Spotlight: TASMANIAN HISTORY – A SKETCH OF OLD TIMES; EMBODYING THE BUSH CAREER OF MATTHEW BRADY by J. E. Calder (Pt. 3)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Tuesday 19 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.]

Amongst the properties lying at the head of Great Swanport are the estates of the Meredith family, of many thousands of acres. Mr. George Meredith, the founder of this well-known Tasmanian family, was one of the first settlers who sailed for this colony after the death of Michael Howe, which closed the first epoch of brigandage in Tasmania. Mr. Meredith emigrated in 1821.

In early life, this gentleman had held a commission in the Royal Marines, and had seen plenty of hot service at the close of the last century and the beginning of the present one, and served in Egypt when that province was wrested from the French. Acting ashore, it was he who fixed the Union Jack on Pompoy’s Pillar, displacing and making prize of the symbol of conquest which Napoleon had caused to be planted on this historic monument, (See Martin’s Colonial Magazine.) After securing this trophy, the Cap of Liberty, he removed it to England, and presented it to the Birmingham Museum, where it still is, or should be, that is to say, rusting in some cellar-like lumber-room of that building!

Brady and his followers reached Swanport early in October, 1825. Mr. Meredith did not then reside at the present head establishment of the family, namely, Cambria, but had another property united Redbanks. Possessed as this gentleman was of ample means, and a well stocked house, Brady marked it for plunder so soon as the coast was clear, and circumstances favourable for free-booting operations, which they were very far from being when he set up his camp amongst the neighbouring hills. To have attacked it just then, would have been to have given up his party to the destroyer; for the proprietor – himself no mere carpet Knight – was at home at the time, and the Chief of Police having got some inkling of Brady’s movements, had stationed a party of twelve soldiers there in charge of the intrepid Gunn, to remain till the outlaws were heard of, therefore no attempt could be made on Redbanks until the garrison was withdrawn.

The bushrangers kept in close concealment until this removal took place, which they knew would be soon if they kept quiet, and moved not from their camp; and as their presence near Swanport was only known to one accomplice, they remained in security, till the suspicions of the authorities subsided; and the services of the soldiers, which in these bushranging times were always in request, were wanted elsewhere.

By some unaccountible neglect, no intimation was given to Mr. Meredith, that he was in danger of an attack, nor did he suspect one; and even the soldiers themselves, had no exact knowledge of the cause of their temporary location at Redbanks. But here they remained several days, constantly on the alert, but no one knowing the cause of alarm, as the visit of Brady to so sparsely inhabited a place as Swanport was expected by none but the police.

But no enemy appearing in this district for a week after the arrival of the soldiers, they then received their marching orders and left. Brady, who had been anxiously awaiting this event, saw them get underarms, and depart for Hobart Town at eight o’clock of the morning after getting the route. Just at the same time, he saw the unfortunate and unsuspecting proprietor, mount his horse, and ride off with some of his sons to a distant part of the run, whilst the farm servants dispersed themselves hither and thither about their usual occupations. The robbers made no movement for three hours after the soldiers had commenced their march, that they might be well out of reach before they made their attack on Redbanks.

At one hour before noon, they came down from the hills, and finding no one at Meredith’s except his wife and daughters, their entry was quite unopposed. Brady having first assured the ladies that they need fear no affront, the work of pillage commenced. They made prize of a large quantity of plate, provisions and spirits of all kinds, and a larger selection of choice wines than I care to enumerate.

There were two excellent whaleboats in Meredith’s boat-shed; and Brady wishing to give his land pursuers the slip, thought the present a capital opportunity of throwing them off the scent, by sailing for the Derwent, more than a hundred miles off. One of the boats was therefore put into the water, loaded with the plunder of the place. Meantime the servants a-field got, tidings of what was going on, and though some of them behaved badly enough, others acted in better part. One of the latter secreting himself, watched for an opportunity, and as the robbers went to and from the house, waded out to the boat, and scuttled her with his falling axe; another servant reached her in the same manner, recovered some of the plate, and both escaped. On discovering this, Brady transhipped his plunder to the undamaged boat, and all of them jumping in, they sailed off but before proceeding to sea, they completely unfitted the other one for pursuit by chopping her nearly in two.

The bushrangers were all landsmen; and though one or two could pull a little, they understood nothing about the management of a boat, so they pressed one of Meredith’s men, a professional boatman named Henry Hunt, into their service to steer her.

Once embarked, they stood to the south to round Cape Pillar, and enter the Derwent, there to recommence work, where they were not expected. But Brady was always unfortunate at sea, and his present adventure ended in failure. Their boat had been so long ashore that she leaked frightfully, and all their efforts to keep her dry were unavailing. But the wind being fair, she made tolerable way. But it was soon seen that she was not to be trusted, and Hunt refused to face the stormy seas off Cape Pillar, especially with landsmen only in her, who could be of no use if she got into difficulties.

He therefore persuaded them to run for Grindstone Bay, where they landed on a sand beach, in front of land now known as Castle’s grant; a place that I shall have to mention again in the course of this narrative as a favourite retreat of Brady’s. It is indeed even now one of the most secluded of settlements but at the times I am writing of, the appearance of a soldier or constable there would have been quite as novel a sight as a horse in the streets of Venice.

The morning’s plunder was so ample that they resolved on a few days rest here. The determination was an unfortunate one; for though quite assured against external danger, strife soon arose amongst themselves, which Brady was powerless to repress. The abundance of wines and spirits they had with them soon set them quarrelling, the disturbance which followed being begun and kept up by his old but turbulent companion McCabe, whom had always much difficulty to keep in order, for he was at best a bad fellow, and a cruel one also, and whenever unnecessary mischief was committed, it was always begun by this fellow.

Brady, like Howe, was from necessity a sober man; but not so his old bush comrade McCabe, to whom the abstinence his chief insisted on was intolerable; and he now indemnified himself for past restraint, by excessive indulgence, and a desperate brawl was the result of this debauch, which some of the others joined in as well as McCabe. While it was at its height the boatman Hunt was shot dead, and his body buried in the sand. Heated with wine and rioting, most of them were soon too drunk to continue further disturbance. Then it was that Brady and another man named McKenny, seeing the evil that must come of this state of things, determined that it should go no farther; and before their companions recovered consciousness, they demolished every bottle that remained; a procedure that was ultimately approved by all the others, except the ungovernable McCabe, who was absolutely furious when he awoke, and discovered what had been done. Though not a very robust man, he was one of those sinewy, wiry fellows, who it is not a safe thing to encounter in fight, more especially as he possessed wonderful activity and endurance. He immediately assaulted McKenny, but finding that all his mates sided with his opponent, and that he had no sympathisers he separated himself from them, to meet them no more. Brady, and the rest tried hard to persuade him to do nothing to break up their party, but the hot-headed man was inexorable, so shouldering his gun he left the camp, to commence the dangerous and mad career of robber life by himself.

McCabe and Brady were the last of the fourteen who left Macquarie Harbour together sixteen months before, eleven having died already, and one other escaping by a timely surrender; thus twelve of the original number were disposed of and the remaining sands of McCabe’s own lifeglass were so nearly run out, that they might be told without counting them; for in less than a fortnight after breaking with Brady, he was safe in gaol, to await the certain and terrible punishment of a life of guilt. It is as well to follow him to his unhappy end.

From the outlaws’ camp at Grindstone Bay, he passed across the wild and rugged East Coast tiers into the settlement beyond, never stopping, except at night, till he was once more in the pastoral district of Bothwell, where he arrived thoroughly prostrated with his long and rapid walk. The field of operations was a badly chosen one, as it happened at the moment to be well guarded both by military and police.

He was first seen by a traveller while he was sleeping under the shade of some trees. This man, suspecting that he was a bushranger, hastened off to a military post and reported him to the guard, a part of which marched at once on the refuge of the weary fugitive. As the soldiers approached him it was observed that he was still asleep; but being by habit an easily alarmed man, he woke up before they were within shot of him, and he started from the ground, and flying with the speed of a professional runner, all trace of him was quickly lost; and all that his pursuers secured were his gun, blanket, and some of his clothes.

McCabe had been here before, and knew the ground well. He had also an accomplice here, and made for his house at once. This was the person whom I have spoken of before, as a stock owner of rank, and the unsuspected confrere of Brady’s people. Whatever could have induced such a man to cultivate an intimacy with robbers it is impossible to say, it is enough to state that such was the case, and that he had been in the habit of furnishing them with supplies, and intelligence also of all police movements relating to themselves which from his knowledge of the different members of the magistracy, he had abundant means of acquiring, no one suspecting for whose use he sought it.

After a four-mile run McCabe reached the house of this friend of the brigands, but not in the mood of mind in which they had heretofore met. His recent mishap with his companions; his fatigue and exhaustion, the unlooked for surprise of the morning, the loss of the little he had, and, above all, his ungovernable nature, all tended to distract him, and he entered the house of the settler not as a confidant, but as enemy. He was admitted, as usual, but the unmasterable passions of this degraded man, prostrating his feeble reasoning powers, he seemed for the moment reckless of, and indifferent to, everything, even the traditional honour that is said to exist between thieves. Seizing on a loaded fowling-piece that stood against the wall of the room, he cocked and presented it at the head of the astonished flock-master, and using such imprecations as I do not care to write down, demanded an immediate supply of everything he wanted. At the same time – so it is reported – he took a blazing brand from the hearth to apply to the roof of the dwelling, and was only restrained from burning it to the ground by the passionate entreaties of the wife of the unfortunate settler, addressed to the demoniacal brigand. Her exhortations so far appeased him that he desisted from his savage purpose; and on receiving her assurance that his wants should be supplied, he seemed to calm down a little, and shortly afterwards left the premises, once more an armed man, to follow and finish his perilous courses.

Such is the narrative of the particulars of this visit, as they are given in the newspapers of the time; but of which some parts doubtlessly received a good deal of false colouring, to remove suspicion from the guilty settler, on whose report they were published.

Armed and in the woods once more he travelled back to the main road, and somewhere between the Cross Marsh and the Lovely Banks, he met a youthful traveller named Mortimer, who he attacked directly; and as the reasoning faculties of the man, such as they were, were still dormant, he fired at him, but the shot took effect only on the horse he rode, but not very injuriously. He now forced young Mortimer to dismount and surrender both his purse and horse also; and next vaulting into the saddle the madman galloped off to the field of certain danger, and possible ruin, namely, to Bothwell, where his own late appearance had put all on the qui vive to take or destroy him.

We now arrive at the closing scene of McCabe’s bush career, which terminated on the 25th October, 1825.

Mortimer’s horse was a good one, and the brigand was soon in Bothwell again. Riding through the woods, he fell in with a shepherd named Bayliss on the morning of the fatal 25th. Having seized and bound this man, he drove him before him as guide, to the farm-house of a once well known colonist, Dr. Scott, which was in the charge of his brother. When they came within view of the dwelling, McCabe dismounted and tied Bayliss to a tree, and then fastening his horse to a branch, he proceeded on foot to pillage it, which he speedily and successfully accomplished.

During McCabe’s absence, Bayliss got away, and taking the horse, galloped off to the guard-house for assistance to capture the bushranger. The men got under arms and started after him with Bayliss for their guide, at such a rapid pace, that they reached the place where they expected McCabe, four miles off, in about fifty minutes.

As soon as the fugitive left Scott’s, he returned for his horse and his prisoner Bayliss, but finding both gone, his disappointment made him absolutely frantic, as his means of escaping with his plunder, which was large, were quite frustrated. But for a moment, and only for a moment, fortune seemed auspicious. A shepherd, also named Scott, happening to pass just then with his flock was made prisoner by him, and loaded with part of his booty, in this manner McCabe proceeded, for some yet undiscovered retreat, but just at this moment the soldiers, followed by some civilians, hove in sight. More confused than ever, a suspicion crossed his mind that Scott was in the plot to take him, and he levelled his piece to destroy his supposed betrayer. But the shepherd was a most resolute fellow and though only a slight as well as a lame man, and no match for McCabe, he pinned him by the throat before he could pull the trigger, and perhaps as much to his own astonishment as his adversary’s, he threw the stronger man on his back after a most determined struggle for mastery. But the robber’s resources were not quite exhausted yet, and, drawing forth a long knife, he tried to stab Scott; but he prevented it, and eventually wrested it from him. By this time the soldiers and others came up, and a private of the 40th. Regiment, named Maroney, was the first to throw himself on the brigand, and, assisted by a Mr. Russel, they put an end to the conflict, and to the bush career of McCabe. The rest of the party arriving in a minute or two, the bushranger was secured, and marched to the guard-house, from whence he was removed to Hobart Town under a military escort, to disturb the peace of the colonists no more.

“At ten o’clock of Thursday morning (27th October), says the Gazette, “the news reached Hobart Town of his apprehension, and that he might soon be expected. The sensation of satisfaction that instantly burst forth throughout the town was inconceivable, in which all ranks, high and low, free and bond, equally participated. Though the morning was wet, and the roads very muddy, the way towards New Town was crowded with people impatient to see personally the appearance of a man whose crimes wore too gross to proceed from a being in the human shape. Till about half-past 2 o’clock, when he entered the town, the rising ground opposite Captain Ker’s house was crowded with spectators. * * * The whole of Elizabeth-street up to Government House was one continued crowd; and when the party reached Wellington Bridge, it was so dense, as scarcely to find room to pass. He walked along in company with a soldier to whom he was manacled, and attempted several times to address individuals he had known at some former period. * * * He is a tall athletic man, strongly marked with smallpox, and bears the effects of a shot in his face,” &c.

On the 2nd November, he was tried for robbing young Mortimer, and for other capital delinquencies, and was found guilty; but it was not till the 20th December that he was brought up for sentence, before a Judge who had probably passed more death sentences than any other colonial Judge living. He was usually rather ill-tempered when on the Bench, and was sometimes unnecessarily harsh, and never ever merciful to the unfortunate creatures whom he tried who were hanged, literally by dozens. Indeed the scaffold seldom sufficed for the many executions that followed a sitting of the Supreme Court, and it usually took two or three mornings to hang all the men sentenced to die during a session, who were disposed of in instalments of six or eight at a time; for when once sentenced in those days a man stood almost as little chance of a reprieve, as the dead have of returning to life.

Before this Judge, McCabe now stood with twenty-seven others to hear his doom. He of course expected, no mercy, nor did he desire it; for though only twenty-four years of age, he was wearied of existence. Being asked by the clerk of the Court, if he had anything to say that sentence of death should not pass on him, he replied, says the Gazette, “with an air of indifference, ‘oh, nothing.'” The Judge then spoke severely of his attack on the stripling Mortimer, who it was said he deliberately fired at, and expressed regret that he had not killed him. But at this stage of his address, he was abruptly interrupted by the bushranger saying, “I made use of no such words to him; but I wish mercy from no man; I said I was very glad it happened on the horse and not on himself – that is what I said, Sir,” He was then sentenced, along with seventeen others to die, and died accordingly on the 9th January, 1826.

[To be continued.]

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