Sir Francis Smith(1809-1909) was Tasmania’s Chief Justice  and also its fifth Premier. He lived in a grand home in prestigious  Holebrook Place,  which formed part of  Hobart’s Davey Street.


Map showing Davey Street, Home of Sir Francis Smith.

The area of Hobart where the events of this story took place.

On May 24, 1870  Sir Francis and his wife Sarah hosted a party to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday.

Sir Francis Smith



A little girl employed by Sir Francis,  Margaret Oswald,  told her mother that a basket of silver plate had been left unattended  in the pantry. The mother, Catherine Kennedy, lived nearby in Macquarie Street, She tipped off an acquaintance; a hardened  criminal called Richard McCabe.  McCabe was an ex-convict with a long record. He had spent several stints at infamous Port Arthur  for horse stealing among other offences.

As the royal birthday festivities continued upstairs,  MacCabe sneaked into the pantry at Holebrook and stole the basket.

Here is what was in it;   11 silver tablespoons, valued at £1 each; 9 dessert spoons, 6 egg spoons, 4 salt spoons, 2 sauce ladles, 1 soup ladle, 1 fish slice and fork, 1 salad fork and spoon, 11 large forks, 11 small forks, 5 dessert knives and 6 dessert forks. Quite a haul!

MacCabe  took the silver to Mr and Mrs O’Brierne (there were various spellings), rather shady  publicans at the Red Lion Inn, Liverpool Street. The couple were to sell  the plate on his behalf, and to  receive a substantial cut.  Each piece of  silver was engraved with Sir Francis’ initials and crest; a man holding a dagger.  Naturally these identifying marks  presented a big problem when it came to disposal. However, one of the young  O’Brierne boys managed to file them off. They were so deep that an ounce of the filings was collected and sold separately.

Richard MacCabe was  quickly arrested over the theft. And where did the police find him? At the Red Lion Inn! While awaiting trial  he  had  a letter sent to Patrick O’Brierne from gaol  asking the publican  to help pay for his defence. When this was ignored he pleaded guilty and  informed against Kennedy,  Margaret Oswald and the O’Briernes, who were all  charged with ‘receiving’.

Patrick O’Brierne blithely denied knowing MacCabe, describing him as a vile vagabond he would never  associate with. 😎   Since MacCabe’s bad character was so well known, his evidence carried little weight and  O’Brierne and  the others  were acquitted.  Meanwhile, Richard MacCabe was sentenced to ten years in prison to be served at Port Arthur.  There was definitely no honour among thieves in this case.

Police patiently waited for the stolen silver to reappear, while the O’Briernes waited for the heat to die down.

I should add something here about poor little Margaret Oswald, who gave the head’s up about the silver plate being in the pantry. Her father, John Oswald, died in 1862 and a few months afterwards Margaret was placed in The Queen’s Orphanage at Newtown. She was five years old.  Where her mother  Catherine was at this point and how long Margaret was at the orphanage  is unknown. Catherine  later formed a relationship with Patrick Kennedy and Margaret went to live with her in Macquarie Street. It  was a very unhealthy environment, with criminals coming and going. We can only hope life eventually improved for the poor child, although it seems unlikely.

Years went by, but  the stolen silver was not recovered.  The Red Lion Inn became a butchers shop run by a Mr Forster.  What was once the Inn’s skittle alley became Forster’s stables.

In early January 1881, one of Forster’s employees was working in the stables and  saw the glint of what he first thought was a coin. When he investigated he discovered it was a  silver fish knife. He dug around and uncovered a fork and a small spoon.  The fish knife had  somehow worked its way  to the surface over the years.   Publican O’Brierne had  buried the  cache  about eighteen inches deep in the dirt floor,  then covered it with ashes. Except for a couple of items,  the rest of the stolen silver was also found. Because a fragment of Sir Francis’ crest had escaped the file the hidden silver plate was soon identified as the Chief Justice’s  property.

No-one was ever charged over the matter, This was because  Maria O’Brierne died of tuberculosis  in 1874  while a prisoner  in the  former Cascades Female Factory (then still operating as a gaol). She had been incarcerated over another robbery. Her husband Patrick had  died  twelve months earlier. The couple had a family of nine, which may have driven the widowed  Maria to commit  further crime.

Cascades Correctional Institution

Richard MacCabe completed his ten year prison sentence. By the  time the silver plate  was recovered he was employed as a labourer on remote Bird Island, collecting guano (bird excrement) to be used as fertilizer. It doesn’t sound that much better than gaol!

Sir Francis finally got his silver back, though somewhat tarnished and minus his initials and crest. I doubt it graced his table again.  This is a story of  theft,  but  also a sobering insight into  a society  where power and  privilege contrasted so sharply with poverty. Like Richard MacCabe, Catherine Kennedy was also an ex-convict, as was her daughter Margaret’s father, John Oswald. Transportation cast a long shadow.

Sir Francis retired to England in 1883 and died in 1909. He left property valued at over a thousand pounds in Tasmania (I wonder if this included  Holebrook House?). His English estate amounted to  a massive one hundred and sixteen thousand pounds.




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