sunday through Saturday and an extra column to note special occurrences.

It may be noted that some newspaper items from Leithfield of those times refer to O'Grady being on the committee of the local cricket club, and being involved in an athletics meeting in the district in November 1873. As explained in the first part of the O'Grady story, these references can refer not only to our Thomas O'Grady, but also to his cousin Frederick O'Grady who later became the sixth Lord Guillamore. Such higher born people referred to themselves by their surname only, as was and is still the English custom. As remarked in that earlier part of the story, the contact between the two O'Grady cousins could not possibly have been by chance in such a remote place, and is clear evidence of our Thomas's higher birth credentials. Some relevant newspaper items are tabulated below, Note that there was only a one-month period between the third and fourth entries, so Frederick O'Grady didn't waste any time in travelling to the tiny village of Leithfield. He knew where he was headed for!

The Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton, England), March 6 1872. “Offices of the Reserve Forces: among the officers of the Artillery Reserve Forces who obtained certificates proficiency from the school of Artillery at Woolwich during the month of February we observe the names of Lieutenant the Hon F S O'Grady, Isle of Wight Militia."

Lyttelton Times August 22 1872 – “Leithfield Cricket Club - A meeting of persons interested in re-forming this club was held at the Royal Hotel, Leithfield on Saturday evening. Mr W A Benn was elected hon sec and treasurer, messrs H C Cameron, C G King, O'Grady, Oliver and L C Williams with the secretary a managing committee.”

Press 6 January 1873 – “Arrival of the ship Crusader from London - Saloon passengers included F S O'Grady.”

Press 4 February 1873 – “Leithfield Cricket Club - Match played at Leithfield on Saturday last between married and single members of this club. Married T. O'Grady b Cameron 4.”

From the Press 20 September 1873 - "Cricket -The annual meeting of the Leithfield Cricket Club was held at the Royal Hotel on Thursday evening - The following were elected officers for the ensuring year - hon sec and treasurer Mr F S O'Grady."

Press 19 December 1873 – “Leithfield Annual Sports - "The greatest good humour prevailed, and although the ever active representative of the Police Force, sergeant O'Grady, was present, his services in maintaining good order were not called into requisition.”

Thomas attained the rank of Sergeant Major in the week ended 14th March 1874, and left Leithfield on Thursday 19th March 1874 on transfer to Lyttelton.

Lyttleton - Because Christchurch is central to the well-watered and highly productive agricultural area of the Canterbury Plains, and because Lyttleton is an excellent port for servicing ChCh and those Plains, the port of Lyttleton has always been a busy and important town in the South Island of NZ. Although small in size, it has always boasted many pubs at which sailors could spend their shore-time and wages. In particular "the public saw the handling of the sex-murder case of an eleven year old Lyttelton girl in January 1875 as a classic example of ‘sagacity and patience’ on the part of police. O'Grady and Feast had soon zeroed in upon the murderer, ship's cook John Mercer. His clothes were handed to a medical expert, who subjected them to scientific tests to disprove an alibi for bloodstains and gorse prickles removed from the prisoner's body were carefully matched with those at the murder scene. The impeccable evidence against the accused ensured that he would hang."

Auckland District - Thomas had a 'dream' job at beautiful Russell in the Bay of Islands, but only for six months! He arrived on 22 May, 1889 and left on 28 Oct. He then moved to the nearby Thames Valley where gold had been discovered. During these times, he would have had greater contact with the Maori population than in Canterbury, but seems to have coped with different experiences. The "Thames" was initially built during the gold rush which began in 1867. Land was rented from local Maori for mining purposes for the sum of 5,000 pounds per year, a colossal sum and a source of great envy by other iwi. Towards the end of the 19th century Thames was the largest centre of population in New Zealand with 18,000 inhabitants and well over 100 hotels and three theatres in 1868. Many people migrated to Thames and it became the second largest city in New Zealand. While there, Thomas struck trouble.

Detective Farrell v Sergeant Major O’Grady: "Hawkes Bay Herald"
“Thomas had charge of the Thames for about three years. While there Sergeant Major O'Grady very properly reported his subordinate, Detective James Farrell for a most cowardly and unmanly assault on a bushman. For this Farrell was dismissed from the police service and then retaliated by bringing a series of charges against O'Grady, all of which were dismissed and no taint attached to him.

In one case, the evidence for which had to be raked up from a black book kept by Farrell, the alleged misconduct dated back eighteen months. The chief witness stated on oath that she had no charge to prefer and that Farrell had offered her £25 to lay information, and £50 if O'Grady were dismissed the service. She refused and the information was laid by a detective. The Resident Magistrate the late Warden Kenrick dismissed the charge and informed O'Grady that he left the Court without a stain on his character, a decision which was received with enthusiasm and cheers by the people.”

Full details behind this case can be obtained from a number of newspaper articles during the time that the charges against Thomas were being processed. The above summary is very appropriate, but one can only lament that a few ratbags like Farrell do still in modern times get into positions of power in police forces, where their actions (if uncovered) only taint the good work done by the majority of their fellow officers. The articles are:

"Scandal !", Bay of Plenty Times, 12 Jul, 1882
Bay of Plenty Times 15 July 1882
"Charge against Sergt O'Grady", Thames Star 11 Aug 1882
Christchurch Star 18 Aug 1882 (ChCh)
"Sergt.O'Grady's report on Detective Farrell" Thames Star 13 Sep 1882

Greymouth - One of the by-products of Farrell's campaign (even though thoroughly discredited) against Thomas O'Grady was that a superior officer saw fit to move Thomas from the Thames area to Greymouth. Thomas might reasonably have expected support from his management rather than minor excuses for moving him, but that was not to be. Undaunted, Thomas continued his good police work, and it is significant that during his time in Greymouth, he was returned to his rank of Sergeant Major.

Unfortunately, Thomas still ran into bigotry, but this time from Irish countrymen who seemingly were upset at his success in the conviction of an Irish murderer as recounted in part of a later letter from a public supporter: . .

Hawkes Bay Herald 13 Oct 1886
“. . . Shortly after, he was transferred to Greymouth, Westland, and was conspicuous in the zealous discharge of his duties. One or two instances will be sufficient to mention. A brutal murder by one Donoghue in the bush at Maori Creek, when, O'Grady received the thanks of the Defence Minister, and a money reward for the manner in which he had worked up the case, though by the same act he seems to have incurred the ill-will of some of his own countrymen. Eighteen months later there occurred a suspicious fire and O'Grady found a quantity of goods buried in a garden and arrested the owners On their trial, the men owing to the disagreement of two juries, were admitted to bail to appear when called upon. They then took action against the insurance companies for the recovery of the amount of' insurance. The case was heard before the Chief Justice, and a verdict given for the defendants with costs. For his energy in the case O'Grady received a reward from the Insurance Association.
Shortly after, he was charged at the instance of the Land League with having said eighteen months previously that that association had retained a solicitor to defend Donoghue. As this, even if proved, disclosed no offence; against the regulations, the informants withdrew their case, employed a solicitor, and applied for and obtained a Royal Commission to inquire into the allegations. The evidence admitted into the case was mainly hearsay, and the Magistrate, who was the Royal Commissioner, reported to the Defence Minister, who, in reply to a question in the House, said there was nothing in the report sufficient to suspend O'Grady. . .”

Of course it may be coincidence, but Irish local history is littered with many unaccounted-for house-fires occurring in the middle of the night when fires are low, so perhaps it wasn't unexpected that Thomas's family was also to experience such a fire. Newspaper reports exist on the fire and on the subsequent inquest which concluded that "there was no evidence to show how the fire originated", despite Thomas's evidence suggesting that it was an accident. It was widely reported around NZ from Thames to Southland.

Grey River Argus 10 May 1884
“A fire broke out this morning at 3 o'clock in the cottage occupied by Sergeant Major O'Grady. The whole building was in flames before the alarm was given. The fire was discovered by Sergeant Major O'Grady himself, who was awakened by the noise of breaking glass. On getting out of bed and opening the passage door he discovered the cottage to be on fire, and with the utmost difficulty he managed to save the lives of his wife and his children; with the exception of a few articles of wearing apparel belonging to his daughter the Sergeant has lost every article of furniture he possessed. When the fire brigade arrived it was too late for their services to be of any avail. The worthy Sergeant we regret to say is totally uninsured. The fire we are led to believe was caused by a defective chimney.”

This was followed up by an inquest into the fire. A full report of the inquest was published in the Grey River Argus on 15 May 1884, and included a full blow by blow account of the fire - including the fact that Thomas burned his whiskers saving his family. Another newspaper report mentions the subsequent generosity of the local citizens, who raised over 90 pounds for the family.

Whatever the facts behind all of the above incidents, it seems that Major Keddell recommended Thomas's "removal from the Coast on the ground that his countrymen and he could not agree" - surely a ridiculous excuse, but under the possibility of a mad Irish relation of Donaghues in Greymouth and set upon revenge, a very wise one. In due course, the 1898 Royal Commission later vindicated him from this accusation of being "openly anti-Catholic in his views", and accepted that he had only been doing his duty. So we might reasonably conclude from many such incidents in his life that he tried to act fairly towards people of all religions.

Napier - Unfortunately his next move was to Napier, and despite pleading strongly against it because of his prior knowledge of the local Inspector, he was forced to go. As later revealed in the 1898 Commission of Inquiry into the Police Force, this Inspector Bullen started immediate moves against Thomas, and on the basis of 51 false reports, had him demoted to second-class sergeant. Thomas wasn't permitted to either see the reports or to mount any defence against them. The local public knew of "Madman Bullen's" behaviour and supported Thomas's request for an enquiry. In due course, 49 of the 'charges' were withdrawn, and Thomas was cleared of the other two. Thomas had reported him as being mad within a few weeks of starting at Napier, and in fact he did die later in an asylum. But while the loss of rank didn't apparently worry Thomas, he decried his loss of salary. Thomas evidently received much support from Napier citizenry, including a lengthy letter to the editor of the Hawkes Bay Tribune (partly quoted above) and further by:

Hawkes Bay Herald 13 Oct 1886
. . . Since Sergeant-major O'Grady has been stationed here, I think, populace and police, bar one, will testify to the cool, courteous, and efficient manner in which he has carried out the oft-times unpleasant duties of a police office. I believe O'Grady is charged with, and has been reduced in rank for being unreliable (as a police officer, I presume). Now, sir, in this sketch of his career, during a great portion of which we were intimately associated, I have given a few instances of his zeal, and nothing cxtenuated on the other side.
Does anything herein show unreliability ? O'Grady was never fined, nor till now punished. I believe he has had no opportunity of defending himself - indeed does not know with what he is charged more than " unreliability," whatever that may mean. It is to be hoped that, as an old public officer, lie may have a public inquiry in the fullest sense, and I am only one of many who trust you will use your efforts to this end.
I am, &c, Fair Play. Napier, October 11, 1888.

But in the meantime, his superiors thought better to avoid further conflict between the two men and their supporters, so decided to move Thomas to Oamaru, where he had charge of 11 men covering not only Oamaru but also the districts of Ngapara, Kurow and Hampden Stations. It seems a shame to us that the senior management of the Force didn't recognize the potential conflicts that might arise by sending Thomas to Napier in the first place where the incumbent Inspector Bullen was known to be likely to cause conflict with Thomas - the latter was certainly aware of the possibility and his management shouldn't have been so stupid as to send him there. The ordinary people of Napier were able to voice their opinion on the matters by contributing generously to a testimonial gift for him.

Oamaru - It would seem from his subsequent peaceful career in the Oamaru area, that his immediate superiors there had no bigotry about Irishmen or catholics, and so he was allowed to perform his duties without that sort of interference. Much of Thomas's work in Oamaru is written about in his Obituaries and in the Anecdotes mentioned in the second Part of our O'Grady story.

Note that the adjacent photograph confirms that Thomas was tall, and liked to wear a certain style of hat as shown in the earlier webpage of him as an elderly man. We think that his cheeks and ears are similar in the two photos, too, and his wearing of a fob-watch and a waistcoat might also be called distinctive personal traits. This photo was probably taken soon after Thomas started at Oamaru, ie in 1887 when he was 47 year's old.

Thomas O'Grady
This photograph was held by Oamaru Police Station and used by DA Thomson and H Kagei
in the preparation of their book “A Century of Service - a history of the South Canterbury and North Otago Police”.

He retired from the New Zealand Police Force on 31 Dec, 1901 aged 62. Before he did retire, Thomas had the opportunity to record his arguments over the conflicts that he'd been involved in, through the 1898 Royal Commission into the Police. It had been established to inquire into a variety of complaints that had been recorded over the years against some policemen and some police practices. The records taken during the Oamaru sessions showed that Thomas acquitted himself very well, and revealed the disturbed nature of the men who'd tried unsuccessfully to denigrate him. Details of the 1898 Enquiry are available in the Appendix to Journal of the House of Representatives 1898 Vol 111-2 -328-931, and in the book written about the NZ Police Force and called "A Century of Service" by D.A. Thomson and H. Kagei. They noted that Thomas was “one of the more interesting and intriguing characters” of the enquiry.

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