In 1877, the Illawarra was shocked by the drowning of Michael Foley, of the Five Islands Estate, who had previously served as an alderman on the Central Illawarra Council.
On Sunday, May 20, Mrs Foley left home to visit her father, of Fairy Meadow, while her husband intended to "come across" to St Francis Xavier Catholic Church and return for her once the service had concluded.
He left home at 9am with the view of crossing the mouth of Tom Thumb Lagoon, which had once been connected to the sea by a narrow channel and spread as far west as Coniston, prior to its reclamation.
Normally, the lagoon was only passable at low tide, unless a person was prepared to risk their horse or buggy to make the crossing, which Mr Foley did on that fateful morning.
Some time later, James O'Donnell, also of the Five Islands, crossed the mouth of the lagoon and, having reached the town side of the stream, noticed Mr Foley's horse near the bank, with the saddle and bridle still secured.
"Thinking that the animal had escaped from the chapel yard, and was endeavouring to make its way home, Mr O'Donnell caught it and led it to the church," the Mercury said.
On arrival, however, he learned that Mr Foley had never reached the church.
"Fears, which proved only too well founded, began at once to be entertained for his safety."
A relative of Mr Foley's mounted the riderless horse and raced to the crossing place at Tom Thumb where, after some searching, his worst fears were realised when he found the body of the deceased man in the water, near the north side of the stream, and close to its junction with the breakers.
"After some difficulty, he succeeded in dragging the lifeless body onto the sandbank, and in a short space of time further help came to hand."
All was unavailing, so far as life was concerned, as was the skill of Dr Thomas who was "very soon afterwards on the sad scene".
It was supposed that Mr Foley's horse had been engulfed in the quicksands abounding at the mouth of Tom Thumb Lagoon and in the course of such struggle, Mr Foley was thrown into the water where, being unable to swim, he perished.
Mr Foley, described as being a "hale and hearty" character in the prime of his life, owned one of the region's largest dairy farms and was much respected for his "intelligent and liberal views".
He left a wife and 10 children.
Picture: The original expanse of Tom Thumb Lagoon is shown in the background of this early scene of the intersection of Crown and Church streets. In 1877, the treacherous passage claimed the life of a citizen. Credit: From the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society.
For an index to Surveyors’ Field Books, 1794-1860, go to records.nsw.gov.au.