Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Story of John Best - Part 8



In late 1829, Thomas Wells was finally released from the Debtors Gaol. However, all his assets, including the Allanvale estate in August, had been sold off to others. Wells relocated to Launceston, where he was offered work as an accountant. So ended the connection between Thomas Wells, John Best, George White and Bryan Bennett. It must be said that Thomas Wells’ selection of these Minerva men (and John Bell) as his assigned servants had been providential, as each man was afforded the opportunity to work, free of chains or gaol house, immediately upon their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. Assignment to Wells allowed each man to improve his lot (e.g. via the ‘thirds rule’ of flock increase). I believe Wells was very supportive of the request by Best, White and Bennett for their families to be brought here from Ireland. Many ‘masters’ ill-treated their assigned servants and often received trouble in return. Not Thomas Wells. He was very fair to his servants. John Best, George White and Bryan Bennett were each able to establish themselves with a place for their respective families to live, long term, thanks to Thomas Wells.

However, in the summer of 1829-30, approaching the peak of the Black War, John and Mary Best were confronted by an event as significant to their family as John’s transportation was back in 1817. To give a flavour of Best family life at that time, the following events were recorded in newspaper of the time and happened in the weeks prior to the confronting event:

  • on 27 December 1829, about 50 natives appeared, passing the 20-acre paddock near Allanvale in the Macquarie District, proceeding northwards. "They were closely pursued by soldiers, who, however, could not come up with them before they found cover at the head of the valley, in a more heavily timbered spot, continuing to a scrub, which, by affording that concealment and protection the Natives delight in, temporarily baffled the pursuers."
  • on 1 January 1830, William Smith while in the employ of Mr Triffitt (jr.) was killed by natives near the River Ouse,
  • on about 2 January 1830, John Best’s eldest son, Michael, sheared some sheep for Mr Richard Garner, a free settler who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land per 'Woodlark' on 8 July 1823 and had settled at Cockatoo Valley sometime shortly before 1828. Garner’s property was near Michael Best’s 100 acre block and also, of course, near the Best family at Hollow Tree, and
  • during the month of January 1830, Richard Garner slept over at the Best family’s hut on several occasions, as ‘natives were in the neighbourhood’. Mr Garner was on very friendly terms with the Best family.

On Wednesday, 20 January 1830, Michael Best left Hollow Tree to drive some sheep to Hobart Town market. Michael met Bryan Bennett on the way to Hobart and they travelled together. After completing their respective tasks in Hobart, they left together on the Friday night (22 January 1830) and headed to Bryan Bennett's house (Stonefield) on the Hamilton road, just west of New Norfolk. The trio arrived at New Norfolk at 11.00am. It was a very hot summer day and Bennett suffered in the heat, so they stopped for lunch and a drink. They left after lunch, then stopped at Mr Bastian’s Blue Anchor Inn on the Hamilton road (in present day Lawitta), where Michael had more alcohol. George White and John Hagan joined Michael and Bryan Bennett, possibly at the Blue Anchor Inn. The four men reached Bryan Bennett’s house between 3.00 pm and 4.00 pm on the Saturday. That evening, Michael drank some rum at Bennett's house. Michael went out with George White and John Hagen that evening. The men returned to Bennett's house later that night and went to bed about 10.00pm. It seems likely the trio went drinking and possibly conducted a deal to acquire some bottles and/or a keg of alcohol. On Sunday morning, Michael went from Bennett’s house to New Norfolk with John Hagen, where they drank a gill of brandy at the Blue Anchor Inn. They returned to Bennett’s house at about 10.00 or 11.00am. Michael was quite intoxicated and created a ruckus in the Bennett household, by talking loudly to himself and making a complete fool of himself. George White was asked to remove Michael from the house, which he did. Michael returned later, much subdued, ate dinner with a glass of rum, then departed at 8.00 or 9.00 pm that Sunday evening.

On Monday the 25th of January 1830, Michael made his way in a cart to George White’s hut at Shamrock Valley farm, arriving about dawn. He unloaded some things from the cart, possibly a keg of liquor, and asked George White’s assigned servant, James Weldon, to bring him some bottles. Possibly Michael decanted the keg of liquor into those bottles. A short time later, Weldon saw Michael running as fast as he could, with a handkerchief tied around his head, until Michael disappeared amongst the trees. 

Michael made his way, on foot, for 3 ½ kilometres in a north-eastward direction, until he reached the house of Richard Garner. Garner was alone in a hut located about 50 metres away from his house. At about 9.40 am, Michael entered the hut and, in a drunken rage, picked up a butcher’s knife lying on a table and used it to murder Richard Garner. This was a crime of real anger, as Michael stabbed Garner 3 times in the neck and 4 times just below the collar bone after an intense struggle. Garner's left hand also had defensive cuts on it. Michael subsequently violently punched Garner's assigned convict, Samuel Lee, on the chin when Lee arrived with some bullocks. Lee went and fetched Garner’s other assigned servant, William Smith, who was working elsewhere on the property. Both men returned and upon entering the hut, discovered their master, murdered. Lee and Smith went and fetched two sawyers (Langridge and Dilley) from nearby and attempted to capture Michael. Smith had a gun with him (probably protection in case of native attack) and threatened to use it, which ultimately proved enough to help subdue Michael. Constable Roadknight was then fetched from Hamilton by Mr Dilley and brought to the scene. Roadknight transported Michael by cart along Thousand Acre Lane to the Hamilton Watch House. During that ride, Roadhouse interrogated Michael. After a time, Michael first tried to pass blame onto Samuel Lee, but then seemed to resign himself to his guilt, perhaps as the effects of alcohol began to wear off.

Someone would have gone to the Best family home at Hollow Tree to relay the dreadful news. John and Mary Best must have found the news shocking, almost too incredible to believe. Richard Garner was a good friend of John and Mary Best. One, or both, would have travelled by bullock-drawn cart to the Hamilton Watch House as soon as possible. John probably had an opportunity to talk to Michael on the Tuesday (26th of January). John must have felt so helpless – trying to understand why his son had done what he did, Michael’s guilt becoming all too apparent to John. Michael probably claimed he had no idea what happened, that he must have somehow lost his mind. As any loving parent would, John left the Watch House and began to make arrangements to sell Michael’s sheep. The proceeds would help to cover the cost of mounting a legal defence. The sheep were sent away to a sale yard.

Michael was taken back to the murder scene on the following Wednesday (27th January), where a Coronial Inquest was conducted. Richard Garner still lay where he had been felled. The summer heat had contributed to rapid onset of decomposition. Dr Robert Officer was in attendance. After Dr Officer and the constables had finished their examination of the scene and questioned Michael about various aspects, the Coronial Inquest outcome was determined – Michael was to be committed to trial for the wilful murder of Richard Garner and transferred to Hobart Gaol. Richard Garner, aged 30, had no relatives in Van Diemen’s Land. His body was probably wrapped in cloth and removed by cart, probably to Hamilton, and burial occurred on Thursday 28th January. Immediately after the Inquest, William Roadknight, on behalf of the Crown, seized Michael’s property – his 100 acres of land at Cockatoo Valley and the 160 sheep that had been sent to the sale yard. John Best must have been dismayed to learn that Michael’s sheep had been seized, as there then seemed little hope of paying the costs of Michael’s defence. Joseph Tice Gellibrand was appointed to Michael’s defence and applied to the Chief Justice to compel the giving up of the sheep to cover various defence costs, such as calling in various witnesses. In support of this application, Gellibrand drafted an affidavit for John Best to sign that pleaded for the release of Michael’s sheep to defray court costs and mounted an argument that Michael was insane and unable to give the necessary directions for his defence. The Attorney-General, after consulting with the Solicitor-General, agreed to the application, on condition that Michael should go to trial immediately. Mr. Gellibrand agreed and thus Michael’s sheep funded his defence in Court.

In Hobart Gaol, Michael was constantly attended by Catholic Reverend Philip Conolly. Michael was held in one of the solitary cells which opened onto the gaol yard.

The trial was held on Monday 8th February 1830 in the Supreme Court of Van Diemen’s Land in Hobart. The trial took 15 hours, with numerous witnesses called, including Bryan and Mary Bennett. At 12.30 am on Tuesday morning, 9th February, Michael was found guilty and sentenced to death.

On Thursday 11 February 1830, the Hobart Gaol was readied for the execution. Michael ‘scarcely spoke a word when brought out into the Dress room where his arms were pinioned, keeping his eye as directed by the clergymen on the usual passages of the Catholic homily adapted to his case. He appeared sunk in apathy, and walked up the fatal ladder with a seeming insensibility of the awful step he was about to take into eternity.’ John Best's eldest son, Michael, was hanged on Thursday 11 February 1830 in Hobart Gaol.

Michael's execution - would have been much like this

The motive behind Michael’s terrible act of violence is unclear. After his apprehension, suspicion centred on Richard Garner having accidentally become aware of Michael being involved in some suspicious sheep transactions and subsequently threatening to expose Michael to the authorities. Michael had been drinking alcohol frequently over the week before the murder (probably longer). He may have been living in fear of how to deal with the problem of having to face a very serious criminal charge. Michael had undoubtedly been drinking heavily on the morning of the murder, given his strange behaviour at Richard Garner’s hut. He clearly searched Mr Garner’s house looking for something – perhaps he expected to find a letter or a receipt that would expose his supposed suspicious sheep transactions in Garner’s safe box, a damning document Garner was perhaps ready to hand to the authorities. By breaking into the safe box, yet not stealing anything, strongly suggests that Michael was guilty of some previous wrongdoing.

Go forward to read The Story of John Best - Remaining Parts  (opens in a separate tab)

Go back to read The Story of John Best - Part 7 (opens in a separate tab)

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Story of John Best - Part 7



During the 1820s, the Best family lived an antipodean version of their Irish agricultural life. Agricultural activities dominated their lives. By 1823, their livelihood revolved around sheep flocks and the sale of Thomas Wells’ meat and grain that they and others had produced for him. Sales occurred mainly at the Hobart Town Market. Under the ‘thirds’ rule, John had been able to develop his own flock of sheep. He may have found the time to grow his own wheat and barley at Hollow Tree and he had a garden of vegetables and fruit trees for family consumption. But to survive, John would almost certainly have had to obtain a lot of occasional work. 

The Hollow Tree district was gradually growing, as new settlers received land grants and brought with them their families and received assigned convicts as domestic servants or labourers. The resident Irish ticket of leave convicts maintained a social and commercial network, many developing bonds that remained strong well after their conditional pardons were issued. That network did not exclude English convicts. In fact, it seemed to be a network that evolved along certain commonalities such as a convict past, perhaps a shared transport ship but especially the poverty that afflicted those in and coming out of the convict system. That poverty provide the driver for mutual support. Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish convicts socialised freely, bartered goods and services, loaned goods on trust and so developed common bonds that were perhaps less likely in their homelands.

Sheep stealing was rampant in Van Diemen’s Land during the 1820s. Thomas Wells had his share of troubles in the early part of the decade. In February 1822, Robert Oldham stole 150 of Well’s sheep. Shepherds John Bell (
Minerva) and Bryan Carroll (Admiral Cockburn) came under scrutiny. It seems Bell was never under any suspicion. Carroll, on the other hand, was found guilty of gross neglect of duty by absconding, which created the opportunity for Oldham to steal the sheep. Carroll later received 50 lashes. Oldham was caught, tried, sentenced to death and subsequently hanged on the 14th of April 1823. Then on the night of 22 April 1823, Mr Wells had 200 sheep stolen (largely breeding ewes and 9 merinos specially imported). Thomas Keane and Thomas Butler were later charged and tried in July 1824. Keane was found guilty and a gang of sheep stealers exposed as a result of the investigations. Wells recovered some of his sheep but incurred search costs of about 500 pounds. Keane appears to have been hanged, the usual fate of sheep stealers at that time. As a shepherd, John Best had to be alert to ensure sheep under his oversight were at all times accounted for. 

But all through the 1820s, the Best family would have lived with the fear of attack by natives. The newspapers of the time reported incidents, clashes, attacks, many fatal, on the slowly increasing numbers of British people settling the New Country. The newspapers also reveal why the attacks by the natives became more frequent and violent. It became increasingly common during the 1820s for groups of natives to steal food and other provisions from the huts of settlers. These incidents were sometimes defused by diplomacy, but as the decade wore on, the Field Police and/or the Military Police would pursue the natives to drive them away from the locality. The natives, on being pushed into another district, found themselves again in need of food. Few of their traditional grounds remained available to freely find natural food sources. So they raided the settler’s huts, often stealing food, sometimes burning the huts. Settlers were sometimes killed. The Police would chase after them and kill any they could, but definitely drive them off. The survivors would start the same process again – need food – find settler’s huts – take food – kill settler if settler stands in the way – run from pursuers – start process over again in another valley. Displacement from their land and denial of access to traditional hunting and foraging grounds understandably fomented a deep hatred of the white people among the natives. And so the Black War played out. It was in this environment that the Best children grew up. 

As was common, the children became workers at an early age; the boys probably helped their father with agricultural pursuits and Ellen probably helped her mother with domestic and community activities.


In September 1827, Patrick Montgomery (Minerva) died at age 52, only five years after his wife (Ann) and his children had arrived from Ireland as part of the group that included Mary Best, Bridget White, Mary Bennett and their respective children.

During the late 1820s, Ellen Best met John Doran, 5 years her senior and also of Irish descent. Doran had a property he called ‘Sweetwater’, 5 miles on the Hobart side of New Norfolk. Towards the end of the 1820’s they probably became betrothed. Also, Michael,  John and Mary’s eldest son, became betrothed to one of Bryan and Mary Bennett's daughters, although it's unclear which daughter.  Possibly Bridget, as she was the eldest and only four years younger than Michael, but it could also have been Ann (six years younger than Michael).

During the 1820s, the Best’s received new neighbours. Firstly, Joseph Bradbury, his mother Sarah and his sister, also Sarah, separately acquired several blocks bordering John’s 55 acres. The Bradbury family had arrived in Hobart on 8 November 1822 per brig Minerva. It’s unclear when they settled at Hollow Tree, although an 1824 map engraving by Charles Thomson, based on a survey by Thomas Scott, Assistant Surveyor General, showed the name Bradbury at the location of Joseph’s 2,000 acre block at Hollow Tree. The Byrne family were also living adjacent to the Best property on a 60 acre block originally granted to James Holland. It’s unclear when the Byrne’s took up residence. James Byrne appears to have received his 60 acres as a grant (originally James Holland’s grant) and he purchased an additional 50 acres to enlarge his holding following a Crown Land sale held in July 1828. In 1829, Henry Boden Torlesse acquired a large block (2,560 acres) between the Best’s block and the McCarthy’s block, calling his land 'Rathmore', however he and his wife lived at nearby 'Montacute', managing that property for William Langdon until his arrival from England (in 1834). Torlesse probably placed an overseer to manage his stock on Rathmore property and only a stock keeper’s hut would have been built on it until Torlesse and family took up residence several years later.

By 1827, Michael Best, aged about 20 – had his own block of land, although he continued to live with his family at Hollow Tree. He must have had enough sheep by 1827 to buy the 100 acre block in Cockatoo Valley. The land, however, was incredibly stony with a skeletal soil not suitable to much more than light grazing by sheep. Michael built a hut at Cockatoo Valley Creek.



Go forward to read The Story of John Best - Part 8 (opens in a separate tab)

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