Research on the epitaph on a tombstone in Sydney’s old Devonshire Street Cemetery led to the shocking story of the deaths of Samuel Bradley, 59, and his wife Esther, 65, who were brutally murdered at their home in Birch Grove on 15 August 1822.
The crime was discovered over two weeks later, when the Bradleys’ modest home was found ‘deserted and ransacked’. An acquaintance of the pair, Alexander Berry, had been on his way to visit his friend Edward Wollstonecraft when he dropped in, unannounced, at the Bradley’s place. Berry later described how ‘the premises wore the unwelcome aspect of desertion, the house being thrown open, with every appearance of having lately been plundered’.
Berry and his party found a bone ‘in a putrefied state’ which they thought was the limb of an animal: it would later be proven to be one of the arms of Samuel Bradley. Berry’s group continued to Wollstonecraft’s property across the river. Wollstonecraft took action, and ‘immediately dispatched two of his servants to take charge of the dwelling at Birch Grove’ also sending a message to the Chief Constable.
It was a gruesome crime scene. Mr Bradley was found about 500 yards from the house, he’d been mutilated with an axe. There’d been an attempt to destroy the evidence by burning the body which had also been attacked by dogs. It was assumed Mrs Bradley’s body had been destroyed by fire.
The police lost no time in rounding up suspects. Thomas Barry, the only servant of the Bradleys, was soon picked up on suspicion of murder and two of his acquaintances, John Cochrane and Bridget Howell, were apprehended as accessories: all three were found in possession of ‘several articles of property, belonging to the murdered pair’.
Thomas Barry confessed, sort of. He stated the Bradleys were murdered by two other men he knew, William Barry and Dennis Lamb; he had only been a witness. This, despite someone seeing Thomas Barry on 17August, with scratches on his face and several obvious blood stains on his clothing. Barry said he’d fallen ‘on the rocks, and lost £5’.
Barry did give information on the fate of Mrs Bradley however. Her body was ‘in the garden, nearly 5 feet in the ground, in quite an opposite direction to that of Mr Bradley’. About 30 yards from the house Mrs Bradley was found, her skull was beaten in at the right temple, her jawbone was broken, and her face and tongue had been cut, presumably with the same axe used on her husband.
Thomas Barry was indicted for murder, as were the two men Barry implicated in his confession, William Barry and Dennis Lamb (the relationships between the three men are not made clear in the news reports). Also indicted were Cochrane and Howell, as accessories after the fact and for holding stolen property. Central to the trial was a watch and chain. A publican, Michael Burn of Pitt Street, testified that he’d been given the watch and chain in question by Thomas Barry, on 17 August, ‘in security for a liquor debt, which he had contracted without the means of paying’. A couple of days later, Barry returned to collect the items.
Many murders have been motivated by greed and selling the Bradley’s personal effects would’ve raised a tidy sum. Having an unpaid debt, however, added an urgency to these crimes. Joseph Kearns, one of the constables who gave evidence, said he was the one who took Thomas Barry into custody on suspicion of murder and described Barry as ‘very anxious to learn the reason for his apprehension’ and wished, very much, to change his clothes. On being searched, the chain – described by Burn as being offered to him as security for a grog debt – was one of the items in Barry’s possession.
The watch, sworn to by the publican as being held by Thomas Barry, was positively identified as belonging to Mr Bradley. Watchmaker Henry Robenson declared he had, on one occasion, repaired the watch for Mr Bradley while another watchmaker, James Oatley, gave evidence on how he had been asked, by Barry, to clean the watch on 31 August, just days after the Bradleys were murdered.
Several witnesses swore to the good characters of William Barry and Dennis Lamb, as well as to the characters of John Cochrane and Bridget Howell. After what was described as a ‘laborious trial of several hours’: Thomas Barry was pronounced guilty. William Barry and Dennis Lamb were acquitted. Cochrane and Howell were also found not guilty, having come into possession of the Bradley’s property via Thomas Barry.
Thomas Barry was hanged on 14 October 1822. In a last-minute act of remorse, Barry recanted his earlier confession and declared before the hangman and all of the witnesses present: ‘that he was the only and sole murderer, and that he had no accomplices in the unparalleled deed’.
Want more stories from the Devonshire Street Cemeteries? The Library’s fantastic podcast series, the Burial Files (here) is not to be missed.
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator of Scholarship at the State Library of NSW and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel!