Many a long-term resident of Tuross Head expresses astonishment when first learning that there are several old graves by the Coila foreshore. There are no exact records of the location of the graves; nor any memorials on the graves; but popular mythology suggests that there are definitely four, most likely five, people buried in the little park that is bordered by the grassy dunes of Coila Beach, Bridges Road and Chauvel Crescent, near the paved path leading from Coila Beach to Coila Lake.
The area is cool and shady, with a dry creek bed, and sheltered by a canopy of she-oaks that sigh mournfully when the south easterlies drift through their spindly branches. And no one knows for sure exactly where, in this area, the graves might be situated. However, some comfort may be drawn from the preservation of the small area as an underdeveloped site. Discovering the identities, or even a general inkling, of the occupants of the graves begins with known facts and these often lead to clues to other relevant information. So it is that the events of March 1867 will lead the investigator to two definite burials and, possibly, in fact probably, two other burials. A fifth burial may be identified as a later interment, perhaps almost 20 years later. In a lonely, melancholy patch of shrubbery on Friday 29 March, 1867 two young men were laid to rest in coffins among the she-oaks following a coronial inquest presided over by Mr Caswell, the local magistrate, and a jury of twelve. George Magill, one of the deceased, had been found on the evening of Thursday 28 March, and Thomas Mahon on the morning of 29 March. It was already dark following the coronial inquest when their bodies were laid to rest in hastily built coffins in the oak scrub ‘by the flickering wood fire’, the ‘moaning sea’ and the ‘sighing wind’, and where the Presbyterian Minister Rev. P. Fitzgerald prayed over their graves. According to the Empire Sydney, NSW. (Mon. 8 April, 1867), the young men were buried near where two graves already existed. This mournful scene began in what could be described as a simple misunderstanding of the force of the swollen Tuross River meeting the powerful waves of the rushing sea. On 26 March, 1867 Frederick Massey, George Magill and Thomas Mahon, all young strong and healthy men, were drowned at the mouth of the Tuross River. How could this tragedy happen? In the second week of March, the farmers of Eurobodalla had been cheerfully anticipating good returns from their efforts, particularly potatoes and corn which were expected to be bumper crops. Then, on Saturday, 23 March, the rains set in and by Sunday the Moruya River had risen by twelve feet. By Monday, 25 March, the swollen river met the incoming flood tide. The Moruya area lost crops, animals, fencing, punts, bridges and structures. The damage was not confined to Moruya but spread throughout the Eurobodalla including the Tuross River and surrounding lowland properties. On that fateful Tuesday, 26 March 1867, a number of spectators had gathered at Tuross Lake to observe the flooded Tuross River and its effect on the bar at the opening to the sea. Four boats were on the river where it spreads out to form a lake about a mile in width before entering the sea. Mr Brice, a local farmer from Horse Island, and his daughter were in one boat. Mr Dansey, who operated the punt over the Tuross River, was in another boat with Mr Goodin, Mr Southern and three others from the sawmill on the Tuross River. They arrived safely near Sandy Point. Francis Hawdon, son of John Hawdon, accompanied by a visitor to his father’ property, George Magill, and Thomas Mahon, his father’s coachman, took a flat bottomed boat on to the lake. A fourth boat, a flat-bottomed dinghy with Frederick Massey, a French sailor employed by Dansey, and William Parsons on board, also moored at Sandy Point. Massey proposed going further in the boat but Parsons refused so Massey set off alone. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of Frederick Massey, Francis Hawdon joined George Magill and Thomas Mahon and followed Massey. Although the waters on the lake were still, at the heads the river current pulled strongly towards the opening to the sea. The opening at the bar was only about three hundred metres wide and the ocean was rushing towards the opening with massive waves turning the turbulent river waters into a powerful cauldron. Both boats fell mercy to the current. The first casualty was Frederick Massey who jumped out of his boat and vanished in the waves. Francis Hawdon, who had been struggling unsuccessfully with a broken oar in the hope of getting the boat onto the bank, seeing Massy disappear, jumped out of the boat and was swept into the waves. Being a strong swimmer, he struggled to reach the shore. Magill and Mahon remained in the boat until it reached the breakers, then they too jumped overboard and drowned. Mr Goodin, one of the spectators, continued to monitor Francis Hawdon, who was buffeted around the bar for about fifteen minutes or more before getting into a small eddy. This offered an opportunity for those on shore, Mr Goodin, James Southam, Daniel Southam, William Parsons and Isaac Cole, to make a human chain to rescue him. Despite the sea at the bar being black with mud they held hope that the bodies would be recovered. Sergeant Brennan rode up the beach from Moruya to join in the search. However, it was not until two or more days had passed that the bodies of the two unfortunate men were washed up a mile north of the river mouth where they lost their lives. The body of Frederick Massey was not found. The bodies of Thomas Mahon and George Magill were interred on the 29 March 1867 at a site near two existing graves. There are no official or anecdotal records of the deceased in the two existing graves. They may have been the graves of sailors or passengers on ships that floundered in the region, but that is just speculation. In January 1867, just two months before the burials of Thomas Mahon and George Magill, two male bodies were washed up on Broulee Island, a few miles north of Tuross Head. The men were identified as Andrew Lovell, aged 45, and Christy Coffey, aged 50. According to Jack Kenneth Loney, Wrecks on the New South Wales Coast, (1992: p.48) the deceased were from the schooner Hope which was wrecked in December 1866 between Broulee Island and Tuross Head. The Hope was built on the Tuross River for oyster growers by Moses Fletcher, a seaman and shipwright. Fletcher had property at Trunketabella and built small wooden ships in association with the Tuross steam sawmill of Goodin, Hicks brothers and Brown at Turlinjah just a few miles down the Tuross River. (Mr. Goodin was one of the men mentioned as being on the Tuross River the day that Thomas Mahon and George Magill drowned.) Although it is has been suggested that the two existing graves were those of Andrew Lovell and Christy Caffey, (The Sydney Morning Herald Wed. 9 January, 1867) they were buried at Broulee. Similarly, an accident closer to Tuross Head in 1842 at the Moruya bar, reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 November 1842, describes the loss of three men and two boys who were conveying a cargo of wheat from Moruya to Broulee in a whale boat belonging to Captain Oldrey of Broulee. One of the bodies was found much mutilated, but there seems to be no reports of the fate of the other four unfortunate crewmembers. While there is no evidence to support the identities of the bodies in the graves that pre-dated those of Mahon and Magill, there is a very strong possibility that there is a fifth grave at, or near, the site of the four graves. On Monday, 16 February 1891, a seaman, Louie Strone (Strom), drowned off Tuross Head. Strone was a member of a three man crew of the steamer Meeinderry, a steel ship chartered by Tuross property owner Patrick Mylott, a wine merchant of Balmain Sydney, to make weekly voyages from Sydney to the South Coast of NSW. The crew were attempting to drop off supplies at Tuross from the Meeinderry by one of the lifeboats when it capsized. The mate and the other seaman were saved, but Louie Strone was drowned. Strone’s body washed ashore and was buried at Tuross Head. (Extract from Moruya and District Historical Society Journal, 20 December, 2013.) Therefore, the identities of the deceased of two of the graves have been verified, those of Thomas Mahon and George Magill (1867). There are two older graves whose occupants have not been identified (pre-1867). There is a fifth grave, that of Louis Strom. (1891). Sources include: All newspaper references above and including further newspaper reports are available on Trove, National Library of Australia. Trove.nla.gov.au Diary of Pilot Station Moruya 1866 Gibbney, H.J. 1980. Eurobodalla. Library of Australian History. Sydney. www.bdm.nsw.gov.au