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Decisions of the Nineteenth Century Tasmanian Superior Courts

R. v. Brown and others [1827]

capital punishment, public - convict escape

Supreme Court of Van Diemen's Land
Pedder C.J., 13 August 1827
Source: Hobart Town Gazette, 18 August 1827 [1]

The prisoners who had been convicted were then conducted into Court to receive the sentence of the law. John Brown (mariner), James Coates, William Birmingham, Thomas Davies, George Metcalfe, John Lee, James Horsefield, Thomas Griffiths, George Braithwaite, Matthew McCullum, John Robinson, and John Brown, (bricklayer) were first placed at the bar, and each being severally asked in the usual way by the Clerk of the Court if he had any thing to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon him, and having nothing to offer, the Chief Justice remarked, that the evidence against them left no doubt of their guilt. With respect to Braithwaite, he had deliberately joined the others after all hope of escape from the colony was lost, so that he had not even the excuse to offer which the others had of having in the first instance merely made an attempt to obtain their liberty, though that of itself was a crime. If they had succeeded in their intention of carrying off the vessel from the harbour, they might have subjected some worthy and industrious families to poverty and distress, and it was likely that such an outrageous act would have been attended with bloodshed. The message which they had thought proper to send to the Lieutenant Governor, when at Pittwater, could only be considered as an aggravation of their crime, for they could not have supposed that it would for a moment be listened to. Had they wished for a favourable consideration to such a message, it should have been accompanied by their at once throwing down their arms and surrendering. Had they adopted that course, his Honour said, he should then have thought that most of them might have escaped with comparatively little punishment. For persons in their situation to offer to treat with the Crown, could only be looked on as an insult. But very little hopes of mercy could therefore be held out to any of them. His Honour would, however, be happy to point out to His Excellency any particular circumstance or fact which would be likely to operate in their favour. The awful sentence of death was then passed upon them, when they all fell down on their knees and prayed for mercy. John Brown (mariner) who had behaved with great levity during the trial was the most affected.

Source: Hobart Town Gazette, 25 August 1827


On Thursday morning, exactly at 8 o'clock, the dread summons was given at the door of the cell in which the nine unhappy men doomed to die were confined, that the Sheriff had arrived. They were all engaged in earnest prayer, and as they came out one by one to be pinioned, they evinced by their pale and stricken countenances, the quivering of their joints and their tears and sobbings, the dreadful agony of mind they endured, and how deeply they lamented the awful situation into which their crimes had brought them. Horsefield, aged 21, was the first brought out. He had been a butcher's boy in England, & confessed some evenings before his death, that he had been justly charged there with no less than thirteen capital offences, and that he had broke out of eight gaols. In one of them, namely, at Gosport, he had struck the keeper's son, named Otdridge, unawares on the head with a poker, of which he soon after died, and on another occasion, he had so wounded the turnkey in making his escape, that he had every reason to believe the blow must have been mortal. He was followed by Metcalf, aged 24, Coates28, Brown, the Mariner, 27. The short man Lee, 34, who next came forth, had recovered of the severe wound in his hand, occasioned by the bursting of his gun at his capture. While the soldier was pursuing him, hoping to apprehend him without shedding his blood by firing at him, Lee finding himself overtaken, suddenly turned round, and, presenting his gun, almost touching the breast of his pursuer, he pulled the trigger, with five balls in the barrel, which fortunately burst, and was spread out like a piece of flat iron. Braithwaite, 25 years, servant to Mr. Steele at the Carlton, was a native of Rippon in Yorkshire, where he has left a wife and two children. When the others came to rob his master's house he ardently joined them, dressed himself in his master's clothes, and set himself down in his chair as lord of the house. Next came Brown the bricklayer, 25 years of age, and Davis 26. This last, whose real name was Roberts, had been a private in the 40th regiment in Ireland, and having been sent an errand with ten pounds, he absconded with the money & his crimes eventually brought him to this country and the gallows. McCullum was the last, aged 29.
They all united in requesting that the Reverend Mr. Bedford would address the spectators for them - that he would point out to them the dreadful remorse of heart and misery they endured while they were in the bush - that their fellow prisoners would take warning by the dreadful situation they had brought themselves into, and not like them, run headlong into wretchedness and an ignominious end. This advice was delivered in a very distinct and impressive manner, and we trust, for the sake of every one of the 7 or 8 hundred who were present, that it will have its full effect. Every thing being arranged, the officers descended from the scaffold, and as the Clergyman repeated the words - "in the midst of life we are in death," the platform fell, and the thread of life of these nine misguided and unhappy men was snapped in two for ever. Oh! May every prisoner in Van Diemen's land take warning by their fate, and may this be the last time we shall have to undergo the painful task of recording so awful, so appalling a ceremony.


[1] See also Colonial Times, 17 August 1827, noting that these prisoners "were the run-aways, who, after attempting to seize the Emma Kemp, and failing, took to the bush, and committed several robberies while armed, in which state they were apprehended by the Military."

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University and the School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania