Matthew Brady: An Overview

The charismatic and daring Matthew Brady is one of the most renowned characters in Australian history for his fearlessness and chivalrous nature. Born in Manchester, England, in 1799, Matthew Brady was the first true “Gentleman Bushranger”. Transported in 1820 to Van Diemen’s Land, he was imprisoned at Macquarie Harbour, the harshest prison in the colony at the time. Brady had a deep-seated resentment of the authorities – a sentiment held by a large percentage of the population of the time that comprised mostly of ex-convicts and poor farmers – and was frequently flogged for insubordination and trying to escape.
Inducing a gang of convicts to escape from Sarah Island with him in June 1824, the men succeeded in stealing a whaleboat and traversing the stormy waters off the coast of Van Diemen’s Land until they arrived in the Derwent River after nine days. Brady’s gang stole firearms from a settler and took to the bush, raiding homesteads and waylaying travellers. Brady created a reputation of treating women with kindness and respect that endeared him to many. Brady impressed upon his gang a strict code of conduct of never injuring the defenceless, permitting the men to revenge injuries, to steal no more than they needed and to under no circumstances molest women in any way.

(credit: Archives Office of Tasmania.)

As Brady’s notoriety grew, so did his ambition, leading to his gang holding up the township of Sorell where they released all the convicts from the gaol and locked up the soldiers in their place. Brady’s gang had bailed up a hotel the night before to keep out of the rain, even buying dinner for their captives. In the morning the gang sauntered into town and stuck up a contingent of redcoats who had been out looking for the gang and returned to base empty handed with waterlogged muskets. When the gang set upon the gaol they were met with resistance and in the gunfight one of the soldiers, Lieutenant Gunn, was shot in the arm and later had to have it amputated. The sheer scale of the deed meant that Brady’s gang were not to be trifled with.

Lieutenant Governor Arthur was greatly vexed and put out a declaration in April 1825 stating:

His Honour has directed that a reward of £25 shall be given for the apprehension of either [Brady and accomplice James McCabe]; and that any prisoner giving such information as may directly lead to their apprehension shall receive a ticket-of-leave, and that any prisoner apprehending and securing either of them, in addition to the above reward, shall receive a conditional pardon.


Fifty acres of land, free from restrictions, will be given to the chief constable in whose district either McCabe or Brady is taken, provided it shall be certified by the magistrate of the district that he has zealously exerted himself in the promulgation of this order, and to the adoption of measures for giving it effect.

In response to this perceived affront, Brady offered his own proclamation:

It has caused Matthew Brady much concern that such a person known as Sir George Arthur is at large. Twenty gallons of rum will be given to any person that will deliver his person unto me. I also caution John Priest that I will hang him for his ill-treatment of Mrs. Blackwell, at Newtown. 

Incidentally, James McCabe with whom Brady had been effectively outlawed, had by this time been given his marching orders by Brady. McCabe had been trying to force a particularly lovely servant girl to kiss him during a raid, thus violating Brady’s code of conduct. As punishment Brady shot McCabe in the hand for his impropriety and kicked him out of the gang.

Sir George Arthur circa 1837. (credit: Dixon Library, State Library of New South Wales.)

Despite the wide web of sympathisers Brady had, the reward for his capture was more valuable to some of his most trusted supporters and he often narrowly escaped capture partly due to people offering hospitality in order to trap him. In one incident Brady had been captured while asleep and as he offered no resistance while awake the soldiers saw no harm in fetching him water on request. While they were out he burned his bonds off and then locked the soldiers in his place when they returned. Brady was becoming more wary of who he had to trust and made an effort not to put himself in vulnerable situations.

Desperate to seek greater opportunities on the mainland, Brady and what remained of his gang managed to steal a sloop and make way across Bass Strait. Unfortunately the same success in navigating the violent waters around Tasmania that had gotten Brady away from Sarah Island previously had now abandoned the bushrangers and they were forced to head back. Eventually Brady’s luck ran out when one of his gang turned out to be a plant who had been colluding with the government and sold the gang out for a pardon. Brady tracked the turncoat down to a hotel and calmly informed him over dinner that he would be executed for the betrayal as per the Brady code of conduct.  After the meal the turncoat was ordered to march to a tree and was shot from behind as he did so.

One of the various proclamations issued by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur (credit: Archives Office of Tasmania.)

After this the gang dissolved and Brady was effectively on his own. It was also becoming harder to continue the bushranger life that had worked so well as more and more people gave in to the temptation to seek the reward leaving Brady unable to trust anyone. By now Lieutenant-Governor Arthur had raised the stakes to 300 guineas or 300 acres of land for settlers and a free pardon and free passage to England for convicts for bringing in Brady.

After a running gunfight, Brady was badly injured by a bullet to his ankle. He was spotted soon after by bounty hunter John Batman. Brady was hobbling near a highway with a sapling he had cut down for a crutch. Batman challenged him with a musket and Brady surrendered.

James McCabe, Matthew Brady and Patrick Bryant as sketched by Thomas Bock.

Brady was put on trial and sentenced to death by hanging. During his trial women crowded the courthouse and wept openly at his sentencing. Thereafter his cell was filled with gifts of fruit and sweets, letters and flowers from admiring women and he was even allegedly paid respects from the soldiers he’d imprisoned at Sorell. His last act of defiance was complaining vocally about being imprisoned and hanged with Mark Jeffries – a bushranger who was a cannibal and baby murderer. Brady ranted to his guards that if he was not relocated he would cut Jeffries’ head off. When guards searched Brady they found a large knife on his person and promptly relocated him to another cell.

Matthew Brady was hanged in Hobart on May 4, 1826, cheered on by onlookers who admired his courage in approaching his fate.

Further reading:

Matthew Brady : Van Diemen’s Land bushranger by K.R. von Stieglitz.

Matthew Brady and Ned Kelly kindred spirits, kindred lives by Paul Williams

And wretches hang : the true and authentic story of the rise and fall of Matt Brady, bushranger by Richard Butler.

The Van Diemen’s Land warriors; with an essay on Matthew Brady by George Mackaness.

Brady : McCabe, Dunne, Bryan, Crawford, Murphy, Bird, McKenney, Goodwin, Pawley, Bryant, Cody, Hodgetts, Gregory, Tilley, Ryan, Williams, and their associates, bushrangers in Van Diemen’s Land, 1825-1827 from James Calder’s text of 1873 together with newly discovered manuscripts ; edited by Eustace Fitzsymonds.

2 thoughts on “Matthew Brady: An Overview

  1. Anyone who thinks these people were in anyway ‘gentlemen’ is kidding themselves. The word ‘gentleman bushranger’ is of course an oxymoron. Armed robbery is always an inherently violent act that succeeds by engendering terror in the victim, who is literally staring down the barrel of a gun and in genuine fear for his life. These acts can leave life-long emotional scars, and some people never fully recover. No true gentleman would ever behave in such a fashion. Ostentatious displays of chivalry towards women were mere propaganda aimed at trying to sanitise their image and acquire some public sympathy, something that was vital for the bushrangers continuing survival. As for the women who wept at his trial and sent him gifts in prison, there have always been and always will be women who are peculiarly attracted to and become infatuated with these hyper-masculine violent men.

    And I think you meant to write Macquarie Harbour not Port Macquarie.


    1. You are quite right, it was Macquarie Harbour, not Port Macquarie (I must remember to triple-check that in future). It has been amended.

      The term “Gentleman Bushranger” is rather an interesting one as it is derived very much from the application of the term “gentleman” in relation to British highwaymen. It seems as if the usage refers mainly to the idea of a criminal with a moral compass, one that has a code of conduct or rules that they abide by rather than the completely amoral and lawless criminal who has no sense of honour (honour obviously being a relative term in this context). One must consider that at the time of Brady’s career life was extremely harsh, both in terms of lifestyle and culture, and as a reflection of this people of a certain class in society would excuse certain acts to a degree if it seemed reasonable. Think of the fact that a common punishment of the time was flogging; an act that was usually administered at the discretion of the governor or commandant of the prison or penal colony, and in many cases resulted in permanent injury or death. This was a punishment doled out for offences ranging from things as major as brawling to things as minor as talking out of turn. During Brady’s time executions were public and the method was what is referred to as the “short drop” wherein the condemned were dropped roughly two feet (or about knee level) and therefore strangled to death, making for a much more gruesome display than what the more sudden and effective long drop method would entail (with rare exceptions). To live in a time where such horrific public execution was popular entertainment, there would have to have been a degree of desensitisation to violent crime. Thus, the fact that Brady only appears to have murdered once, in accordance with his code of conduct and with the justification of revenge and self-preservation, this seems to fall within acceptable parameters for the sort of person that considers violence to be a reasonable recourse for wrongs committed by individuals (especially where class divisions and law enforcement were concerned).

      Of course, such behaviour is not commendable and depriving others of what they have earned using violence is not admirable. The tendency for such criminals to be glamourised usually serves a cultural purpose that morphs over time and forms the basis of what we call “folk heroes”. Certainly there’s a LOT to go into on the topic and warrants a more detailed examination. At the moment I have around 30 articles I have been working on across a whole gamut of topics so this one will definitely be on the list, but will probably take a little while to get to.


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