Matthew Brady: An Overview

*** Revised and updated, 2021 ***

The charismatic and daring Matthew Brady is one of the most renowned characters in Australian history for his fearlessness and chivalrous nature as much as his criminality. Few outlaws in Australian history have been viewed so favourably, most being referred to in quite overblown and dramatic language. While it is indisputable that, as a general rule, Brady exercised much discretion and gentleness during his exploits, he was responsible for innumerable robberies and one murder by his own hand. Unfortunately, most of his story has been lost to time through both poor contemporary recording in both official documents and in the press, meaning that very little of his story is verifiable. Yet, what is recorded demonstrates a tale at least as worthy of recognition as those of Ben Hall or Ned Kelly – if not more so.

Born in Manchester, England, in 1799, Matthew Brady was employed as a gentleman’s servant before being taken on a charge of forgery in 1820. In his records, his name is recorded as “Mathew Bready”, though this is likely the result of a record taker trying to spell the name phonetically from it being delivered in a Mancunian accent. At Lancaster Quarter Sessions on 17 April, he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation.

On 3 September 1820, Brady was sent with 159 other convicts to Van Diemen’s Land on board the Juliana, arriving 29 December that same year. In his records, he was described as standing at 5’5½” tall, with dark brown hair and blue eyes. He was also tattooed with images of a man and woman on his left arm, a fish and the letters TB on his right arm.

He was assigned to work in the employ of William Brest, but soon found himself sent to Van Diemen’s Land’s harshest prison of the time, Macquarie Harbour, aka Sarah Island, for repeated infractions – mostly absconding or plotting to escape. Brady had a deep-seated resentment of the authorities, which was only cemented by his treatment by them. During 1821 through 1823 he was flogged repeatedly for infractions ranging from neglect of duty to absconding, enduring a cumulative total of 525 lashes.

Inducing a gang of convicts to escape from Sarah Island with him in June 1824, the men succeeded in stealing a whaleboat, taking the doctor from the penal settlement as a hostage, and traversing the stormy waters off the coast of Van Diemen’s Land. They were pursued at sea by the authorities but were able to trick them by pulling into a cove, out of sight, long enough for the pursuers to pass them. At one point during their flight, Brady’s confederates attempted to flog their prisoner as an act of vengeance, but Brady stayed their hands as the doctor had treated him well on the island. They arrived in the Derwent River after nine days, and upon going ashore became free-booters.

The gang stole firearms from a settler and took to the bush, raiding homesteads to take what they needed. Brady built a reputation of treating women with kindness and respect that endeared him to many. Brady impressed upon his associates a strict code of conduct, through which he was determined that they should never be guilty of injuring the defenceless. This meant a prohibition on stealing more than they needed, and under no circumstances molesting women in any way.

Over the next few months the numbers of the gang dwindled as members were either captured or killed. During one particularly nasty raid, the gang were met with resistance and a gunfight broke out. One of the gang lost and eye during the fight and was located days later wandering aimlessly in the bush on the verge of death from dehydration. Eventually the only men left from the initial band of escapees were Brady and James McCabe. McCabe was an impulsive young man with sharp features and a pockmarked face, but seemed to respect Brady enough to work with him and follow his lead.

The pair began making connections and developing a network of harbourers around the Tasmanian midlands. One of these harbourers was a former constable named Thomas Kenton. He would plan robberies with Brady and McCabe, though never actually took part in them himself, merely taking a cut of the takings in exchange for giving the bushrangers a safe haven. Kenton would put out a white sheet to signal the coast was clear to the men, who were soon joined by a boy named Hyte.

Unbeknownst to the bushrangers, Kenton had been conspiring with the authorities and in early 1825 he arranged a meeting with Brady, McCabe and Hyte as a cover for an ambush. Though Brady had a bad feeling about it, the others convinced him to follow through with the meeting. Brady’s instincts proved to be correct, as when they reached Kenton’s hut they were pounced on by soldiers. McCabe bolted, but the others weren’t so lucky. Hyte was taken easily, but Brady had to be severely bashed before he could be subdued. Their hands were bound and Hyte was taken to town to be lodged in the lockup, but Brady was kept in Kenton’s charge until the soldiers returned. Brady, badly concussed and bleeding from the head, asked to be laid on the bed, which was done, then requested a drink. While Kenton was out of the hut collecting water, Brady thrust his hands in the fire to burn away his bonds. He then took up his gun, and when Kenton returned Brady threatened to shoot him. He relented but informed Kenton that one day he’d get revenge, before escaping.

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Matthew Brady [Archives Office of Tasmania.]

Brady and McCabe met up again and formed a new gang. They escalated their operations, and in one raid decided to utilise their victim’s boats to transport the booty. After the man’s servants had scuttled the first boat, the bushrangers transferred everything to a second one and took one of the servants to direct the boat to their hideaway at Grindstone Bay. However, during the night the gang got horrendously drunk and a brawl erupted, during which their captive was killed. As a result, Brady ordered the remaining alcohol be destroyed and swore his gang to temperance in order to prevent further incidents. The one dissenting voice was James McCabe who left the gang after another fight. He was captured two weeks later between Hamilton and Bothwell.

Lieutenant Governor Arthur was greatly vexed by the continued and escalating depredations 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 is said to have 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. 

Sir George Arthur circa 1837. [Dixon Library, State Library of New South Wales.]

As Brady’s notoriety grew, so did his ambition. There seemed to be a desire to use the gang’s lawlessness to ridicule the forces of law and order, exemplified in their raid on the township of Sorell. The bushrangers stuck up a wealthy household and kept the occupants prisoner overnight due to intense storms. In the morning the gang trekked into Sorell with their prisoners and stuck up a party of redcoats who had been out looking for the gang in their own barracks. The soldiers had been caught in torrential rain and returned to base empty handed with waterlogged muskets, thus had no defence against the bushrangers. The gang then set their sights upon the town gaol. Upon breaching the stronghold they attempted to free the occupants of the cells, however the inmates were too afraid to leave. The soldiers and the gang’s other prisoners were promptly locked up. They were soon met with resistance from outside, as Lieutenant Gunn had heard of their presence and tracked them down. The two bushrangers on sentry opened fire on Lieutenant Gunn, who was hit in the right arm, injuring it badly enough to necessitate amputation. Before leaving, the gang built a scarecrow to act as a decoy to allow them escape. Surprisingly, it worked as the locals were convinced there was still at least one bushranger guarding the gaol.

Desperate to escape from Van Diemen’s Land, Brady and what remained of his gang managed to steal a brig called Glutton, and intended to use it to gain access to a larger craft called Blue Eyed Maid and make their way across Bass Strait. Unfortunately the gang got cold feet and they retreated back to land.

Following this, Brady learned of what Thomas Kenton had been up to since their last meeting. Kenton had been gaoled for letting Brady escape, and had since his release had been spreading lies about Brady, while attempting to paint himself in a better light. Brady tracked Kenton down to a hotel called the Cocked Hat, and rode there with gang members Bryant and Williams. Brady calmly informed Kenton that he would be killed for his betrayal and slandering. Kenton was unrepentant and proceeded to goad Brady, who responded by shooting him in the head. This was the only murder Brady himself would perform.

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One of the various proclamations issued by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur [Archives Office of Tasmania.]

By now it was becoming harder for Brady to trust his gang members as people, tempted to seek the reward, infiltrated the gang in order to act as a spy. 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.

A matter of days after Kenton’s murder, a posse engaged Brady’s gang in a running gunfight, having been tipped off by a traitor named Cowen. Brady was badly injured by a bullet that passed through his calf. The gang split up, Brady seeking refuge in an island at the North Esk River with his accomplices Murphy and Williams. Cowen led a posse to the hideaway, and although Brady escaped, Murphy and Williams were shot dead in their sleep by their pursuers, leaving Brady alone in the bush without supplies and badly wounded. He was spotted soon after by bounty hunter John Batman, after Brady had spooked some of Batman’s cattle. Brady was hobbling nearby 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.

After being back Syed attempting to cut through a prison wall to facilitate escape, Brady and the remaining members of his gang were put on trial, with Brady pleading guilty to all charges. The bushrangers were found guilty and duly sentenced to death by hanging. Thereafter Brady’s cell was allegedly filled with gifts of fruit and sweets, letters and flowers from admiring women. His last act of defiance was complaining vocally about being forced to share a cell with Thomas Jeffries – a bushranger who was a cannibal and murderer. Brady ranted to his guards that if he was not relocated he would cut Jeffries’ head off. When guards searched Brady they found two large knives on his person and promptly relocated him to another cell. Brady subsequently expressed disgust at having to be hanged with Jeffries.

Matthew Brady was hanged in Hobart on 4 May, 1826. He was buried in an unmarked grave, though for a time a small cairn had been placed over his grave to mark it. By the 1870s the cairn had been removed.

Many of the stories associated with Brady have been exaggerated or embellished over the years, thanks mostly to poor research by posthumous authors and inadequate recording of the events at the time they were unfolding. Nevertheless, the little that was recorded demonstrates Brady to have been a man of strong morals, despite his lawlessness, and of remarkable constitution. His gentlemanly manner and audacious crimes have helped keep his memory alive for the almost 200 years since his execution.


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.

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    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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