James was one of the younger members of the gang, with convict records indicating he was born around 1804. His birthplace was recorded as Hoath, a village not far from Herne Bay, from where the North Kent smuggling gang operated until 1822. One of the gang’s contemporaries, was to recall in his later years that James Smeed had introduced firearms to the Aldington Gang — a development which, he claimed, had eroded local support for the gang and eventually contributed to its demise. If the accusation is correct it may be that James had been a member of the North Kent Gang and that when that gang was broken up he had travelled to the marshes, bringing with him some of the methods he had learnt and practiced in places along the coast from the River Medway to Ramsgate.
When giving evidence against the Aldington Gang, Edward Horn claimed that James and William Smeed were members of the gang’s armed party. According to another ‘it was only the strong chaps carried fire-arms, and pretty big, strong chaps they were.’
At the time he was arrested, in November 1826, James Smeed was living at Aldington. He was described as a farmer, ploughman and groom and was working at John Brissenden’s Bank House Farm. He was 23 years old and unmarried. Many years later, a fellow worker recalled the night on which Smeed was arrested. Ransley, Gilham and others had been arrested about a fortnight earlier. ‘The next lot were taken in their beds on a rough, dark night: indeed, it was about the roughest night I remember. That was when they took Smeed and [James] Wilson. I remember it well, for we had two loads of corn, all ready to go to Dover: we were to start that night, but it rained so heavily we had to stay …’
Along with other members of the gang, James Smeed was tried and convicted at the Maidstone Assizes in January 1827. Sentenced to Death, their sentences were subsequently remitted to transportation for Life. James was taken to the York hulk, with the Baileys, Dennard, Gilham, Higgins and Pierce. Together with other members of the gang who had been taken to the Captivity, James Smeed was aboard the Governor Ready when it set sail for Van Diemen’s Land on 5 April 1827.
Life in Van Diemen’s Land
Smeed’s convict record states that he was 5 feet 7 inches tall with brown hair and grey eyes, with high cheek bones and a scar on the forefinger of his left hand. He was ‘very orderly’ on the hulk and ‘good’ during the journey to Van Diemen’s Land.
I have yet to discover where James spent his first couple of years in Van Diemen’s Land. In October 1829, the Colonial Office reported that James was in the Field Police, replacing Thomas Smith who had been allowed to resign when he was granted a Ticket of Leave. The Field Police were formed in 1826 ‘… to be constantly employed in the pursuit of runaway convicts …’. In despatches in 1827, Governor Arthur wrote that he was ‘… driven during the heat of bush-ranging to strengthen the establishment by the appointment of a field police, formed from the very best conducted prisoners, and stimulated to exertion by the hope of a mitigation of their sentence, which is promised after uniform good conduct of three years.’ No sooner had the bushranging threat been curtailed than the field police were called on to deal with the alleged ‘threats to life and property’ by Aboriginal attacks on settlers.
Smeed’s career with the police was not unblemished. In July 1830 he was fined 20/- for drunkenness and a year later, in July 1831, he was dismissed from the office of constable for ‘gross disobedience of orders’ having conveyed George Woodward (formerly an Assistant Surveyor with the Government and at the time charged with forgery) from Launceston to Hobart by way of the Clyde and New Norfolk instead of by the more direct road.
Apprehension of bushrangers Jeffkins and Brown
I have discovered little more about Smeed until 1835 when he was again working as a constable and rewarded with a free pardon and a total of £63 6s 8d (comprising reward money and bonus payment) for his role in apprehending the notorious bushrangers Jeffkins and Brown. The story was widely reported in Colonial newspapers. The Hobart Town Courier of 6 February 1835 reported that four constables, Smith, Buckley, Burbridge and Sneed (sic) had been out in pursuit of a man named Britton when they came across the notorious bushrangers Jeffkins and Brown. The encounter was quite accidental as the constables had exhausted their provisions and were returning from Port Sorell to the Tamar for supplies. The Courier reports:
… they accidentally met two miserable looking creatures, half emaciated, in most wretched attire. They had worn-out moccasins on their feet, and the one had an old blanket wrapped around him, with holes for his arms, while the other was clothed with an old grey jacket, put on as trousers, the sleeves serving to cover the thighs. They were however well armed, and immediately bid the constables defiance. They proved to be Brown and Jeffkins: Smith stepped forward calling on them to surrender, when he received a shot in the breast from Brown which killed him on the spot. Jeffkins also fired and wounded Buckley severely in the arm, who notwithstanding returned the fire and mortally wounded his antagonist, while Sneed leveled at Jeffkins and shot him dead. Brown was then secured, and is now lodged in Launceston hospital.
A week later, the Courier’s report from a member of the coronial jury provided further detail:
… Jeffkins, after Brown fell, got behind a tree and fired at the constables, one of whom named Smeed took a circuit round and fired at Jeffkins, shooting him right through the head.
Working with Stephen Henty
James Smeed resigned from the police force in November 1836 and soon afterwards seems to have left Van Diemen’s Land for Victoria. There is a record of Smeed travelling aboard the Mona from George Town to the recently surveyed Portland Bay on 25 April 1840. However, other information indicates that Smeed was probably working with Stephen Henty (of the well-known Victorian pioneering family) from 1836.
An obituary for Stephen Henty, published in 1872, indicates that when Henty was about 25 years old (ie, around 1836) he ‘… began his explorations. Acting upon Sir Thomas Mitchell’s information, he started due north with a man named Smead, and came upon the famous Wannon country at the site of the present Merino Downs. On his return he went to Tasmania for supplies, which he duly brought over. … In 1837 the first flocks of merino sheep were driven from Portland to the three runs taken up by the family, viz to Merino Downs, to Muntham, and to Sandford.‘ James Smeed may well have assisted with the droving. The obituary goes on to say that ‘… Mr S G Henty, with his brothers Edward and John, next explored the country down towards Mount Gambier, and he was the first white man known to have stood on the edge of the Blue Lake. They then pushed on for the coast and made Port MacDonnell, from which point they scoured the coast round to Gulchen Bay. Returned to Portland, the subject … subsequently started again …’ (The Argus, 19 December 1872).
Another account, published in The Advertiser (South Australia) in 1911, says:
The first occupation of Moorak or Mount Gambier station, as it was first called, is ascribed to Mr Edward Henty of Muntham (Victoria). One of his stockmen, Jas. Smeed, an ex-convict from Victoria, is alleged to have seen the dim bluish outline of Mount Gambier from one of the hills near Casterton on a fine summer’s day. His employer, after investigation through Smeed and Frost took up the land under license from the New South Wales Government about 1836 or 1837 and brought over a mob of cattle. He either abandoned or forfeited the lease when the boundary line between New South Wales and South Australia was defined in 1839…
And another in the Queanbeyan Age in 1911:
The early history of Moorak brings into prominence those sturdy pioneers, the brothers Henty, of Merino Downs and Muntham. The discovery of Moorak was tinged with the romantic. The first white man to reach Mount Gambier was an ex-convict from Tasmania, named James Smeed, who was stock-keeper for Mr Edward Henty, of Muntham. Standing one clear day on one of the hills near Casterton, Smeed saw through the trees the dim bluish outline of Mount Gambier. He reported his discovery to his employer, who, holding that where there were high hills there must be good land, sent Smeed with a companion named Frost to investigate the matter. “Good land, well worth occupying” was Smeed’s pithy verdict. The outcome of the discovery was that Mr John Henty was the first person to acquire rights over the land. Assuming that the land belonged to New South Wales, he obtained a permit from the Government of that colony to occupy what was afterwards known as Moorak Estate. Mr John Henty drove over to the newly-acquired territory a mob of young cattle.
Various documents and secondary sources relating to the Hentys refer to James Smeed, although I haven’t seen any firm documentary evidence that their James Smeed is the Aldington Gang smuggler. On the other hand, the material does suggest that a bit more digging could be fruitful. A number of reports, for example, suggest that ‘… when Stephen was absent on his journeys to the Plains his wife, expecting her baby, could not help thinking of her husband’s danger among those dark and mysterious people, so sudden in their coming and vanishing and so skilled with their arms. In her anxiety she used to remember gratefully the man who was Stephen’s usual companion, James Smead, a trusted fellow, she said, who looked after his master well.’
Beyond this information I have not been able to discover much of James Smeed’s life. There are a few more clues, but inconclusive. A James Smeed appears on the 1856 electoral roll at Buninyong, south of Ballarat, described as a bullock driver. In 1882, a James Smead died at Penola, in South Australia, where the Hentys had property.
I would love to receive any extra information that any reader may have. Please contact me by email.
[Updated 10 June 2012]
Tasmanian Archives: James’ convict conduct record
James Smeed on my Ancestry tree
James Smeed on Founders and Survivors