Spotlight: TASMANIAN HISTORY – A SKETCH OF OLD TIMES; EMBODYING THE BUSH CAREER OF MATTHEW BRADY by J. E. Calder (Pt. 5)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Thursday 21 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.]

To return to the scenes enacting at Grindstone Bay, &c.; Brady, after the liberation of Mr. Denne and his other prisoners, shifted his quarters, and moved into the fine district that Howe had so often desolated before, namely, Pittwater; and at Sorell it was that the most audacious and successful enterprise of his chequered career was enacted.

But here, as everywhere, his path was beset with dangers, and he could move nowhere without confronting some trap set for his destruction. At this time there were in Sorell a military party of sixteen rank and file, besides police, the former under the command of the active Lieutenant Gunn. This indefatigable young officer scoured the district, now under his military charge, as no one ever traversed it before, in search of Brady, whom it almost seemed destined he was never to meet. But this was now to take place; Brady having determined on surprising him in his own camp, with a third of his number, that is including the police, and to pay him off for his persevering pursuit of his party.

It was on the 25th of November that the gang reached the farm of Thornhill, that belonged to Mr. R. Bethune. It was a day of rain and tempest; the sky and earth seemed almost meeting, and the downpour from above was so heavy and incessant, that all the roads leading into the district were next to impassable.

But bad as the weather was, Brady’s people remained in the bush till darkness closed in. They had made several prisoners the day before, who they drove through the cheerless bush, thereby preventing an alarm. Amongst those unfortunates was their old captive Denne, who, after his recent visit to the Governor, was now jogging home again, when he was intercepted by the ever-wandering gang at a place called the White Marsh, on the Prosser’s Plains road. Reversely of what he expected, they applauded him for convincing the Governor of their escape from Hobart Town, saying that “he had only done his duty,” which, in this instance, happened to please them, and they now treated him with a little more consideration than on the first occasion of their becoming acquainted.

The tempest was still as violent as ever, and the trees of the forest rocked again under its force, even to the uprooting of many of them, which were heard falling at irregular intervals, as usual in a heavy gale, and plenty of rain. At nine o’clock of this dreadful night, the bushrangers made a move with their prisoners, to the residence of Bethune, who was sitting up with his superintendent after the farm servants were abed. The knock of the bushrangers was answered by the superintendent within, demanding, pistol in hand, to know who they were that sought admittance at such an hour of such a night as this? The challenge was answered by Brady himself, replying “Constables,” when the door instantly flew open, like that of the den of the Forty Thieves, at the mystic open sesame of Ali Baba, and in rushed the gang, who, first knocking the pistol out of his hand, then pushed him into the parlour, where they found Bethune half asleep; but he roused and started up at hearing Brady’s usual exclamation, “We are the bushrangers – sit down and be quiet.”

The brigands then flew to the men’s hut, where eight of them were napping it, who were turned out of bed by a very expeditious process, and marched off with such clothes as they could catch hold of, to finish their toilets by the kitchen fire, where Denne and his companions in distress, were steaming themselves into life again, guarded by their watchful sentinels all the while; Bethune and his superintendent remaining where we left them, under the eye of Brady in person. The conversation in the parlour being all about bushranging, was not very edifying to his two prisoners, but to which they listened, or at least seemed to listen, with great complacency, though doubtlessly not with much comfort. Brady spoke with great apparent warmth against several persons, who were obnoxious to his party, particularly one magistrate, who he vowed to be avenged on before long. One circumstance is recorded in relation to this interview, rather to the credit of Brady. He named a well-to-do settler, who he meant to rob in a day or two. But being told he was just then in great distress, his wife being dangerously ill, he changed his purpose directly, saying, “Oh, if that’s the case, I’ll let him off.” They regaled themselves right merrily, while at Thornhill, but their vigilance never relaxed, and the watch was so well kept that no one escaped; and their presence in Pittwater was therefore known to none but themselves and prisoners.

Mr. Bethune was expecting a visit from his brother the next day; the same who had aided to disperse Brady’s party at the Plenty about fourteen months before. But not caring to resent it now, he insisted on it that the preparations making for his reception, should be continued.

The next day brought no change of weather. The rain came down as hard as ever, and few stirred abroad on this wretched day of storm, but the active Gunn and his soldiers, who were abroad as usual, in the faint hope of coming on the retreat of the men, then resting quietly at Bethune’s, and almost in sight of their quarters.

In the afternoon, the expected visitor and a friend named Bunster, arrived, as wet and miserable as rain and a cutting southwester could make them. As they rode up, they were received by Brady in person with great decorum.

While some of his men led their horses to the stable, he himself marshalled his guests to the house, Bethune and his friend wondering who the mischief this very officious person was who received them with such superlative assiduities, and seemed completely master of the place. But there was not much time for reflection, for drenched as they were, their self-constituted host and some others, hurried them off to a bedroom, where they helped them off with their steaming clothes and supplied them with dry ones. The strangers looked and looked at them, but could not make them out at all, and it was only when someone gave them a hint not to be too curious, that they began to see how matters stood, namely that they had got into a mess, and that their obliging attendants were the men called par excellence “the bushrangers,” so like wise men they bowed to their fate with the best grace they could, virtually if not actually passing their parole to be on good behaviour.

Brady next led the way to the dining room, where an excellent repast awaited them, of which all partook with keen appetite, and things went on quite pleasantly. Bethune and Brady sat together, their good humour in no way damped by any disagreeable recollections of their previous meeting at the Plenty, but which rather improved it than otherwise, more particularly now that the positions of both in reference to temporary power and command were so completely and ludicrously reversed.

The Colonial Times of the 2nd December speaks thus of this meeting: “The gentlemen were treated with the utmost civility. Dinner was prepared and every attention paid them.” But after sitting at their wine for an hour or two, the weary visitors asked to be shown to their bedrooms, pleading fatigue as their reason for wishing to break up so early. But Brady shook his head at this proposal, and surprised them by telling them with a slightly altered look, that they must not think of retiring just yet, for though it was now ten o’clock and the day near closing, its real business was not yet begun, and, in time informed them that he meant to attack the gaol and guardhouse immediately, “and you gentlemen,” he continued with polite solemnity, “must all accompany me down to the township, as I mean to liberate all the prisoners now in gaol, and to put you in, in their places.” They thought he was not in earnest but they did not know their man; but they quickly discovered that he meant what he said, for the words were hardly spoken, when several of the gang stepped forward, armed to the teeth by this time, and then he gave the word arrest, or slay the Franks, telling them at the same time, that they were no longer to consider themselves guests but prisoners, and in less time than I can tell it in, his men – having previously tied up the servants and other prisoners – now served all the gentlemen in the same manner, the Gazette telling us that “they bound them all two and two by the wrists, and marched them to Sorell gaol” (3rd December 1825.) The brothers Bethune – Bunster and another, were siamesed in this manner, and all the rest being coupled up like hounds, the whole of them, eighteen, were ranked up, and ignominiously marched off to gaol, with the armed bushrangers four on each side, for their escort; and in this undignified manner, the whole of them reached the lock up, as fast as their grave looking guards could drive them along.

The Governor of the gaol, Laing, lived in a detached cottage about two hundred yards off; the military force then in Sorell, having quarters in another one, nearer the gaol; Gunn being lodged in the house of a friend, across the street.

The 16 soldiers had had a most fatiguing day of it, having been abroad in the storm ever since breakfast, along with their indefatigable commander; who notwithstanding the tempestuous state of the weather, kept them on the move through the flooded bush to take the men, who were to take himself and whole detachment – police and all – prisoners, before the day was over. But as this gentleman personally shared the discomforts of his men, no one complained. It was dusk when the tired soldiers returned to their barrack.

Having dried and refreshed themselves, the men looked next to their firelocks, which of course needed cleaning after such a day of rain; and they were drying by the guard-room fire, when the bushrangers came unexpectedly upon them. The gaol was however first rushed, and taken directly, and all Brady’s prisoners forced in, where he left them under a guard of four, while he himself with the remaining three, proceeded to attack the guard-house, where the soldiers were resting at the end of the room farthest from the fire, some at cards, others half asleep, and no one watching.

Brady, after reconnoitering the room through a window, and seeing from the posture of affairs within, that no time could be more favourable for an attack than the present moment, dashed in with three others, and took post between the men and their firelocks, and then presenting their own pieces at them, demanded their instant surrender. “I am Brady,” said he to the wonder-struck soldiers, “and if any of you move an inch, we will give you a volley for your pains.” Taken as much by surprise, as if the enemy had dropped on them from above, and completely cut off from their arms, they were mastered before they could unite for defence. A short but sharp struggle, in which only a few joined, is said to have taken place, though this is very unlikely, but whether or no they were every one taken, and driven by Brady into the cell, and locked up with his other prisoners.

It is a singular fact, but vouched for by the Gazette, that the criminals who were in the gaol when Brady took it, refused the liberation that he offered them.

While this unparalleled outrage was proceeding, the governor of the gaol ran to Gunn’s quarters. He was quite wearied with his long day’s march through the bush, and lying down, when the bearer of the evil tidings of the complete defeat of the soldiers presented himself. The lieutenant, a fiery Scotchman, greatly vexed at the news of the inglorious discomfiture of his whole detachment by a fourth of its number, snatched his piece, a double-barrel, and hastened to the scene of disaster, to see if anything could be done to re-take the place, but unhappily failed to reach it, being met on the way by Murphy and Bird, who were in pursuit of Laing to destroy him. Suspecting that they were from the enemy’s camp, he raised his piece for a shot at them. But they were ready first, and sent the contents of their fire-locks into him before he could draw the trigger. His right arm was shattered to pieces by their fire. He was also struck in the breast, but not severely. He fell, and they left him for dead. Just before this, these two, who were the most bloodthirsty of the party, had been to Laing’s house to shoot him, but his absence at Gunn’s saved him. But here they met with sterner resistance than they expected, and were successfully kept out for a time by two men named Scott and McArra. But a shot from the little scoundrel Murphy’s gun breaking McArra’s wrist, they got in, and, learning where Laing had gone to, they followed, when meeting Gunn, who in the dark they thought was Laing, served him in the manner described above. They then returned to the gaol, triumphantly announcing that they “had done for two of the rascals.”

Lieutenant Gunn once told me that it was Murphy who shot him, without naming Bird. But in the darkness of such a night of storm, the excitement of the moment, and his painful wounds, he may not have known there was a second man present. But the following extract from the Gazette of the 17th December shows that he was mistaken: “When Lieutenant Gunn was presenting his piece, and was fired at by Murphy, he hastily pointed at Bird, when he found he could not draw the trigger, his fingers being broken by the shot; and instantly but providentially” (I copy the expression exactly), “received the contents of Bird’s gun in the same arm.”

The quiet little hamlet of Sorell, was now in a ferment of excitement; for what had occurred at the gaol was soon known all over the place; and most of the villagers hastening down to the scene of disturbance, some to help the now helpless authorities, others to ascertain the extent of disaster, but most to see the fun only, had all of them their officiousness or curiosity satisfied by being locked up themselves, as fast as they arrived. A local magistrate, well known for bustle and parade of activity, was amongst the number thus treated. Rushing with all the speed he could get up, to the gaol gate, he demanded authoritatively to know “what the deuce-and-all was the matter?” The sentry at the gate made no reply, but jerking his fowling-piece out of his hand, smashed it before his face, and then catching him by the nape of the neck, sent him spinning into the gaol-yard, with such a thrust, that he seemed to fly rather than run into it, coming down heavily after a furious scamper to save himself of a dozen or fifteen yards. The gaol was never so full before, for about half the people of the place were now in it.

The outlaws, satisfied with the mischief they had done, began to think about retiring; so locking every door, they quitted Sorell long before day-break, quietly and quite unobserved, which they had no difficulty in doing; for after a dozen or two of the most curious of the villagers were locked up, for prying into matters that Brady thought they had nothing to do with, the rest were too wise or else too frightened to come near the place, and got home as fast as they could, justly regarding Brady’s cage, as the fox did the den of the sick lion, as a place none too safe to approach.

But to keep up the belief that they still held possession of the prison, the brigands, when they relieved the watch at the gate, and just before their departure, replaced him with the effigy of a sentinel, which proved on after examination to be only a bundle of sticks and straw, moulded into the figure of a man, which they dressed like one of themselves, with a stick over his shoulder for a gun. (See Martin’s Colonial Magazine.) “On the bushrangers departing,” says the Colonial Times newspaper of the 2nd December, “they put up a stick, with a great coat and hat upon it, to imitate a sentinel at the gaol door, in order to gain as much time as possible.”

The deceit was successful, and no one came near the menacing bundle of sticks and old clothes that guarded the fallen chivalry of Sorell; and the bushrangers were many a mile off on their route for Spring Bay before the trick was found out, and several hours passed before the prisoners were relieved, who had passed a horrible night, huddled together in cells where there was neither fresh air, light, nor room for half their number.

The demeanour of the prisoners was generally quite the reverse of what one would have hoped for from companions in misfortune, for, instead of mitigating each other’s discomforts, they increased them. They were all so much in one another’s way that of good humour there could be none; and in the multitudinous discussions that ensued about the misfortunes of that eventful night, each man very naturally thought that everyone was in fault but himself, and, as they all said so, there was no end of noise and furious disputation about it. They quarrelled and screamed all night like cats on a house top, either in pairs or parties, or all together, the civilians blaming and abusing the military for want of discipline and vigilance, and the military damning the civilians all round for want of pluck, and then all joined voices in a general chorus of oaths at their fellow-sufferers collectively, but at no one in particular.

But relief came at last, through an active inquisitive fellow named Culliford, who was up betimes in the morning, peeping every now and then round the corner at the gaol, and above all at the fierce but rather funny looking sentinel on duty at the gate, who seemed, at first sight as watchful as Cerberus himself. After peeping at him and drawing back about fifty times, he began to think it a little curious that the man kept so long in one posture. The cunning fellow watched and watched, but still could detect no movement, and at last came to the conclusion that the man had gone to sleep on his post standing. A bright thought then came into his head that with caution and a little management he might be secured. Some other determined fellows now joined him, and after a good deal of deliberation about the best method of belling the cat, they advanced in a body to the attack. Creeping on him quietly and inch by inch, so as not to waken him, they made a simultaneous dash at him, knocked him over and carried the gaol.

After the accomplishment of this dashing coup de main, the imposture was discovered, which of course made it clear that there was not a bushranger within miles of Sorell, whereon the doors were unlocked, and the captive host within liberated, who, says an informant, streamed out of the gate for several minutes, most of them bolting off home as fast as they decently could, amidst the jeers and laughter of the more fortunate portion of the population, who had been lucky enough to keep out of Brady’s way.

Lieutenant Gunn received the usual pension of an officer of his rank, for the loss of his arm, which was shattered to pieces by twelve balls – probably buck-shot – he also received a civil appointment, besides a money present from the colonists of about £300.

I have heard much said, and read a good deal in extenuation of the defeat of the military and police on this occasion; and the newspapers of the time try hard to gloss it over; but this much is certain, that there could have been no surprise had a proper watch been kept at the gaol.

Such readers as may have no opportunity of consulting the colonial newspapers of 1825, will find an account of this tragi-comic adventure, in M. Martin’s Colonial Magazine for 1840, vol. 2, page 419, and in several other works in which Tasmanian brigandage is touched on.

After leaving Sorell, the fugitives marched as quickly as they could move on Spring Bay, taking great precautions to prevent their route being known. Spring Bay is much about fifty-two miles from Hobart Town.

Despairing of securing Brady by open pursuit, as his resources and means of escape seemed inexhaustible, the Government now took such steps to entrap him, as nothing but the impossibility of getting him by other means can palliate. “Permission” says West in his History of Tasmania, vol. 2, page 205, “being given for prisoners to unite with the bushrangers to betray them; men in irons left town secretly, joined the gang, and gave intelligence to the police.” Several of the worst characters were chosen for this odious office, for which they were well qualified by their peculiar talents, excessive depravity, and bad practices. Pre-eminent amongst these men, was one named Cowen, who escaped by Governmental connivance from a punishment gang. Flying as if for his life from a pretended pursuit to the house of a smith, known to be in league with the bushrangers, his irons were struck off, and on saying that he wished to join Brady, he was furnished with a note to him. But the movements of the bushrangers were now so rapid and uncertain, that many weeks passed before he could unite with them. Two other men named Coil and Callaghan were also set free for the same purpose; and some of Brady’s agents were also tampered with by the police, to give information of his movements. His speedy downfall was therefore certain; for though he might again have burst though a circle of fire, there was no escape from the machinations of treachery. However the fates were not yet propitious, and he had still some months to run before the play was over.

[To be continued].

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