“Gentleman bushranger” Matthew Brady had escaped from the notorious Sarah Island penal settlement in 1824, and a reward of fifty guineas had been offered for his capture. In November 1825, he and his gang decided to make an example of the forces of law and order in Van Diemen’s Land and set their sights on the small town of Sorell.
At this time Brady was camped out in the mountains with fellow Josiah Bird, Patrick Dunne, James Murphy and at least four others, (likely Patrick Bryant, James McKenney, William Tilly and James Goodwin). It was believed they had even established a small farm there where they tended crops and reared horses, cattle and sheep. To what extent this claim was true remains unknown, as much of the facts of Brady’s story have been lost to time.
Such was Brady’s notoriety that he had copycats. Another bushranger had recently committed a robbery while claiming to be Brady and even expressed a desire to turn himself in – something that Brady took particular umbrage to as he had no intention of surrendering. Brady seemed to think that his next undertaking would shake up people’s perceptions of him and position him as more than just a thieving bushranger. Brady intended to make a laughing stock of the forces of law and order.
On Friday 26 November, the bushrangers emerged from hiding. The inclement weather saw Coal River become a raging torrent. Fortunately, the bushrangers were well organised and had a small boat at their disposal with six oars, allowing them to row across with relative ease. This enabled them to traverse the river without resorting to crossing the bridge at Richmond, which was the only other way across at that time. The gang descended upon the house of Robert Bathune in Pitt Water at dusk and demanded entry, masquerading as constables. Bathune sent his overseer Crittenden, to see what the men wanted. Armed as a precaution, Crittenden opened the door and the eight bushrangers burst in and overpowered him. Bathune, Crittenden, and the eight servants were made prisoners and guarded in the kitchen while the bushrangers settled in. The bushrangers had brought prisoners with them that included two men named Denne and Kidner as well as a young boy. The gang made themselves at home and Brady made sure each bandit was fed and provided shelter from the rain overnight, while also making sure that his prisoners were looked after as well. Once fed, the gang ransacked the house, liberating a brace of pistols and a fowling piece before locating a set of keys to grant access to the various valuables. Brady kept watch over Bethune and Crittenden in a back room where he spoke at length about individuals he had a set against. Brady was not alone in conversing freely with the captives. Dunne stated he had a grudge against Boyd, the chief clerk at the police office, who he had been stalking in an effort to find an ideal moment to murder him. Bird admitted to killing Mr. Bromley’s cattle in Newtown and Murphy confessed to robbing Dr. Hudspeth. They remained through the night and all the following day. The rain was extremely heavy and everyone who ventured out got a good drenching.
On Saturday morning Robert Bethune and Crittenden were sent to bed, having been kept awake all night. The gang decided to prepare breakfast, but could find no tea or sugar. They resolved to procure some from one of Bethune’s neighbours. It was decided to avoid Walker’s farm as the lady of the house had taken ill, so Glover’s place was targeted. Glover was not willing to become yet another victim to bushranging and armed himself and headed out to confront the gang. Despite his courage he was overpowered, his double-barrelled shotgun taken away from him and broken before he was added to the gang’s prisoners.
At 2pm that afternoon, Walter Bethune and a Captain Bunster arrived on horseback, drenched from the rain. Brady ordered the servants to take the horses upon their arrival. Both men were brought in, given dry clothes, warmed up and fed. Brady could not have been a more gracious host if the property had been his own. He was not a big man, standing at a little under 5’6″ tall (roughly 170cm), but he had incredible charisma and it seemed people couldn’t help liking him to some degree. At dusk Brady announced to his captives his intention to liberate the inmates of Sorell Gaol and imprison the soldiers based there.
The two Bethunes were tied together by the wrist and the 18 other prisoners bound together identically in pairs, then marched to Sorell with the bushrangers. Much of the journey undertaken was in water that was waist-deep and the rain continued to fall in torrents. They arrived in Sorell Town and proceeded to the gaol.
Unbeknownst to the arriving group, the party of soldiers of the Bourbon Regiment that had been out searching for the bushrangers in the rain had only just returned to the gaol, their leader Lieutenant William Gunn having departed for the residence of a Dr. Garrett. Due to the weather, the muskets the nine men had carried were waterlogged. As they dried off and warmed up, they were interrupted by the very men they had been looking for. Four bushrangers rushed in and the soldiers were disarmed and locked up in a gaol cell. The prisoners from Bathune’s property were also locked up, the eventual figure being roughly forty prisoners by contemporary accounts.
Brady and most of the gang remained at the gaol, while Bird and Murphy went to the home of the chief constable and gaoler Alfred Laing with the apparent intent of murder. Upon arriving, the occupants of the house went to the window. Inside were Laing, McArra the blacksmith and Charles Scott the messenger. The pair of outlaws recognised Laing through the window and called out “That is him, shoot!” They promptly opened fire but failed to hit their intended target. Rather, McArra was shot through the wrist during the assault. A woman at the property managed to escape to raise the alarm and bolted to Dr. Garrett’s house where Lieutenant Gunn was relaxing after a hard day’s slog looking for bushrangers.
Upon hearing the news that the gaol had been captured, Lieutenant Gunn took up a double-barrelled shotgun and went into action. When he arrived on the scene he attempted to shoot the banditti but he was out of luck. A volley of lead struck him from two of the bushrangers, striking his right arm above the elbow, shredding the flesh to pulp and shattering the bones. More shots were fired, a ball hitting Gunn in the chest and another grazing Dr. Garrett.
Gunn was evacuated immediately and survived his wounds thanks to expertly executed surgery by Dr. Garrett and his associate Dr. Scott, but the mangled arm was inoperable and subsequently amputated near the shoulder. An examination of the severed portion of the arm saw the extraction of two balls and four slugs, though it was estimated that twelve projectiles in total must have struck the arm to cause such awful damage.
When the bushrangers decided to quit the gaol, their message having been sent, they built a dummy to stand in the doorway. By making a frame out of sticks and dressing it in a greatcoat and hat, the idea was to give the impression that the gaol was still guarded as the bushrangers escaped to give them more time. Four captives were taken to carry the bushrangers’ loot. One of the captives, James Archibald, who had been carrying the firearms, was force fed alcohol to make him drowsy and he woke up much later, alone on the ground outside Orielton. The bushrangers had made a clean escape and would later set the other captives free at Grindstone Bay. The prisoners in the gaol were kept locked up for two hours until George Culliford was passing by and became suspicious. Upon entering the gaol he discovered what had happened and freed the gang’s victims.
There was much outcry after the incident as Lieutenant Gunn was considered a model citizen and had been dogged in his pursuit of the bushrangers, even working on half pay in the hope of bringing them to justice. A subscription was gathered for him immediately after his surgery and over £250 was raised to cover his expenses as he had been rendered unemployed by the maiming. Gunn was not one to let the loss of a limb hold him back in life and he became a highly lauded police magistrate in Launceston, dying in 1868.
Remarkably, had the gang arrived half an hour earlier or left half an hour later they would have been captured. Gunn’s party had left the gaol precinct a half hour before the bushrangers arrived. It would have also taken the captured soldiers half an hour to dry their weapons.