1057 Trooper Hugh O'Hagan, South African Light Horse
QSA - Casualty NZer in SALH
The Queen's South Africa Medal with clasps 'Tugela Heights', 'Relief of Ladysmith', 'Belfast', 'Cape Colony', 'South Africa 1901' awarded to the next of kin of Hugh O'Hagan, late South African Light Horse and Imperial Light Horse who was wounded in January 1901 and died on his way back to New Zealand in June 1901.
It is unclear where Hugh O’Hagan was born, but his parents, John and Margaret were apparently married in Barrow-in-Furness, but resided at County Derry in the north of Ireland. They were a poor family, with John O’Hagan working as a labourer, and in 1878 were accepted for Assisted Immigration to New Zealand. The O’Hagans and 316 other assisted migrants sailed from Plymouth on 18th July 1878 on board the Waitangi, under the command of Captain Hodder. After a voyage of 87 days, during which four passengers died, the Waitangi berthed at Lyttelton on 13th October 1878. The family settled at Timaru, with John and Margaret adding a further six children to their family over the following years. John continued to work as a labourer, but also took to drinking, to the point where Margaret obtained a prohibition order, preventing John from drinking within the Timaru and Levels licensing districts. Hugh was educated at the local Catholic school, where he is recorded as achieving the second place prize for reading and writing for Standard III boys for 1887.
Hugh was fairly short in stature (around 5ft tall), and during the late-1890’s he became a successful jockey. He is recorded as riding many winners at the various horse races around the country, and gaining the nickname ‘Smoke’ O’Hagan. In February 1898, whilst in Palmerston North for the local races, Hugh and an associate Thomas Woods, were arrested on a charge of criminal assault on a female, Eliza Southey. The case went to trial at the Supreme Court in Wellington, where it emerged that the defendant had consented to the liaison, and only screamed when she heard someone approaching. The jury acquitted O’Hagan and Woods after a brief deliberation.
Hugh’s troubles were not over, for later that same month of February, Hugh’s racing career came to an abrupt end in an act which was to lead to his ultimate death. During the Palmerston North races at Awapuni Hugh was accused of ‘foul riding’ – essentially interfering with another horse or rider during a race – in an effort to prevent the favourite from winning. The Manawatu Racing Stewards upheld the complaint and on 26th February 1898 Hugh was banned from riding in New Zealand for life. Having lost his livelihood in New Zealand, Hugh seems to have followed the well-beaten path to South Africa – then a burgeoning economy based on gold and diamond discoveries in the Kimberley area. Many young New Zealanders made their way to the Cape in search of employment, and perhaps a little adventure. The outbreak of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in October 1899 brought both.
On the outbreak of war with the South African Republic – the Transvaal and Orange Free State - many irregular units were raised to fight alongside the Imperial forces then being mobilised. The South African Light Horse was raised at Cape Town on 8th November 1899, and Hugh is recorded as enlisting with this unit three days later, on the 11th. Hugh served for almost twelve months with the SALH, including the actions at Colenso (Tugela Heights), Spion Kop, the Relief of Ladysmith and at Belfast. One of letters he wrote to his mother was published in the Timaru news paper. In it Hugh claims to have been under fire about 35 times, and had seen ‘some hard fighting’. Hugh’s period of engagement with the SALH terminated in October 1900, and he was discharged. On 21st February 1900, whilst in camp at Monte Cristo in Natal, Hugh wrote a letter to the Manawatu Racing Stewards to request his life ban from racing be quashed. This would indicate Hugh’s desire to return to New Zealand after the war. The stewards refused his request, however later that year Hugh’s mother also wrote to the stewards pleading for Hugh’s ban to be lifted, noting his brave service for Queen and Country. This time the stewards acquiesced, and on 1st November 1900 his ban was removed. This cleared the way for Hugh to return to his racing career in New Zealand after the war, but the same day his ban was lifted, Hugh made the fateful decision to re-enlist for a second tour of service.