Spotlight: TASMANIAN HISTORY – A SKETCH OF OLD TIMES; EMBODYING THE BUSH CAREER OF MATTHEW BRADY by J. E. Calder (Pt. 6)

Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Friday 22 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.]

About this time the party was strengthened by several old freebooting notorieties who submitted themselves to the leadership of Brady, besides a mischievous youngster named Edward Williams, who, enamoured of an adventurous life, persisted in joining them, despite the advice of Brady and others never to take the bush; and he remained with them till he died by the murderous hand of Cowen, some months before completing his seventeenth year. This stripling had hitherto acted as letter-carrier to the police, and absconded from the service of a military settler, Captain Gunning. He was one of the most troublesome of the party to Brady, who had more difficulty in keeping him out of unnecessary mischief than all the others. He was a free lad, but whether born here or not I cannot say.

Soon after Brady’s retreat from Sorell, he reached Spring Bay with his party, and by a ruse got possession of a boat belonging to the penal settlement of Maria Island, just opposite.

The bushrangers had their camp by the shore of this beautiful harbour, and near to the point where the boats of the island landed to receive and transmit letters, &c., and where any governmental agents having messages for the island took post, the signal of their arrival being a smoke made at this point.

There was a sloop named the Glutton stationed at this time at an off-lying rock of Great Swanport, called the White Rock, which then abounded with seals, and was annually visited by vessels from Hobart Town employed in the fur-seal trade, on which business this sloop was now engaged. Her owner was a Mr. Campbell, and she was commanded by one Peter Stewart, a man of Scottish descent, but Dutch by birth.

This vessel Brady determined to seize, for at no time does he seem to have despaired of escaping from the colony. But as the White Rock is eight or nine miles from the nearest land, a boat was indispensable for his enterprise, so he resolved to seize the Commandant’s for the purpose.

The party collected a quantity of wood, and setting it on fire, the smoke warned the Commandant of the arrival of a messenger. In less than ten minutes the signal was answered by a similar white cloud rising from Maria Island, which, the day being nearly still, went high above the trees of the place

The robbers then awaited the arrival of the Blue-eyed Maid, as the settlement boat was called, which could not reach them for some hours, for Maria Island is about ten miles from the head of Spring Bay, where the bushrangers lay. There was a light air from the north-east, and she came slowly across under a lug-sail, which was hauled down as she neared the point, and her crew running her ashore where the fictitious messenger awaited her, they hardened her nose on the beach. No sooner were the unwary boatman on land than the bushrangers, who lay behind a fallen tree, sprang from their concealment with a deafening shout, and guns in hand rushed the boat, mastering the astonished cox-swain and his men without difficulty. The crew being unarmed, made no resistance. The robbers then unbeached the boat and off they went on their piratical errand.

There were several of them who understood enough of boating to manage her in fine weather, as it was now; so pulling out they steered for the Glutton at the White Rock, but did not reach her till next day at noon, having passed the night in a nook of Spring Bay, near a remarkable, but now partially destroyed, natural “Fountain” as it is called — a cone of earth several yards high, from the apex of which a small perennial stream of brackish water issues The master of the craft, seeing the boat approaching, suspected she was after no good, so got his anchor up and made sail. But the wind, such as it was, failing just then, “they,” says the Gazette (17th December,) “succeeded in boarding, and made out to sea, steering north,” (this must have been after rounding Schouten Island.) “The wind however rising, they became timid,” (another account says very sea-sick), “and retreated under the island. A long consultation then took place amongst them what course to pursue. By Brady’s advice, they agreed to sink the sloop, and Tilly, a man who had lately joined them, having a hatchet, cut a hole in her bottom, and she sunk.”

The destruction of the sloop took place two days after she was seized, the interval being passed in trying to get out of Swanport, where they were detained by calms at one moment and contrary winds at other times, between the lofty, barren, but beautifully picturesque shores of Maria and Schouten Islands. The act of sailing her was hastened by the neighbourhood of a Government brig that was hovering about them, which they immediately guessed was in chase of them, as she really was. But the captain recognising the sloop to be the Glutton on a sealing cruise, put his helm down and sailed off, without speaking her, little dreaming of the prize he was letting escape. Stewart begged hard of them to spare the sloop, but they were not to be over-ruled.

Taking again to the Blue-eyed Maid, they landed along with the crew of the sunken sloop, on the island called by its discoverer, Tasman, “Vanderlin’s Eylandt,” but by us “the Schouten.” In this seclusion they rested a couple of days, when they crossed to the mainland again, and lay there till discovered by a boat expedition commanded by Captain Hobbs, one of their many pursuers. Hobbs watched them for a couple of days, but durst not attack them in their rocky stronghold, the Colonial Times saying they occupied a most “formidable position, from whence his boat’s crew was exposed to their fire if he proceeded to attack them.” The necessities of the bushrangers, who were now nearly without supplies, forced them at last to abandon their camp, and their boat also, which Hobbs secured.

They now struck inland, but were stopped for several days by a greatly swollen stream called the Swan River, that flows into the Great Swanport.

They crossed it at last, and soon afterwards got possession of an outlying stock hut of Mr. Meredith’s, where the exhausted and starving wanderers obtained refreshment, but very little rest; for in their fatigued state, no watch seems to have been set, and the hut was surrounded by a number of soldiers in chase of them, while they were all asleep. But the military behaved badly, and the bushrangers starting up, dashed out, broke through the encircling line, and every one of them escaped unhurt; the soldiers getting nothing but some of their arms, which the runaways had not time to remove. This gross act of neglect is told by the Gazette, which closes the account as follows :— “We do not venture to express the unpleasant sensations which arise upon writing this narrative, which we close without further comment.” (December 17th.) The starving gang took again to the woods, and suffered for several days the extremes of hunger and exhaustion, till they reached the farm of Mr. Kearney at St Paul’s Plains, where they rested and re-equipped themselves completely, and took to the highways again as soon as they were quite recruited, their recommencement of active life being marked by unusual havoc and audacity. At this time Brady managed to mount his party, who, excepting two of them, were all capital riders.

For several days both before and after Christmas, they were especially active and mischievous; and such a catalogue of offences was in that brief space added to then already fearfully long list, as was enough to have hanged them all ten times over. They victimized every traveller they met, and every homestead that they passed was summarily assaulted and despoiled; Messieurs Gill, Gunning, Kimberley, Brown, Clarke, Pitt, Armitage, Hayes, Owens, Flexmore, and a host of others, being sufferers.

From Mr. Flexmore of Hobart Town, I have lately received an account of their visit to his father’s house at Green Ponds, at which he was present, it is as follows :—

It was at nine or ten o’clock of the morning of the 20th December, 1825, as his father and himself were sitting in front of his house, that a party of horsemen, 14 in number, rode sharply past, and pulled up at the hut of a suspected colleague of theirs named Kelly, a shoemaker, who lived about a quarter of a mile off. They were all well armed, but this excited no suspicion at a period when no one moved about unarmed; besides this, their appearance was so good, that they were taken for mounted policemen, belonging to a colonial corps, formed of young sprigs of the half swell, half snob class, with the pleasant designation of the Doughboy Cavalry.”

On reaching Kelly’s hut, they all dismounted and went in. Soon afterwards, Brady and two others came out and returned on foot to Flexmore’s, carrying their arms with them. It being Boxing-day, and a general holiday, almost all the domestics were absent from the premises.

The old gentleman was still enjoying the bright morning sun of midsummer, when they came up to him. On presenting themselves, Brady saluted him with his usual politeness, for he could conduct himself properly enough when it suited him, and he thus introduced himself.

“Good Morning, Mr. Flexmore.”

“Good morning.”

“Do you know who I am?” said the spokesman, not quite relishing the curtness of Flexmore’s reply.

“No I don’t,” said Flexmore, rather gruffly, for he had a little John Blunt about him.

“Then I take leave to inform you that I am Brady the bushranger, and I’ll trouble you for your money.”

Flexmore started at this announcement, but was not thrown off his guard by it, and excusably enough feigned being pretty well out of cash just then. But Brady knew better than this, for the miscreant Kelly had been at the house that morning with a pair of boots, which Flexmore paid for on delivery, taking the price of them out of a little bag, that had plenty more in it, which he saw him put back under a bed in an adjoining room. Brady therefore knew that this was not true, but seemed to believe it, and said, “then give me what little you have, if you please.” Mr. Flexmore rose up, none too willingly, and went to his bedroom, as closely followed by the outlaw as the rear rank man follows his front file, and after rummaging the pockets of some clothes that were hanging up handed him 16s., which the other accepted with a shake of the head and a dissatisfied and incredulous look, saying, “Pray Mr. Flexmore is this all there is in the house?” “Every farthing,” responded the other, as bold as brass “Come, come, old fellow,” said Brady, laying politeness aside, and placing the muzzle of his pistol to his breast, “I see that civility is lost on you, I know you have more than this, sir, so let me have it without more words;” then casting a glance in the direction of the bed, he continued: “it’s in a small bag under the bed-stead, I know all about it, so bring it out, or I’ll shoot you down like a crow.” Whereupon Flexmore, seeing that no good was likely to come of denying it any longer, dived under the bed-stead and brought the concealed treasure to light, about forty-five pounds in notes.

Our acquaintance of the road, being rather a man of action than words, clutched it immediately, and, having a pretty fair idea of the contents, did not trouble himself to count them, but thrust them, bag and all, into his pocket. The prize brought back his usual good humour, which, indeed, he seldom lost. Being in no hurry to leave, he thought he might as well stay a little, and get all he could out of his victim, so, turning to the younger Flexmore, and scrutinizing his person, he noticed a gold chain and seals dangling from his pocket-watch, as then customarily worn, and demanded them, watch and all, directly. Whilst Flexmore was taking it out, slowly and reluctantly enough, Brady addressed his father half chaffingly, half seriously, about people of the present day not knowing how to deport themselves towards a gentleman, as he gravely styled himself, which was in allusion to Flexmore (who wished him anywhere else), not having encouraged him to sit down. In his time, he said, the master of a house, who left a visitor standing, would be looked upon as a churl; but the times, he added, were worse than they were in his young days (he was six-and-twenty), but there was no help for it, he supposed. By this time, the watch was pulled out, but, being silver only, the highwayman received it with no great satisfaction; but, after a pause, he said he was not above taking it for all that, and would wear it as a souvenir of their first meeting; and then slipped it into his own pocket, a good deal quicker than it came out of Flexmore’s. He next snatched off his hat, a new Panama, presenting him with his own old one in return, saying he hoped that both of them would be benefited by the exchange.

Having got all he could from their persons, he took a look round at things generally. It was the ominous, comprehensive look of a professional forager, which boded further mischief; and while they were wondering what next this troublesome fellow meant seizing on, a well-conditioned horse that was grazing in the home-paddock, a couple of hundred yards off, commenced “kicking up his confounded heels and neighing like fury,” thus making himself unnecessarily conspicuous. It happened that the horse Brady rode, was knocked-up from overwork, and was unable to keep the galloping pace of the rest, so he directed Murphy, one of the party, to secure it, and also to give a look into the stable for another saddle, to replace his own, which he said he did not care to be seen on any longer; by which he meant that one of the flaps was half off, and all the stuffing out of the other.

These matters being arranged, and the party reassembled, Brady vouchsafed a little advice to Mr. Flexmore, which was to keep quiet till next day, about the morning’s transactions, failing which, he might rely on seeing him again directly after harvest, which was now close at hand, “when,” so he vowed, “he would burn the whole place down, and shoot all who took any part in betraying him.” Then with a shew of politeness, he raised his stolen hat to Mr. Flexmore, and jumping into the stolen saddle, galloped off with all his grim looking followers at his heels, to the nearest publichouse of Green Ponds.

It being a holiday, there were plenty of people at the inn, long before Brady and his people made their appearance there. Up to this moment, however, none of them knew anything of what had taken place at Flexmore’s, or even that the bushrangers were in their immediate neighbourhood. But they began to see there was something astir, though they knew not what, when fourteen strangers rode up to the door of the publichouse. It being still early the villagers were for the most part pretty sober, and none of them more than half drunk as yet, and they made way rather deferentially for so many well-mounted travellers. Brady, whose recent successes in so many quarters had put into excellent spirits, offered to treat every one who liked to drink for nothing, which was of course all of them; and the first suspicion they had that all was not quite right was when they saw Brady take charge of the bar (pushing the landlord out altogether) and of premises generally, and handing the beer and spirits about like water, greatly to the satisfaction of all present except the deposed landlord, who saw with ill-concealed displeasure the liberal disbursement of his liquors, which everybody drank and nobody paid for. Pot after pot, and nip after nip, were handed across the counter by the officious Brady as fast as they were called for, till all the company except his own party and the landlord were as drunk as fiddlers at a fair.

While the leader thus did the honours of the house, some of the men saw that their horses wanted for nothing, the reckless liberality of the captain in the bar having communicated itself to his lieutenants in the stable.

They did further mischief during their stay by overhauling the house thoroughly, and securing plenty of tobacco and other stores, besides eleven pounds in cash. (Gazette, 31st December.)

After this half-mad frolic was over they mounted and rode off, making towards the house of a lady of the name of Ransome, who lived near by and in whose service Brady had once been, and he had not forgotten her kindly acts or kindly manners, and he suffered none of his men to enter her dwelling, and only asked that each of them might be supplied with a glass of wine, for which he thanked her respectfully and rode off.

The fact that these men were Brady’s party having transpired during this brief interview, an officious servant started off to the residence of the district constable, Mr. Whitfield, who lived at the Cross Marsh, about a mile and a half away, and informed him of the morning’s transactions. That officer instantly got his constables together, and as many of the soldiers of the detachment stationed there as chanced to be sober, and moved them towards Green Ponds, in quest of the fugitives. But the advancing force, instead of keeping amongst the trees, marched along the highway, where the land was cleared on either side. The bushrangers, who were seldom off their guard, observed the enemy before they were seen themselves. It was of course no part of Brady’s policy to expose his men to unnecessary danger, and before Whitfield’s people, who were the stronger party, could reach them, they were in their saddles, and off they went at a sharp canter through the bush. The soldiers fired at them at a venture, though they were quite out of range, and the only effect of the discharge was to make some of their horses shy, by which two of them were dismounted, namely the youth Williams, and a man named Hodgetts. But the former stuck to his bridle, and regaining his seat, followed the tracks of the rest and rejoined them; but Hodgetts came to grief, and his horse bolting, he was seized and secured directly, and sent under an escort to the guardhouse.

The bushrangers did not waste powder on their pursuers, who were too far off to be reached; but being well mounted, were soon out of sight.

But Whitfield was not the man to give up a pursuit, so long as he thought that any good might come of it; and though his party were all a-foot, he kept on their track towards Bothwell, which is about fourteen miles from the Cross Marsh. But as Bothwell was then a military station, the bushrangers went not too near it, but turned into the bush near the Den Hill, to avoid placing themselves between two fires.

The day was one of adventures. After a march of several miles, that was rendered more wearisome by the hot unclouded sun of a Tasmanian midsummer afternoon, Whitfield and his party, twenty-nine all told, reached the highest point of the road, that is where it crosses the inferior slopes of the Den Hill, an eminence of great abruptness and considerable elevation, but pretty smooth and low where the road passes over it. While resting a minute at the top of this commanding point, some one of the soldiers espied a thin light smoke ascending from a part of the hollow beneath them, where they knew there were no residences, a circumstance which assured them there were strangers there, and probably the very fellows they were after. With fresh hopes they plunged into the basin of the Clyde, a small sluggish stream that issues from some most beautiful lakes in the mountainous regions of Central Tasmania. Taking a compass bearing of the smoke, Whitfield’s men hurried towards it at a good pace, and in less than an hour came upon the retreat of the enemy, who they found, some sitting on or lying about the grass, refreshing themselves, whilst one was standing in their midst, reading aloud from the last week’s Colonial Times, for the edification of such of the others as chose to listen; the others, all except a sentinel, being asleep close by. Their horses stood saddled, ready for an instant move if necessary. On seeing the approach of the advancing party, the sentry on watch roused the rest and then discharged his piece at the foremost of the approaching body, which was now too close on them for them to escape from without a fight for it. Whitfield’s people made a rush to place themselves between the outlaws and their horses, but were repulsed by the others (who were under cover of trees) by a general volley, which sent two of them down, wounded, but not fatally. The firing lasted about three quarters of an hour; but so well was each side protected, that little further mischief was done, when the fight ceased through the ammunition of the assailants failing them.

It was now getting dusk, and under cover of coming night and the haze created by the smoke of more than forty muskets the bushrangers made a dash at their horses, and got possession of most of them and made off. An ill-directed volley from a few of the soldiers, whose ammunition was not quite spent, was sent after them, but with no effect. Of the robbers, two or three only lost their steeds; but being pretty fresh they followed their companions so quickly afoot, (Brady being one of the dismounted ones,) as not to be greatly behind. But the soldiers and civilians were so knocked up, more by the heat of the day than the length of their march, that the pursuit was very feebly kept up, and the brigands all escaped.

The horse stolen from Flexmore in the morning, was re-taken, and ten of the forty-five pounds of his money, which the robbers had dropped in their flight, were also recovered. The Gazette announces with a flourish that ten of the horses were taken; but Mr. Flexmore assures me they were not.

The robbers roamed about the southern districts till the close of February, 1826; some time before which it was that they were joined by the police spies, Cowen, Coil and Callaghan, who, as said before, had been let loose to destroy them.

Their stay in the south, was not passed in inaction; and they committed many robberies , of which I know little beyond the names of their victims, that it would interest no one to repeat.

Towards the end of February, they shifted the scenes of their devastations to the northern districts again, to escape from the hot and ceaseless pursuit of three hundred muskets, that drove them from place to place in the south, which they now quitted, some to revisit it no more, and nearly all the rest as captives only; for the days of their success were now drawing to a close.

On the 26th of February, they surprised the establishment of Mr. Lawrence, of the Lake River, and committed greater excesses whilst here, than on any other occasion when Brady commanded. Despite of his entreaties, some of his men got to the cellar, and drank till they were half stupified, and behaved very grossly. Bird and the fiendish Murphy, the most mischievous and intractable of all of them, were the authors of much unnecessary outrage The owner of the estate was absent, but a son and several servants were about, and all the latter were made helplessly drunk by these two fellows. Having robbed the house, they next burned it to the ground, and also the ricks and a valuable out-house. The Superintendent was a-field, and the first warning he had of this wanton devastation, was given by the vast volume of smoke that ascended from the ruins, and the tall column of flame that shot up from the rapidly consuming premises. He was in the saddle at the moment, and galloped off directly to the scene of disaster, through a shower of fireflakes that were falling everywhere, setting fire to the withered grass, and thus increasing the conflagration. As he rode up quite unconscious of the cause of the misfortune, he passed near the spot where Bird and Murphy were standing, without perceiving them through the smoke that filled the atmosphere. But they saw him, and could not resist the temptation of a shot. They were both crack marksmen, but being half drunk, their aim was unsteady, and their fire not very damaging, though one ball passed through his hat, and gave him such a start that he lost his seat. The bushrangers on retiring added four very valuable horses to their booty, which last named theft formed one of the principal of the charges against them when on their trial. They then rode off to a dry spot in a marsh about four miles from the house, where they passed the night.

[To be continued]

* The story of the attack on Flexmore has been printed in the Mercury before. It is introduced here, that there may be no hiatus in the narrative.

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