Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Saturday 28 December 1872, page 3



[Written by Mr. J. E. Calder.]

Christmas time in Tasmania was not always the pleasant time that it is now, when the day-dreams of many a preceding week are so happily realised in friendly meetings and greetings, pleasure parties, bush excursions, trips up or down the beautiful Derwent or its expansive estuary, which are so joyously engaged in at this season by the people of the South, and the troops of pleasure-seeking visitors from continental Australia, who come hither at this season to pass a few weeks amongst us, in holiday keeping and rational relaxation from the none too pleasant realities of working life.

But all things of this kind wore unknown here half a century ago, when-outside the town at least-every day of the year brought its perils and anxieties ; when society was utterly disorganised, and when no one who lay down at night did so in the certainty that the night, as now, would be one of peaceful and unbrokon repose. The recollection of this state of things is hardly retained by us at present, for then, what with the savage onslaughts of the native tribes, the predatory acts of tho bushranging classes, the everlasting pursuits of military par-ties, and their hard bush fights with the marauders they wore after, the condition of this now most peaceful land must have been the very reverse of what it is at present ; and the happy changes that time and circumstances have brought about since then, should be especially cherished by the Tasmanian of our generation, by allowing him how much happier in his own condition, than that which was the lot of those who preceded him in the occupation, of; this country, who lived through those periods of our history which, in ignorance or forgetfulness of the bitter troubles of the past, we too fondly call ” the good old times.”

At no period since the year 1813 were bushranging depredations so numerous in Tasmania, as they were just about the Christmas season of 1825, especially those that were enacted by the daring band that was led by Matthew Brady, or more properly Bready, for that was his right name. I purpose recalling a few of tho curious exploits that he engaged in just about this season-forty-seven years ago -which, like the whole of his personal history, may be read by any one, as there is nothing revolting in them, as he was not naturally addicted to acts of murderous violence, and though the stain of the blood of one man was afterwards on, his hand, whom he killed when smarting under the remembrance of recent and heartless treaohory, his whole conduct whilst an outlaw in the bush was quite unmarked by savage atrocity of any kind ; indeed he more frequently saved life from the rage of his own followers, than any other brigand of whom I have ever read.

A few words of this man’s early career may not be out of place in introducing him. He was a Manchester man, born just at the close of last century, being under twenty-seven when he made the inevitable atonement that ever ends such a life of guilty riot as his was. He was brought up in a gentleman’s family, and is described in the police records as “a gentleman’s servant,” probably a groom, as he was an excellent and even a graceful rider, and it was probably through this connection that he had acquired something very like propriety of personal deportment which has been often, described by old writers on the colony who had met him, as he had nothing of the brutal manners of an ordinary robber in his strange composition. He arrived here, under a transportation sentence of seven years, in the convict ship Juliana, almost on the last day of the year 1820.

He had not been long in the colony before he made two attempts to escape from it, as a stowaway on board ship; for the last one of which it was that he was sent to the dreaded penal settlement of Macquarie Harbour, for the unexpired portion of his original sentence, five years, which he resolved never to complete, if by any chance he could escape from this place of suffering. But here he continued for a couple of years before he could make good his determination, when, assisted by 13 others, he took the commandant’s boat from under him, and after a stormy passage of 10 days made good his landing, somewhere on the east side of the Derwent, on the 19th June, 1824, and commenced the dangerous career of bushranger immediately.

A circumstance much to the credit of Brady is related by the historian of Macquarie Harbour, the late D.A.C.G. Lempriere, touching his escape from that place. Both the commandant and the surgeon of the settlement were in the boat at the time of her seizure. The first named officer managed to make his escape from the captors, but not so the other, whom they seized and secured, with the intention of flogging him before they quitted the Harbour; and they accordingly stripped him and tied him up for this purpose, when Brady, hearing what was about taking place, dashed in amongst them and made them desist. We are told by Lempriere that this man had formerly been a hospital patient of the doctor’s, and very kindly dealt with by him, and as he was by no means deficient of the better qualities of our nature, a grateful rememberance of past benefactions now impelled him, at the risk of his own safety, to protect the kind-hearted surgeon against this indignity, of which he had been so often the unwilling witness in the case of others when under punishment.

I have, of course, no intention of following this man through his long career of criminality, and a life of alternate mishaps and successes, when he was an outlaw in the woods; or even of telling the story of the many deeds of rapine, in which he was of course the chief actor, that took place within a brief period of the Christmas Day of 1825, some of which have a strong dash of the comic in them, and seem to have been as often done in the mere spirit of devilry, as under the pressure of necessity, but will confine myself to showing “how he served Mr. Flexmore on Boxing Day.”

Of the thirteen companions of Brady who left Macquarie Harbour with him, the bullet or the executioner had already disposed of the whole, excepting one man, who by a timely surrender on their first landing escaped the usual doom of offenders of their class; and now for the first time since the disruption and annihilation of his first followers, his party was again recruited to its original strength, six or eight being the largest numbers whom he over got together before. But as several old bushranging notorieties had lately submitted themselves to his leadership, he was once more at the head of as formidable a gang as was ever banded together for lawless enterprise, several of whom were his own inferiors in nothing but tact, and (sometimes even) moral discretion.

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

From Mr. Flexmore I have lately received an account of Brady’s visit to his father’s house at Green Ponds, which was the same as that now occupied by his family there. The residence stands at the westernmost end of a rooky ravine, through which a small stream of water passes that soon after unites with the creek known, in days I am writing about, as the Green Waterholes. In front is a pretty large meadow, which was in tillage long before 1825; the main line of road through the country, which has been but little altered from its original direction, then, as now, lay within a quarter of a mile of the house, and in full view of it.

It was at nine or ten o’clock of the morning of the 26th of December, as Mr. Flexmore’s father and himself were sitting in front of the house, that a party of horsemen, fourteen in number, rode sharply past, and pulled up at the hut of a suspected colleague of Brady’s, named Kelly, who lived about a quarter of a mile off. They were all well armed, but this excited no suspicion at a period when all armed; besides this, their appearance was so good that they were taken for a party of mounted policemen.

On reaching Kelly’s they all dismounted and went in. But 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 and his son were still enjoying themselves in the bright morning sunshine of summer when they came up to them. On presenting himself Brady saluted them with his usual politeness, for, as said before, he could conduct himself properly enough when it suited him, and he thus introduced himself to, and explained the purport of his business with, the master of the establishment.

“Good morning, Mr. Flexmore.”

“Good morning,” replied the other a little stiffly.

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

“No, I don’t,” said the other rather gruffly, for he had a little of John Blunt about him at times,

” Then I take leave to inform you that I am Brady, the bushranger, who you have heard of before, for I’ve robbed above half the settlers of the country already, and mean to rob the other half before I’ve done with them; and now, Sir, I’ll trouble you for your money.”

Flexmore started a little at this unexpected 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 in the morning with a pair of boots which Flexmore paid for on delivery, taking the price of them out of the little bag, that had plenty more in it, which he saw him put back under a bed in an adjoining room. Brady knew therefore 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 bushranger as the front file as by his rear rank man, and after rummaging the pockets of some clothes that were hanging up, handed him sixteen shillings which the other accepted with a shake of the head, and a dissatisfied, incredulous look, saying, “Pray, Mr. Flexmore, is this all that 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, Sir, that you have more than this, so let me have it without another word.” Then casting his eye in the direction of the bed, he continued, “It’s in a small bag under the bed; I know all about it, so bring it out, or I’ll shoot you like a crow.” Whereupon Flexmore, seeing that no good was likely to come of denying it any longer, dived under the bedstead, and brought the concealed treasure to light, about forty-five pounds in notes.

Our acquaintance of the road, being more a man of action than words, clutched it immediately; and, having a pretty fair notion of its contents did not trouble himself to count them, but thrust them bag and all into, his pocket. The prize brought his usual good humour, which indeed he seldom lost. Being in no hurry to leave, he thought he might as well stay a little longer, and get all he could out of his victims, so turning now to the younger Flexmore (our friend of Macquarie-street), and closely scrutinising his person, he noticed a gold seal or two, dangling from his watch pocket, as then customarily worn, and demanded them, watch and all, directly; and whilst he was getting them out slowly and reluctantly enough, Brady amused himself by lecturing 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 in the bottomless pit at the time, not having encouraged him to sit down. In his time, he said, the master of a house, who left his visitor standing, would be looked on as a churl; but the times, he added, and the people too, he feared, were not what they were in his young days (he was six and twenty), but there was no mending either he supposed. By this time the watch was pulled out, but being silver only the highwayman received it with no great satisfaction, but said, after a pause, that 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 made a snatch at his hat, a new “Panama,” and presented him with his own old one in return, saying he hoped both parties might be benefited by the exchange.

Having now got all he could from their persons, he took a look round at things generally. It was the comprehensive look of a professional forager, which seemed to bode further mischief; and whilst they sat wondering what next this troublesome follow meant to seize on, a well conditioned horse, that was grazing in the home paddock about a couple of hundred yards off, commenced “kicking up his confounded heels, and neighing like fury,” thus making himself unnecessarily conspicuous. It so happened that the horse Brady rode had knocked up from overwork, and was unable to keep the galloping pace of the rest of his party; so he directed Murphy (one of his gang) to secure him, and also to give a look into the stable for another saddle to replace his own, that, 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 the Flexmores, which was to keep quiet till next day about the morning’s transactions, failing which they might rely on seeing him again directly after harvest, which was now near 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 show of politeness he raised his stolen hat to the Flexmores, and jumping into his stolen saddle, he galloped off with all his grim looking followers at his heels, to the nearest public-house of the Green Waterholes.

It being a holiday, there was plenty of company at the inn long before Brady and his people made their appearance there. Up to this moment, however, none of them knew anything about 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 more than usual astir, when fourteen strangers rode up to the door of the public-house. It being still early the villagers were for the most part pretty sober, and none of them were 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 high good humour, 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 (shoving the landlord out of the place altogether), and handing the beer and spirits about just 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 every body drank and nobody paid for. Pot after pot, and nip after nip were handed across the bar 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.

Whilst 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 at the bar having communicated itself to his lieutenants in the stable.

During their stay here some of them gave the house a thorough overhauling, securing plenty of tobacco and other stores, besides eleven pounds in cash. (See Govemernt 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 and kindly manners, and he suffered none of his men to enter her dwelling, and only asked that each 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 people 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, not far off, and informed him of some of the morning’s transactions. That officer instantly got his constables together, and as many of the soldiers of the detachment then stationed there as chanced to be sober, and moved them towards Mrs. Ransome’s. But the advancing force, instead of keeping among 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 at no time a 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 off through the bush. The soldiers fired after 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, viz., the stripling Williams (whose shocking death l lately described in The Mercury), 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, and sent under escort to the guard-house. 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 any good might come of it; and though his party were all on foot, he kept on their track towards Bothwell, which is thirteen or fourteen miles from the Cross Marsh. But as Bothwell was then a military station, the bushrangers went not near it, but turned into the bush near the Don Hill, to avoid placing themselves betweem two fires.

The day was one of adventures. After a march of several miles, which was rendered the more worrisome 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 passes over one of the interior slopes of the Don Hill, an eminence of great abruptness and considerable elevation, but pretty smooth and low where the road is directed. Whilst resting for a few minutes at the highest point of the road, some one of the party espied a thin blue smoke ascending from a part of the hollow beneath them, where they knew there were no residents; a circumstance which assured them that there were strangers there, and probably the very fellows whom they were after. With fresh hopes they plunged into the basin of the Clyde, a small sluggish stream that issues from some beautiful lakes in the mountainous regions of central Tasmania. Taking a compass bearing of the smoke, Whitfield and his men hurried towards it, and in less than an hour came upon the retreat of the enemy, whom they found lying about on 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 as chose to listen to him, the others, all except a sentinel, being asleep close by. Their horses stood saddled ready for an instant move if necessary. On discovering the approach of the advancing party, the sentry on watch roused up the rest, and then discharged his piece amongst the approaching body, which was now too close on them for escape without a fight for it. Whitfield’s men made a dash to cut off the horses of the bushrangers, but were repelled by a volley from the others, who had already treed themselves (that is, got under cover), which sent two of the foremost of them to the ground, very severely wounded, but not fatally. Whitfield and his men quickly followed the example of Brady’s gang, who were accustomed to bush fighting and bush devices, and they too placed themselves behind trees, firing like their adversaries when ever they thought they saw a chance. The fight lasted for about three quarters of an hour, but so well was each man protected that little more mischief was done, when the firing ceased, through the ammunition of nearly all the assailants failing them.

It was now growing dark, and under the 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 getting possession of the most of them made off. A few ill-directed shots from such of the soldiers whose cartridges were not quite expended were 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 horses stolen from Mr. Flexmore in the morning was retaken and restored, as also ten of the forty-five pounds of his money, which the robbers managed to drop in their flight. The Official Gazette announces with a flourish that ten of the horses were taken, but Mr. Flexmore, assured me they were not.

Such was the manner, and such the scenes, amidst which our early settlers passed the Christmas, and, indeed, all other seasons, either exposed to the murderous assaults of the native tribes, or the somewhat more merciful attacks of hordes of bushrangers, whom the shocking severities of the Government and its agents drove into the wilderness to prey on the property, and sometimes on the lives, of those who first made the country what it has become, namely, the fitting abiding place of civilised men; for beyond doubt it was not so much the innate depravity of the prisoner classes that made them take arms against the free, as the excessive severities allowed by our old disciplinary modes of punishment, inflicted often in the most heartless manner for the most trumpery offences, of which so many of us are still the living witnesses.

24th December, 1872.

Leave a Reply