Spotlight: TASMANIAN HISTORY – A SKETCH OF OLD TIMES; EMBODYING THE BUSH CAREER OF MATTHEW BRADY by J. E. Calder (Pt. 2)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Monday 18 August 1873, page 3


TASMANIAN HISTORY.

THE FIRST TROUBLES OF GOVERNOR ARTHUR

A SKETCH OF OLD TIMES; EMBODYING THE BUSH CAREER OF MATTHEW BRADY.

Written by J. E. Calder

[Continued.]

As soon as the whereabouts of these fellows was known in Hobart Town a number of civilians united themselves with a military party and went in pursuit of them, and on the 1st of September came up with them on the hovel of a poor sawyer. The bushrangers’ dogs gave the alarm, and the tired outlaws started up just in time to see a military party, headed by a Captain Innes, marching rapidly on their place of refuge. But the dogs were as wearied as the men, and saw not the soldiers till they were surrounding the hut, and the fugitives had no choice but to run for it, and left their plunder and some of their arms behind. But the country hereabouts is favourable for retreat, so plunging into one of those intricate jungles found in many parts of this district, they escaped for the moment.

But Innes was an active officer, and as his party was pretty fresh he gave them no respite, and difficult as the place was for movement of any kind, he never remitted pursuit except at night, and being aided by a black tracker – a civilised boy of one of the native tribes, called by his white companions Tegg – he came up with them again on the 4th. This delay was caused by the excessive difficulties of the backwoods of this district, that is, the undulatoriness of the surface, the thick growth of underwood, and the vast quantities of fallen timber, which combined, are in the last degree impeding,

The principal civilians who aided the military were parties headed by Messieurs Bethune, Champion, and an active constable named Kerby. The advance of both soldiers and civilians though slow, never intermitted, and the robbers were forced to push on at such a rate that the least active fell behind and thus got separated from their leader. This caused the pursuing party to divide into small companies, Bethune, Champion, and Kerby, each taking charge of one. The latter made one prisoner soon after this separation took place, on hearing which, the others reunited and marched to the place of capture, thinking it likely that other runaways might not be far off, and they met at the small stream called the Styx, and following along its course the practised eye of the young black soon discovered the traces of another of the fugitives, and when once upon them he followed the scout like a bloodhound, by marks quite invisible to persons who have no experience of tracking, but which are perfectly plain to the savage. A leaf or stick displaced, a single blade of grass trampled upon, the faintest scratch on a stone or prostrate tree, which we should never see at all indicated the course of the pursued as distinctly to the trained savage as footprints on the snow would appear to us. Persons who have never seen tracking can have no idea of the acuteness of the trained vision of these people, nor understand how they can discern what none but themselves could see. But I have been told by an officer of the police, the chief of a bush party having several of these exports with him, that the art of following by marks that are invisible to ordinary persons, is not difficult to acquire, and that after a few months’ practice he himself could track almost as well as his guides.

The boy followed the trace of the fugitive to the edge of the jungle he had entered. Bethune and others plunged into it after the black; but coming to a large pool the scent was lost, but the game was not far off, for after emerging from the thicket into the open forest, “I saw,” says Bethune in his report, “a man about two hundred yards from me.” The poor wretch was quite exhausted from the combined effect of fatigue and long fasting, for he had tasted nothing but water for two days, and was also suffering from the recent loss of an eye in the fight at Valleyfield. Bethune challenged him to stand, and as the wearied man could hardly move, he complied, of course. He, however, still carried a loaded firelock, but was so bewildered, as men often are when thoroughly prostrated by suffering and exhaustion, that he seemed not to comprehend its use at the moment, and flung it from him, in place of defending himself with it. Bethune, however, was not aware of his bodily condition at the time, and, running at him, seized and made prisoner of him. After a poor effort, at equivocation he owned that he was one of Brady’s companions, and proved to be Jeremiah Ryan. Bethune than re-joined his captain, into whose hands he committed the prisoner.

This was another of Brady’s evil days. Eleven weeks had scarcely elapsed since the first day of their landing after their stormy boat voyage from Macquarie Harbour, and no less than eleven of the fourteen who first absconded, were already taken, and either hanged, or in a fair way of being so; and there now remained at large only Brady, McCabe and Bryant, and the last-named being caught during the next fortnight the number was reduced to two, within three months after their bush career began.

What became of Brady and the others after this day of disaster, or how they escaped from their pursuers, I know not; but they were all separated, and Brady must have been alone for several weeks. It was now universally believed so complete was the defeat of the fugitives that all of them who had escaped capture on this fatal day, had perished in the most miserable manner in which life can terminate, namely, by starvation in the woods; and there ensued a period of welcome repose of three months duration, during all which time the newspapers of the colony are quite silent on the subject of bushranging.

But in the midst of this happy calm, the colony was suddenly startled by the news of the return of the irrepressible Brady to active life, whom every one thought, and perhaps hoped, was dead. This was near the end of November, but he was now alone, having failed to rejoin his sole surviving companion, McCabe.

It was after nightfall of the 26th November that he attacked, single-handed, the residence of a settler at a place called then Macquarie Springs, in the fine district of Jericho. The occupants of this solitary dwelling were the owner and his wife, and two farm labourers. These latter were convicts, as farm servants mostly were then, and were not much to be depended on, as their sympathies were too often with the enemy.

With his gun slung over his shoulder, and with a horsepistol in his hand, he approached the place, and knocking, the door was opened, and rushing in impetuously he commanded their instant submission, and overpowered and bound all the men, before they recovered from their surprise. “I am Brady,” said he, “surrender without a word, or ‘we’,” feigning there were more outside, “will give you no quarter.” His dauntless bearing terrified them into compliance, and he plundered the place at his leisure.

But just as he was leaving, the clatter of horses’ hoofs was heard approaching, and several horsemen galloped up. It was a moment of seeming peril, but their arrival in no way disconcerted him, and he stood his ground. He made no offer to retreat, and they on their part made none to advance. One of them it is said offered to lead a pursuit, but as no one else seemed to relish a scuffle with him, the proposal was not seconded. Brady observing their irresolution, and wishing to get rid of them, now turned upon them, and advanced with levelled gun to where they stood, which movement sent all these heroes to the right-about at once, and off they went at a galloping pace, which they never slackened till they were far enough out of range of Brady’s firelock. He then retreated himself.

But he had too much judgment not to see that robbing by himself was too hazardous to be continued, so he retired into concealment, and was heard of no more, for another couple of months, being supported by secret colleagues, of whom he had several in the district.

It was about this time that he made the acquaintance of the only man to whom he was ever known to offer extraordinary violence, namely Thomas Kenton. This person was originally a sailor, and his ship a whaler touching at Norfolk Island, he there deserted her and found his way to Tasmania in 1810. He became a settler at Brown’s River, where he held a grant of 60 acres first surveyed by me, now the property of Mr. John Lucas, to whose father he sold it. We next hear of him as an officer of Police, and he received the respectable appointment of District Constable, “for the districts on the borders of the counties of Buckinghamshire and Cornwall,” in September of 1810, (these two counties then comprised all Tasmania), and was just about as fit for his office, as for the Primacy of England.

Of this man’s connection with Brady, very little has been preserved in any printed or written document that I can discover, and there is scarcely a trace of it in the newspapers of the period, which were the Gazette and Colonial Times. His death by Brady’s hand is indeed just mentioned by a Launceston correspondent of the last named paper as follows :–

“Yesterday,” (that is the 5th of March, 1826), “Brady deliberately shot Thomas Kenton, after giving him his reasons for doing so, viz. that he once asked him (Brady) to his hut, where some soldiers were then, who wounded him on the occasion.” (Colonial Times, March 10th, 1826.) We also learn in an after number, that this murder formed one of the charges for which Brady suffered, but nothing more I gather the following account of the cause that ultimately led to the murder of Kenton, from the gentleman who took the official depositions relating to the temporary capture of Brady at Kenton’s cabin.

Kenton occupied a remote hut, the position of which is unknown to me, and was often visited by Brady and McCabe, who had reunited some time in January, 1825. They were also associated at this time, with a very young man named Hyte. This youth was in the service of one of the most active and independent magistrates, who ever sat on the Tasmanian bench, Mr. T. G. Gregson. The youngster Hyte, was outwardly at least, so well conducted that his master had no suspicions of his fidelity, even when he was ever intriguing with Brady. In the end, he went off to the woods with the bushrangers; and it was this young fellow who first introduced them to Kenton, the inexperienced youth having no suspicion that he was none too trustworthy.

Kenton’s cabin stood near the edge of a handsome plain, and was now frequently visited both by military and police, who had got some inkling of his intimacy with these outlaws, and kept an eye on his movements, and, being none too scrupulous, was easily engaged to betray them.

Soon after this compact, two soldiers took post secretly at Kenton’s hut, he having reported that he expected a visit from Brady’s party very shortly. The hut being, as said above, on the margin of a plain, was easily seen from the woody heights that surrounded it, amongst which Brady and his mates lay in concealment. By pre-arrangement, a signal was always hung out if the coast were clear of hostile cruisers – a white sheet hung over an adjoining fence indicating safety, and its removal the reverse.

The three outlaws came down as expected, and, seeing the safety signal up, advanced towards the place, but still not exactly in confidence that all was right. Brady, though a bold fellow, was a very superstitious one, and as rank a believer in dreams and omens as a highland seer, and was now tortured by the recollection of his sleeping thoughts of the night before that evil hands were upon him, and his companions could not persuade him out of his fears, which were too deeply impressed on his ill-regulated mind to be easily dismissed as imaginary only, and which the sight of the signal did remove. He had no good opinion of Kenton, and was not to be talked out of the presentation that disturbed him. He advanced, it is true, but often stopped on the way, looking anxiously at the hut and at every object behind which treachery might be lurking, and it was long before his associates could persuade him to move forward. Little by little, and stop by stop only, was the space between him and the hut diminished, and the door nearly reached, when the soldiers rushed from their concealment, and before Brady could fire, both himself and Hyte were knocked over, and McCabe, stunned by the suddenness of the surprise fled to the woods. Brady was wounded in the fray.

“I thought it would be thus,” said he as he rose, “my dream of last night was not sent for nothing;” then turning to Kenton he added, “I always thought you would betray me, but you shall suffer for it yet,” Kenton smiled but said nothing, and all of them entered the hut.

The captors having no handcuffs, had to use such means of securing their prisoners as could be found in Kenton’s hut; and their hands were bound with cords only, Kenton helping to tie them. They next committed the grave mistake of deciding to remove them one at a time to a distant police station, marching Hyte off first, and to return for Brady as soon as they could, whom, they left for the present in charge of Kenton, arming him with the gun taken from the former, who in his present wounded state they thought incapable of mischief, but they did not know their man. Brady was really not much hurt, but as he bled freely, he feigned being severely hit.

When the soldiers were gone, Kenton entered into conversation with his prisoner and had the hardihood to attempt to console him under his mishap, saying he thought his capture was as good a thing as could have happened to him, adding with cruel irony, that in his opinion it were better to be hanged at once, than continue his present courses and most unhappy life. Brady listened with as much coolness as he could command, being more engaged with thoughts of escape, than of resignation or repentance.

With these in his mind, he complained of pain and want of sleep, and asked his keeper’s leave to lie on his bed, and to throw a coverlet over him, as he was cold from the loss of blood.

Kenton did so, and Brady seemed to compose himself, whilst the other sat by the hearth, without greatly noticing the wounded man, who was all the while trying to undo the bandages on his wrists, which his captors had not tied so closely together as to give unnecessary pain. But the knots were as tight as that of Gordius and not to be undone. Baffled in this, he now complained of thirst, and asked for water, of which he saw there was none in the room. With this reasonable request, Kenton also complied, and went down to the creek for some, a distance of about a hundred yards. Brady sprung from the couch directly it was safe to do so, and it is said by some, that he held his bandaged hands over the flame of the fire till the cord parted and that as his hands were not tied closely together, the rope separated without disabling him. I do not avouch the truth of the oft-told tale of the manner in which he freed himself, but that he did get rid of his bandages at this moment is certain, as the event proved.

Kenton had not taken the gun with him when he went out, and the liberated brigand seized it directly he was free, and then quietly awaited the return of his keeper, which took place a minute afterwards.

“Now,” said Brady, feigning coolness that he hardly felt, “it is my turn to be master, so prepare yourself for what is going to happen,” and with these words he put the gun on full cock.

The surprise of Kenton was complete. He was now no longer Brady’s master, but a humble suppliant for his own life. He guessed his meaning and begged for mercy, saying “for God’s sake Brady, don’t shoot me.”

“You old vagabond,” said the bushranger, looking him, so to speak, through and through, “have you not often told me there is no God (He was an avowed disbeliever) and now you ask for mercy in his name. Do you think you deserve it at the hands of a man whom you have so shamefully betrayed?”

Kenton was silent, for the words of the bushranger struck home; but after a second’s pause, during which Brady kept his eye on the trembling man, like a black snake mesmerising the victim it is about to seize, his better nature prevailed, and, with uncommon forbearance, told him to go about his business, as he cared not to take the life of so worthless a creature. “But,” said he, before quitting the place, “take warning by this day’s work, and see that you never play the traitor again. We shall meet again before long, and if it comes to my knowledge that you have done me, or those who may be with me, another bad turn, you shall die. I let you off this time, not that I fear the consequences of shooting you, but because I do not think you are worth dying for, even though something tells me that I shall be hanged for murdering you yet.” Then coolly putting his piece on half-cock, he quitted the hut, leaving the half stupefied traitor to stifle his reflections as he best could, and to invent excuses for permitting him to escape, whenever the men returned for their prisoner, which took place some hours afterwards.

In their anger at finding that the bird had got out of their trap, they seized Kenton, and bore him off to the station-house instead, He was dismissed the service of course, and then tried and sent to gaol for allowing the prisoner to escape, for in those days the magistracy never stuck at trifles. Kenton, barefaced as he was, feared to make any public declaration of his treachery, and actually pleaded guilty of connivance at the flight of the robber; and afterwards boasted of aiding him to evade justice, which more inflamed Brady against him than any other part of his conduct, and determined him to punish him for it, if ever they met again.

Brady hovered about the midland districts for some weeks after his last adventure at Kenton’s, committing several daring robberies in company with two men named Pollock and Godliman but re-joining McCabe again he dismissed these recruits, and quitted his present quarters for another scene, and moved to a place called Mike Howe’s Marsh, a fertile plain amongst the inferior slopes of the Table Mountain, a well known eminence of the great watershed of Tasmania.

Their journey hither was not without its adventures. They first fell in with a party of five mounted and well armed stock-riders, all of whom they made prisoners directly. They forced their mounted captives to follow them, taking their horses from them and making them all walk; and such as hesitated when ordered to dismount and lead their steeds, were shoved out of their saddles without more words. The Gazette of the 25th of February, 1825, gives an amusing account of the inglorious defeat of the larger force.

At Howe’s Marsh they were joined by a half starved convict named Plum, who they allowed to follow their fortunes. They now struck over to Wood’s Lake, where they attacked an outlying stock hut of a well known colonist named Kemp. Leaving their prisoners in charge of Plum, Brady and McCabe dashed into the hut, and overpowered all the occupants, five in number, and then plundered the place of arms and a large quantity of provisions, helping themselves to a horse a-piece, and loading some of the others with their pillage. The men they forced to follow them, to prevent their raising an alarm just yet. They now moved down to the lake margin, driving men and horses before them like sheep. Their prisoners were dismissed next day, but they stuck to the horses.

When their prisoners were gone they moved to a secluded nook of the lake where for once they lived in quiet for a fortnight, when they were disturbed by a small roving party, who were scouring the country in chase of them. It consisted of two constables and a soldier of the 3rd Regiment. These parties were mostly dressed in the same rough style as the bushrangers, for whom they were often mistaken, and many fatal accidents happened, from their wearing no distinctive dress. The meeting was sudden, and quite unexpected on both sides.

It was at noon of the 12th March, when Brady’s dogs gave the alarm that there were strangers about his camp, and the bushrangers stood to their arms. The travellers demanded their names and occupation, to which Brady, who was never at a loss, replied ”Constables, and who are you?” “Constables,” was the rejoinder. “No,” said Brady “you are not constables, you are Brady and his bushrangers, so down with your arms or we will shoot you,” and all three levelled their pieces at them. Matters were now getting serious, and both sides got under cover of trees, and they commenced blazing at each other whenever they got, or thought they got a chance, but so well was every man covered, that it was long before a shot took effect, when Plum exposing himself a little was instantly brought to the ground by Constable Dutton. But neither Brady or McCabe could be reached, and they held their posts till dark, and then drew off, leaving their companion and their camp also to their opponents.

They now retreated to the Lakes Arthur, that lie about eight miles from Wood’s Lake, where they made themselves masters of the encampment of one of the government surveyors, Mr. J. A. Wedge, who was absent at the moment with the most of his party surveying the shores of these lakes.

Wedge says he was returning to his tent at sunset, with three servants, and, on approaching it, “I saw two well-dressed men coming from the direction of my tents, whom I took to be newly arrived emigrants in search of land, coming to me for information as the Government surveyor. I observed that they carried guns, but had no suspicion of them. When they were within twelve or fourteen yards of me, they stopped, calling on me to stand. Not thinking they were bushrangers, I continued to advance towards them, when, presenting their guns, they peremptorily desired me to stand, “or we will fire on you – we are the bushrangers.” Being unarmed, I stopped accordingly. Brady then came up, McCabe standing ready with his gun. . . . Brady searched all my pockets, and took my watch from me.”

The robbers had watched the surveyor leave his tent in the morning, and took possession of it directly afterwards, making prisoners of the cook and bullock-driver. They next overhauled his boxes, and smashed his firearms to pieces. His clothes they appropriated, and were dressed in them when he first met them. Brady, as we have seen before, had no love for Government men, and therefore did not permit Wedge’s servants to idle away their time while he was absent, but set them both to work to have a good supper ready for all hands on their return.

On reaching his camp at evening, Brady politely invited Wedge to sup with him; but this he refused, unless he unbound his men first (all of whom he had “coupled up” by this time), which was assented to after a good deal of grumbling, and they fell to, but not in the most amicable mood with each other, and the meal was rather a dismal affair at best, the survey party being ill at ease with their rebel hosts, and the hosts so distrustful of their guests, that they sat at point-blank distance from them, with their guns between their legs, ready for instant action, in case of a rush being made by the more numerous party.

Wedge describes Brady as a robust man, “muscular and well made. He had an intelligent countenance, bright hazel eyes, and an expansive forehead.” McCabe, he says was a bad looking fellow, “with a narrow visage and sallow complexion.”

To detail all Brady’s wanderings at this time, and his ever-recurring fights for existence would be out of the question, for he hardly ever was two days in one place; and such was the rapidity of his movements, particularly after his men were mounted, that, to use the expressions of Wedge, he seemed ubiquitous, and kept the whole colony on the qui vive, no one knowing how soon he might be attacked by men who, so to speak, seemed in all places nearly at once. Being an excellent rider, in which art he soon perfected all his future followers, he made little of sixty miles a day, or more, changing his horses as they knocked up, to which he coolly helped himself as he went along, of which there are always some at every large establishment. The speed of his movements was marvellous; and by the time the many roving parties could concentrate on any point of recent outrage, he was fifty miles off, attacking all the best homesteads in some distant district, that was no longer adequately protected. His robberies may be numbered not by scores, but by hundreds; and I do not know a district in Tasmania, into which settlement had then penetrated, where he had not committed a score of most audacious robberies. Indeed, wherever there was anything to be had in the rural districts, there was he sure to appear; and yet for several months after his interview with Wedge, he had no companion but McCabe.

From the Lake Country they descended into the rich, low-lying lands of North Tasmania, where they continued their system of exactions for some weeks, mostly unresisted, but sometimes having to fight for it.

They were indirectly the cause of a very lamentable disaster, soon after their descent from the Lake districts. They had taken possession, in the early part of April, 1825, of the cottage of a person named Bassam; and while resting there, a party of soldiers who were in search after them, came down on the place, and demanded of Bassam’s shepherd, to know if the bushrangers were there; but the terrified man so equivocated, as to convince them that their prey was not far away and they poured a volley into the hut. This was what Brady could never stand, and both he and McCabe ran to the door and returned the fire, felling one of them, but not mortally. Bassam then came out, and entreated the soldiers not to confound him with the bushrangers, whose prisoner he was, and gave his name and occupation. But the shots of the robbers, and the fall of their comrade so exasperated them, that, they refused to hear him, and immediately despatched him with their bayonets. The death of this poor settler allayed their wrath for a moment; and in the midst of the confusion by which a violent death is always followed, the outlaws made off, taking, says the Gazette of the 8th April, “all their luggage except a pistol, and very quietly walking off.”

After this lamentable affair, the robbers recommenced their wanderings, and turned once more to the south, travelling afoot by the main line of road. They met many persons while on their march, and robbed every one they met, from one of whom they took no less than two hundred sovereigns, which this simpleton carried about him in such troublous times as these.

Several horsemen whom they met about this time, were also stopped, and were not only fleeced of a considerable sum of money, but were forced to surrender two of their horses, with which the fugitives galloped off.

But they were too fatigued to proceed very far, and rested for a few days at the hut of a confederate in the backwoods, and next re-appeared near the Cross Marsh, about thirty miles from Hobart Town, where they resumed their old practices with more than customary activity, adding a fearful number of robberies on the highway to their already voluminous catalogue of offences.

From this place they crossed into the settlements of Bothwell and Hamilton, where there are many first-class homesteads, as might be expected from the nature of the country hereabouts, which is a vast pasture field. Here, as everywhere else, devastation followed closely on their track, and they surprised and robbed many of the first men of the place.

It was at this time that they became acquainted with a person occupying a good position in colonial society. He was a gentleman by birth, the son of a clergyman, and of good family. He had emigrated in 1822, and settled in the Bothwell district as a sheep farmer. But not-withstanding the advantages of birth, education, and social standing, he was a man of bad disposition and practices, and evil tendencies. He now secretly allied himself with those degraded robbers, and became for the remainder of his own brief career the most trusted and useful of their confederates; and the unsuspected custodian of their plunder. But, as usual with all evil-doers, the Fates were just, and severed his connection with the world about four months after the final disruption of Brady’s gang, being convicted of sheep stealing, then a capital offence.

The continued successes of these two men appears now to have determined them on bolder courses; and, tiring of robbing by themselves, they beat up for recruits amongst the many outlaws whom Governmental oppression had driven into the woods; and as those two men had a reputation for success, far above any others, they had no difficulty in finding accomplices, to join with leaders whose enterprises were so well planned, and mostly so fortunate in their results, and four other men joined them, with whom they took post once more in the north.

Their first achievement with these new allies was unpropitious. Arriving after a most exhausting march at an outstation of Mr. Dry’s, that lay I believe near the base of the beautiful basaltic mountain that still bears his name, they composed themselves for a few days’ rest, as they hoped; but they were now so watched, that their place of refuge was soon discovered, and a party of soldiers, commanded by Lieutenant Williams, came on their retreat so guardedly, that neither their dogs nor the sentinel on watch observed them, and all their arms were secured before they saw their danger. In this helpless state, they fled to the hills directly, leaving a great deal of valuable property behind, the proceeds of their recent depredation in Bothwell.

A storm of bullets was sent after them as they fled to the cover of the woods, but ineffectively. The soldiers were even more exhausted than themselves, and hardly pursued them, and they once more escaped capture; but the former were well consoled under the misadventure of losing their prey, by the booty that was left in their hands, which consisted of a large quantity of plate, and four hundred pounds in gold, which latter they seem to have appropriated.

But they were quickly equipped for adventure again; for at all Tasmanian homesteads, especially in times of disturbance, plenty of firearms were kept ostensibly for defence purposes, but which from the suddenness of the attacks of such men as Brady, and the apathy of the farm servants then, who were mostly convicts, and seldom of much use when most wanted, the bushrangers were soon ready for the road again. But they were now so hunted after both in the North and South, that they resolved on an entire change of quarters, which they had not visited before, mainly Great Swanport, which lies on the East Coast.

The eastern shore districts are generally infertile, though there are some fine properties there; but taking them as a whole, these parts of Tasmania are inferior. Some of the best orchards in the island are to be found on this coast.

[To be continued].

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