Starlight, Moonlight,
Midnight and Meredith

Captains Nefarious

Some of the best known bushrangers who roamed the Australian countryside around the end of the 18thh Century included Mad Dog Morgan, Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall, Dan Morgan, Jack Doolan (The Wild Colonial Boy) and of course Ned Kelly and his gang.

England had the “stand-and-deliver” highwaymen, such as Dick Turpin and “Sixteen String” Jack Nann. America had outlaws – the James boys, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid among the most infamous.

In Australia, where much of the land was rough terrain through which the new arrivals were bashing paths towards to what they hoped would be the promised land, the “bail-up” bushranger became legendary.

The earliest documented use of the term bushranger appeared in a February 1805 issue of The Sydney Gazette, that reported a cart had been stopped between Sydney and Hawkesbury by three men “whose appearance sanctioned the suspicion of their being bush-rangers”.

English judge and royal commissioner John Bigge described bushranging in 1821 as “absconding in the woods and living upon plunder and the robbery of orchards.”

Charles Darwin in 1835 noted that a bushranger was “an open villain who subsists by highway robbery and will sooner be killed than taken alive”.

According to the Sydney Living Museum,  the first bushranger of note was African convict John Caesar, who fled  the fledgling Sydney settlement in 1795 and robbed settlers for food. He had a brief alliance with Aboriginal resistance fighters during Pemulwuy’s War, the resistance to European settlement led by  Pemulwuy, an Aboriginal Australian of Eora descent from the Botany Bay area.

  John Caeser

The more familiar bushranging activities came about as  European settlement grew. It is not surprising that with convicts among the early settlers from the Old Dart some of the “new Australians” turned – or returned – to a life of crime.

Many escaped British and Irish convicts were among the first bushrangers who risked starvation and exposure in the harsh Australian bush to avoid doing hard labour for the crimes they committed at home and for which they had been “transported” to the new land.

Other new settlers were driven to a life of crime by poverty.

Heavily armed, the bushrangers took possessions, valuables and animals and fled to the bush where they would be hard to find.

Historians believe more than 2,000 bushrangers roamed Australia, beginning with the convict runaways (“bolters”) and ending after Ned Kelly’s last stand at Glenrowan and execution in 1880.

Some of the more than 20 infamous bushrangers in Australia’s colonial past were referred to as Captain, but not because of any military connection.

Most met their fate  with a bullet or the hangman’s noose. But they weren’t all English exports; their number included a Chinese and an African-American (then called a negro) and aboriginals. There were female bushrangers, too.

Bushrangers became most active around 1814 as the population of Sydney and its surrounds expanded. By 1852 with the abolition of “transportation” to the eastern states, bushranging by escaped convicts dwindled.

Discovery of gold saw the rise of free-born bushrangers, though many had parents who had been convicts. Their targets became livestock, stage coaches, banks and even hotels.

But why “Captain”?

According to aguidetoaustralianbushranging.com, the answer could lie in the names given to the British highwaymen and American outlaws – Captain Gallagher, Captain Hollyday, Captain Lightfoot and Captain Thunderbolt. The latter is significant as it was also the name chosen by/for an Australian bushranger. Why those from other countries chose Captain in the first place is not clear, but possibly it had something to do with chains of command.

To add to the confusion, some outlaws and bushrangers copied names; there was more than one Captain Thunderbolt and more than one Captain Starlight.

The Captains who plied their trade in Australia as bushrangers included Thunderbolt, Moonlight and Starlight. The name Captain Midnight also surfaced, though the name “Midnight” was  more regularly used for  Thomas Law (without the preceding “Captain”).

Captain Midnight, the Bush King  was a 1911 Australian silent drama film about the fictitious bushranger Captain Midnight, not to be confused with the real bushranger, Midnight (or Midnite) even though sometimes in reporting of his exploits he was referred to as Captain.

Also, there was a Captain Melville, a particularly nasty type who avoided the noose by taking his own life.

Bushranger Frank Pearson claimed that Captain Starlight  in  Thomas Alexander Browne’s classic 1888 Australian colonial novel Robbery Under Arms (published under his nom de plume Rolf Boldrewood) was based on him.

But Browne (Boldrewood) claimed his character was a composite, based in part on  the bushranger Harry Readford but primarily on Thomas Smith, who also was sometimes referred to as Captain Midnight.

Browne, by the way, had been a police magistrate and mining warden at Gulgong.

The theft of about a thousand head of cattle by Readford from Bowen Downs Station, Queensland, in 1870, is the basis of some of the exploits recounted in the book, along with incidents involving bushrangers Daniel Morgan, Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner and John Gilbert.

A Letter to The Editor of the Coolgardie Miner (WA) in November 1900 would seem to confirm the made-up nature of the Robbery Under Arms character:

“Sir – I see in the papers this morning a lot of rot connected and mixed up with Major Pelly and Captain Starlight, one of Rolf Boldrewood’s characters in Robbery Under Arms. Mr Tom Brown (sic), I have known since he owned a station near me in the western district of Victoria from 1849 (Qattlesmere was the name), and in talking over the different characters in his works of whom most were mutual friends, Mr Tom Brown told me in the year 1889 or 1890 that about the only fictitious persons introduced in his writing was Captain Starlight. He never met him. All this stuff is given as light reading. Let those who like enjoy it. Yours etc. Octavius F. W. Palmer. November 23, 1900.

Nevertheless, it was  Readford to whom the Captain Starlight name stuck, although he was also  referred to sometimes as Captain Moonlight.

Boldrewood said of his character: “Starflight was a gentlemanly fellow who used to come to Gulgong with stolen horses and received stolen horses in exchange. These he took to his own part of the country so that in both cases the horses could not readily be identified. He always  came at midnight and was consequently called Captain Moonlight.

Confused? It seems to boil down to this:

The real Captain Moonlight was  Andrew George Scott (January 8, 1845 — January 20, 1880), sometimes known as Captain Moonlite.

What about Captain Midnite? The name came to prominence by way of an early movie, Captain Midnight, the Bush King, a 1911 Australian silent drama about the fictitious bushranger Captain Midnight and based on the play of the same name by W. J. Lincoln and Alfred Dampier. The film appears to have been lost.

However, something is known of a bushranger called “Midnight” and his exploits around Enngonia, which describes itself as a “one pub town near the Queensland border (on the Mitchell Highway in NSW) which is famous for its association with local bushrangers.”

Two notable incidents there in 1868 involved bushrangers. Auissietowns.com reports: “The bushranger and horse thief known as Midnight was shot and killed to the west of the town and the bushranger Frank Pearson, known as Captain Starlight, shot and killed Constable John McCabe in the Shearer’s Inn.”

Here lies Midnight

In 1970, the Western Herald, Bourke, NSW, published an account told to a contributor: “Midnight was long wanted by the Police. A reward of 200 pounds was offered by the Crown for his capture. In 1872 he had broken jail from Parramatta and was next heard of in the Warrego-Coopers Creek country. He and his gang of horse and cattle duffers had their regular haunts and knew this area very well. Some people at various homesteads, friendly towards the bushrangers, would supply them with food, water and fresh horses. This enabled Midnight and his gang to carry on their operations for about six or seven years. They would steal cattle and horses anywhere in western NSW and drive them up over the border into Queensland and sell them.”

Midnight (Thomas Law) was arrested near Brewarrina in 1878 but escaped. Later, near Dubbo, he shot  dead a police Sergeant and fled to Bourke. Two policemen found him there, but again he gave them the slip and rode first to Enngonia then riding all night crossed the Warrego and Irrara and camped near the Cuttaburra River.  The police called in an Aboriginal tracker and they found Midnight at his campsite early in the morning. The troopers reportedly wounded Midnight while he slept and arrested him. He was taken to Wapweelah Station Homestead. The dying Midnight was asked his name and is reported to have replied: “My real name I will never tell – let me die.” And die he did. He was buried close to the homestead.

That was the end of Midnight, and most likely Thomas Law as well as that was the name entered in the jail register at Parramatta when Midnight was incarcerated there. Other names attributed to Midnight included George Gibson and Henry Wilson.


Harry Readford

Tom Browne acknowledged not all factual events which contributed to his novel took place during the period in which his work featuring Captain Starlight was set. Browne acknowledge that his Captain Starlight was a combination of various bushrangers known around the time.

The exploits of Harry Readford (sometimes spelled Redford) were real. It is said Readford didn’t use the name Captain Starlight himself even though it was used by others when referring to him. The bushranger who actually went by the name Captain Starlight was Frank Pearson who adopted it in 1868, 21 years before Browne’s book. More on Pearson later.

Readford was born in Mudgee, NSW but moved to Queensland early in his life. In  1870, Readford was working as a stockman on Bowen Downs Station near Longreach, Queensland. The property ran for about 230 km  (140 mi) along the Thomson River. Station workers rarely visited the entire property so Readford came up with a plan to  steal 1,000 head of the station’s cattle.

He enlisted George Dewdney and William Rooke to help. They drove (herded) the cattle through the Channel Country and the 80,250 sq km Strzelecki desert to South Australia where he believed they could be sold without anyone recognising the brands. A South Australian station owner bought the cattle for 5,000 pounds (almost $500,000 today).

Readford eventually was traced to Sydney where he was arrested in 1872, taken back to Queensland  and  put on trial in Roma. He was  found not guilty, the jury apparently impressed that he was able to get the cattle all the way to South Australia. The judge reportedly was not impressed with the verdict.  (Such a cattle drive featured in Browne’s book).

Undeterred, Readford continued his thieving ways and eventually served 18 months in jail in Brisbane for horse stealing. Readford drowned in March 1901 while trying to swim across Corella Creek in the Northern Territory during a flood.

It is arguable of course that Readford wasn’t a real bushranger because stealing stock was his forte, not robbery at gunpoint.

Readford married Elizabeth Jane Sculthorpe in 1871 and records indicate they had one child.


Frank Pearson remains something of a mystery in bushranger lore, but it is known he chose Captain Starlight as the name for himself.

Pearson seems to have had a long criminal history, though he gave a range of different versions of his background.

He has variously been described as a pathological liar, a serial impostor, a thief, a bushranger, a conman and a killer.  His career was bizarre, to say the least.

Early prison records indicated he was born in London and arrived in Australia in 1866. But he also claimed to be from America; he also told friends that he was born in Mexico of a Spanish mother and Irish father. He used many aliases; some reports suggest he was connected to a family with the surname Arnold.

Be that as it may, his bushranging career seems to have begun in September 1868 when posing as Doctor Pearson in Mooribee, NSW (near Walgett) he teamed up with  Charley Rutherford to  rob the Yarrambah Post Office, shop and Angledool Station in NSW before moving on to Enngonia, about 100 km (62 mi) from Bourke.

The pair roamed around NSW, and as far north as the Queensland border and on to St George.

Pearson had a bit of bad luck when he barged into a shop at Enngonia calling Bail Up (the shout that became synonymous with bushrangers). Inside the shop buying supplies were two police constables who had been searching for Pearson and his accomplice. It was a good piece of luck for the constables though; they had become lost while on Pearson’s trail.

Both constables fired  at Pearson, hitting him in the arm. Pearson returned fire hitting McCabe in the chest. McCabe was later to die of his wounds. The two bushrangers then fled to Belalie, then rode down the Darling River towards  Pooncarie where they split up. Pearson is said to have travelled north, robbing several stations along the way as he headed for Mount Gunderbooka, south of Bourke. Police tracked Pearson to Mount Gunderbooka but he evaded them for three days before he was captured on Christmas Day in a cave.

On his arrest he claimed to be “Rutherford, Thunderbolt’s mate” but then admitted to being named Frank Pearson, a doctor.

Pearson was charged with murder and stood  trial on 4 January 1869. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment and he was released in 1884 after 15 years.

Pearson was sent first to Berrima, then to Parramatta Gaol, where he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Authorities eventually accepted that Pearson was insane and sent him to the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum. He reportedly raved about being visited by McCabe’s ghost and apparently suffered deep remorse. He again attempted suicide. After some time, he was deemed cured and returned briefly to Parramatta Gaol before being moved to Darlinghurst Gaol where he completed his sentence.

In jail he showed talent for painting and worked on the creation of stained-glass windows for the  chapel.

Pearson was released in April 1884. He  returned to Queensland and again indulged in strange behaviour. He would pose as a stock and station agent and tour around pretending to be interested in buying stock. He would be given free board for several days until he would claim that an urgent business matter had come up and he would move on.

He was also passing fraudulent cheques, drinking heavily and possibly taking narcotics. His aliases at that time included Frank Gordon, Dr Lamb, Ernest Lacy, Herbert Meade and Edwin Waller.

In 1887 he was arrested for forgery and false pretences, under the name of Frank Gordon (alias Dr Lamb), tried in Rockhampton and sentenced to a year in prison in Brisbane.

In prison, he boasted that he was the inspiration for Boldrewood’s Captain Starlight.

While in prison he met fellow prisoner Major Patrick Edward Pelly and, afters release, Pearson adopted that name. Pearson was re-arrested, tried at Toowoomba, and imprisoned (again as Frank Gordon) for another three months. Then, as Patrick “Frank” Pelly, he lived in South Australia for around two years, working as a drover.

In 1896 he moved to Perth where, as Major Patrick Frances Pelly he was employed on the recommendation of the WA Premier, Sir John Forrest, as a clerk-accountant with the Western Australia Geological Survey. He often related elaborate and false stories of his past as a major in the British army and a member of the Russian Czar’s bodyguard.

He showed acquaintances bullet wounds he claimed to have incurred during his military service.

Pearson’s demise was accidental. On 22 December 1899, he died after accidentally swallowing cyanide. He was drunk and mistook it for his medicine. He is buried in Karrakatta Cemetery Western Australia.


Andrew Scott, known as Captain Moonlight (or Moonlite) gained such notoriety that he has an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:

“Andrew George Scott (1842-1880), bushranger, self-styled ‘Captain Moonlite’, was born at Rathfriland, County Down, Ireland, and baptized on 5 July 1842, son of Thomas Scott, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Bessie, née Jeffares. Young Scott was described as ‘dark, handsome, active and full of high spirits’, but was known for impulsive acts of mischievous violence. He may have studied engineering in London, and legend has it that he served with Garibaldi in Italy in 1860.”

Andrew Scott

Scott arrived in Australia in 1868 via New Zealand with his family.

In Auckland, Scott was recruited to the military during the Maori Wars, and was wounded in the leg. Progressing through the ranks proved difficult. In 1867, after an unknown “scandal”, he was refused a promotion and left for Australia, arriving in Ballarat, Victoria, where he was appointed a lay reader in the Church of England.

The Weekly Times of 30 September 1922 related some of the Captain Moonlite story from former Ballarat police sergeant M. Kennedy: “Amongst the places at which he used to officiate on Sunday was Mount Egerton, where there was a bank. The manager of the bank was a Mr Brunn, who, with Scott, boarded at the house of a Mr Simpson. One night the bank was stuck up by a masked, and armed man. The manager was forcibly taken from the bank to a dense scrub at the rear of the the bank and tied up, but managed to extricate himself during the night and gave the alarm. Amongst the loot taken was an oblong piece of gold. Moonlight, on addressing his audience in church on the Sunday following the robbery of the bank, alluded to the dastardly act and expressed the hope that the perpetrator of the crime would be brought to justice. His address pointed so directly to the manager of the bank as the real robber that Brunn was arrested. On his being brought before the court, however, there was no evidence forthcoming to sustain the charge, and the case was dismissed. Moonlight was known to be in financial difficulties at the time. The detectives arrived at the conclusion that he was the robber and kept him under surveillance. After some time he left the district, and was traced to Sydney, where he soared high in social circles — so high, in fact, that he bought a yacht for his own amusement. Suspicion was naturally aroused, and eventually that oblong piece of gold stolen front the bank at Egerton was discovered in one of the banks in Sydney. Moonlight was identified as the vendor of it,  and was arrested, brought to Ballarat, and committed for trial. On the day previous to the trial, I rode into Ballarat and put up in barracks for the night. At two o’clock in the morning an alarm was raised  that Moonlight and five other prisoners had strapped the warder on duty to a table and made their escape from the gaol. All the available police were despatched in pursuit, but the fugitives separated, and none was arrested for a long time. But probably within two years all were arrested but one who, it was supposed, had either perished in the Cape Otway ranges, or got away from the coast by some passing vessel.”

The lone escapee was Scott.

It should be noted that it was this robbery that the unusual spelling of  Moonlite emerged. The bank robber (said to be Scott)  left a note signed with the name Captain Moonlite on it.

Sightings later in the Green Gully Ranges near the Loddon River pointed to the whereabouts of Scott, police believing that he was heading to Bendigo and ultimately South Australia. He was tracked to a hut just outside Bendigo where he was nabbed.

His address to the court at his trial was eloquent, a police officer noting: “ Had he been trained to and taken up the legal profession, he would have made a brilliant name.”

His words didn’t help though and he was sent to jail. After completing his term, he moved to NSW where he formed a bushranging gang.

By 1870 Moonlite was said to be passing dud cheques. Some reports said he tried to sail to Fiji in a yacht that he obtained fraudulently, but he was arrested before he could leave. That landed him in Maitland jail for a year but he feigned mental illness and was sent to Parramatta Lunatic Asylum. The  Ballarat bank robbery caught up with Moonlite after his release in Sydney and he was arrested and charged with the Egerton gold robbery. While on remand in Ballarat he escaped only to be recaptured almost immediately. He was given 10 years hard labour for the robbery and one year for the escape.

He served his time in Pentridge Gaol in Melbourne and was a campaigner for prison reform. However, he didn’t mend his ways and upon his release was soon back in the hold-up business. He and a small gang held up the Wantabadgery sheep station near Wagga, holing up there for two days using two children of  a hotelkeeper as hostages. Police attacked the homestead, killing one of the gang members. A police officer also was killed. Scott and three others were captured, tried, convicted and Scott and one of the gang members were hanged on 20 January 1880.

The last word belonged to Ex-Sergeant  Kennedy: “That was the end of the well-educated but misguide man, who, had he kept straight might have gone so far.”

Some historians have said Scott wasn’t the typical bushranger, more of a white-collar criminal. That could be arguable.

A further report said that  awaiting the noose Scott spent much of his time in Darlinghurst jail in mourning; not for his own life, but for the life of James Nesbitt, his fellow fugitive shot during the Moonlite gang’s stand-off with police at Wantabadgery station. His dying wish was to be buried beside “my beloved James Nesbitt, the man with whom I was united by every tie which could bind human friendship, we were one in hopes, in heart and soul and this unity lasted until he died in my arms.”

His request wasn’t granted. Moonlite was buried at Sydney’s Rockwood Cemetery, while Nesbitt was buried 300km away at Gundagai, near where he was killed.


Francis McCallum was better known in Australia as the bushranger Captain Melville, born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1822.

On 3 October, 1836, he was tried in Perth in his home country  for housebreaking. While he was on trial he admitted to having served 22 months in gaol for theft, starting his criminal career at the age of 12.

Found guilty, he was sentenced to seven years transportation but was forced to serve almost two years in prison in England (as Edward Mulvall) before he could be sent out  to the colony, arriving  on 28 September 1838, aged just 16. He was to serve time at the Point Puer boys’ prison at Port Arthur, Tasmania.

McCallum served 18 months at Point Puer whereupon he was assigned to the timber yards in Hobart. It was here that McCallum first took to the bush, taking another boy named Staunton with him. They were quickly apprehended and sentenced to five years at Port Arthur where McCallum promptly received 36 lashes, not for the last time.

On 20 September 1840, McCallum was absent from work and “displayed insolence towards his guards” for which he was given 20 lashes. Later that year his insolence got him another 36 lashes and a week in solitary. On 22 February 1841 misbehaviour resulted in another  two years added to his sentence. He earned 12 months probation but in that time was found guilty of burglary and his sentence was amended to “transportation for life”. There was no going home.

By the end of 1850, and after several further extensions to his sentences, McCallum escaped  and made his way to the mainland where he assumed the name Edward Melville and was attracted to the Victorian goldfields.

Prospecting didn’t prove as lucrative as he’d hoped and in 1852 McCallum went bush, adopting the persona, “Captain Melville”. Operating between Melbourne and Ballarat, mostly around the Black Forest and Mount Macedon, Captain Melville the bushranger gained a fearsome reputation  (when finally captured he was charged under the name of Francis Melville but also had used the name Thomas Smith, a name at one time linked to Midnite).

On 18 December, 1852, Melville, in company with a mate named William Roberts, stuck up Aitcheson’s sheep station near Wardy Yallock.

That set them on the road to full-time bushranging, not just in the goldfields.

Melville and Roberts set up camp along the Ballarat road where they could stop travellers on the way to and from Geelong.

The Ballarat road proved productive for the pair in the lead up to Christmas as travellers set off to visit friends and family. A reward of  £100 was issued for their capture.

A newspaper report noted: “He (Melville) stopped at nothing, tackling individuals on the highway and sticking- up homesteads.”

A decision to spend some of their takings at a house of ill repute (wine, women and song, reports said) brought the pair unstuck when they confided in one of the working girls their real identity. She went for the police and the pair of bushrangers were arrested, despite a drunken attempt to flee.

Melville and Roberts were convicted on three charges of highway robbery. Melville was sentenced to 32 years hard labour: “12 years for one crime, 10 apiece for the other two,” according to a newspaper report.

Melville was sent to do his time on the prison ships moored at Hobson’s Bay, Williamstown. The hulks were converted cargo ships that had been abandoned by sailors who ditched their jobs to strike it rich on the goldfields. On 12 February, 1853, the  President was chosen for Melville, a ship  reserved for the worst of the worst. He was later transferred to the Success.

According to some reports Melville spent time translating a Bible into Aboriginal language in which he claimed proficiency.

On 26 January 1854, he was given a month in solitary confinement in heavy irons for attempting to incite a mutiny.

The World’s News  (Sydney 31 May 1933)   recounted Melville’s demise:

“When his ‘solitary’ term was over he was sent to work ashore on Gellibrand Point with the stone-breaking gangs which were ferried from and to the ship morning and evening. At length, in October 1856 he thought he saw his chance of getting even with his gaolers. Between  40 and 50 prisoners had been taken to the Point that morning and after toiling all day in the quarries were  mustered in the evening to be conveyed aboard the hulk. A small boat containing warders named Owen and Taylor was towing the barge transporting the bulk of the convicts and the shipkeeper of the Lysander  – one of the other hulks – was in charge of it. The barge had been towed about 200 yards when some of the prisoners began to haul on the towline, and nine of them, under the leadership of Melville, jumped on board the smaller craft and out the towrope, the shipkeeper having simultaneously been thrown over the side of the barge. Before they could defend themselves Turner and the other officials were put over the side – all except Owen, who was knocked senseless – and the prisoners seized the oars and attempted to escape from the harbor.”

The attempt failed. Crews from other ships in the harbour fired on the prisoners. Melville battered  Owen (who had come-to) with his stone-breaking hammer before the prisoners were overpowered by a water police patrol. The prisoners surrendered and were taken back to Success.  Three lives were lost – Owen, Turner and a prisoner. The prisoners who rushed the tow boat were tried for murder, found guilty and sentenced to death. Melville was sent to Melbourne Gaol.


The death sentence was set aside on a technicality but Melville was again to face the hangman some time later over the murder of John Price, Inspector-General of Penal Establishments, during a prison uprising.

Melville didn’t keep his appointment; on 10 August 1857  he was found dead in his cell, apparently taking his own life by  strangling himself  with a handkerchief, although there were suspicions he was murdered.


Hundreds flocked to see the body of Frank Wordsworth Ward – Captain Thunderbolt (1835-1870) – after his death and for a shilling, they could buy a postcard of his bullet-ridden body.

It was an ignominious end to the last of the professional bushrangers in NSW. Frederick Ward became something of a folk hero due to his “gentlemanly” behaviour and his tendency to avoid violence, not quite robbing from the rich and giving to the poor but nevertheless not as evil as some it seems.

Ward’s mother was Sophia; his father was Michael Ward, a convict. He was born in 1835, the year his father and mother relocated to nearby Windsor from Wilberforce, NSW.

Thunderbolt, like Starlight, has a place in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, written by Victor Crittenden:

“Frederick Ward (1835-1870), bushranger, alias ‘Captain Thunderbolt’, was born at Windsor, New South Wales. He was working as a drover and horse-breaker at Tocal station on the Paterson River when arrested with James Garbutt and indicted for stealing and receiving seventy-five horses at Maitland on 21 April 1856; Ward was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour on 13 August on the receiving charge.
Released conditionally from Cockatoo Island late in July 1860, Ward worked as a horse-breaker at Cooyal near Mudgee until his ticket-of-leave was cancelled on 17 September 1861 for ‘absence from Muster’ and he was tried on 3 October for horse-stealing. Returned to Cockatoo Island to complete his original sentence with an additional three years, Ward escaped with Frederick Brittain (Britten) about 11 September 1863. In 1864-65 Ward lived quietly with his Aboriginal ‘wife’, Mary Ann, née Bugg, on the Culgoa River near Bourke with two children. He adopted the name ‘Captain Thunderbolt’ in the early 1860s. He carried out a series of armed robberies near Bourke with three associates, including a 16-year-old boy John Thomson, who was shot and captured by the police at Millie near Moree. Ward and two others robbed inns and mail-coaches in the Liverpool Plains District; in December 1865 at Caroll near Gunnedah they held up an inn and danced and drank until the police arrived. They wounded a policeman and escaped, abandoning three pack-horses. Ward separated from his companions and never again made a stand when the police approached.”

Captain Thunderbolt generally plied his trade around northern and western NSW. Travellers along the New England Highway in that area can visit Thunderbolt’s Rock and Thunderbolt’s Grave near Uralla and Thunderbolt’s Cave off the highway between Armidale and Guyra.

He first went to the area known as New England when he was 11 years old, working for the owners of Aberbaldie station near Walcha. He didn’t stay there long and over the next 10 years worked on several stations in the north of the state.

In his bushranging career he robbed properties and hotels in the New England area, and bailed up many innocent travellers, including the mail coach `stick up` at Split Rock near Uralla, New South Wales.

In 1856, a close relative, John Garbutt, became the ringleader of a large horse and cattle stealing operation, and enticed other members of the extended Ward family to join him. Fred helped drive some four dozen of the stolen horses (many from Tocal) to Windsor. The horses were recognised and Fred was subsequently arrested and found guilty of “receiving” stolen horses. He was sentenced to 10 years hard labour at Sydney’s infamous Cockatoo Island prison.

After four years in prison, he was released on a “ticket-of-leave” to the Mudgee district.  Here he met a young woman named Mary Ann Bugg, the daughter of a convict shepherd and his Aboriginal wife.  Mary Ann fell pregnant to Fred who took her to her father’s farm near Dungog for the baby’s birth.  After leaving her with her family, he rode back to Mudgee, but arrived late for his muster on a ‘borrowed’ horse. As a result, he was returned to Cockatoo Island to complete his original sentence with an additional three years for possessing a “stolen” horse.

On 11 September 1863, Ward and a companion, Frederick Britten, sneaked away from their work gang before swimming to freedom through Sydney Harbour. The pair made their way north.

Late in October, Ward and Britten  were spotted by police near the Big Rock (now Thunderbolt’s Rock), south of Uralla.

In the ensuing gunfight, Ward was shot in the left knee but escaped into a nearby swamp. The two split up and Ward went south to the Maitland district.

Ward settled into a life of armed robbery. He recruited children for armed holdups and shootouts with police.

On 22 December 1863, he robbed a toll-bar operator at Rutherford, west of Maitland, afterwards informing his victim that his name was “Thunderbolt”.

He collected Mary Ann and they headed for the north-western plains where they remained quiet until early 1865.

Ward then formed his first gang when he joined forces with three other men, launching a bushranging spree that ended when one of the gang members was shot at Millie in April 1865.  Later that same year, he joined forces with two more two thieves but his second gang disbanded soon after one of them shot a policeman at Carroll, east of Gunnedah, NSW.

Ward returned to Mary Ann, taking her back to the Gloucester district where they hid out in the mountains.  In March 1866, Mary Ann was captured by police and jailed on vagrancy charges. She was freed amid a Parliamentary outcry.  Ward resumed bushranging activities in 1867 after Mary Ann was again captured by the police and imprisoned.

In 1866 the Colonial Secretary`s Office posted a reward of 100 Pounds for his capture, which was raised to 200 Pounds by mid 1867 and 400 Pounds in December 1869.

Ward took on a young “apprentice”, Thomas Mason, and was active robbing mails, inns and stores in the Tamworth and New England districts.

Mason was captured by police in September 1867.  In 1868, Ward took on a new youngster, William Monckton, a 13-year-old runaway, with whom he robbed travellers and the mails in the New England area. Late in 1868 Monckton abandoned Ward who then worked alone and less actively. Monckton was  captured by police.

Well Into 1869, Ward was relatively inactive as bushranger, but remained a “most wanted” and police kept on his trail.

Ward was shot dead by Constable Alexander Binning Walker on 25 May 1870 after a long chase on horseback. Ward`s career involved at least 80 hold-ups and robberies, worth about  20,000 pounds at the time . Much of this money, however, was in cheques and half notes, useless to a bushranger. Some of the race horses  Thunderbolt stole and rode for his betaways were said to be worth more than 1, 000 pounds.

Apparently conflicting statements by Monkton at the time led some to believe the man shot dead by police was not Ward, but someone else. Some said the dead man was actually Britten who had escaped from Cockatoo Island with Ward, others said that Ward had fled overseas. There were many other theories and stories.

But perhaps the most reliable report is that of Monckton arriving “by chance” in Armidale from Sydney where he had served time  and being taken to positively  identify Ward’s body.

The Sydney Evening News of Tuesday 31 May 1870 reported: “The identity of Thunderbolt has, this morning, been thoroughly established by the boy (Monckton), formerly Ward’s accomplice. This lad had been discharged on Monday last from prison, and arrived last night from Sydney, by the mail. The body of Ward was lying in a coffin at the Uralla Courthouse, and at the moment of the boy’s entrance, the face was uncovered; the lad instantly said without the slightest hesitation, ‘Oh, yes, that is him, right enough’.”

Ward is buried in the Uralla Pioneer Cemetery where his headstone has become a popular a visitor  attraction.

In October 1931, more than 60 years on, William Monckton  gave his first public speech. At a meeting in  Uralla in support of a fundraiser for Armidale Hospital, he told of the family strife including beatings by his stepfather that led him to run away as young teenager and  join Ward.

He had given himself up after leaving Ward  and was released for good conduct after serving 14 months of his three-year sentence. He was on his way home as a free man when approached by police to identify Ward’s body. “If anyone still maintains that Thunderbolt was not shot, let them tell us where he is or what became of him.” William Monckton said. “Finally, if anyone thinks I have been in the slightest degree a desperate character since that time, they are invited to make inquiries in the Inverell district centres I have lived in ever since.”

NOTE OF INTEREST, Press report of 18 April 1868:  “Captain Thunderbolt and his partner held  up four German musicians and a lucky punter returning home from the Tenterfield Races  taking a total of £121. The robbers began the day with an ambush of the Mail about 13 miles on the New South Wales side of Maryland. Thunderbolt grabbed the mail bags and returned them when he found no money. Soon after the incident, four German musicians passed the bushrangers on their way home from the Tenterfield Races. The pair passed them but quickly turned around and threatened them with a loaded revolver, demanding they dismount. Thunderbolt checked their pockets and stole £16.  Sometime later, a ration carrier from Maryland Station, also returning from the races with a substantial win of £105, was relieved of his winnings by the pair. Thunderbolt has been on the loose for three years now and although he has committed hundreds of robberies, he has not killed any of his victims”.

Women ranged the bush, too

The legendary bushrangers  were men. It is probably not well known, however, that there were at least three female bushrangers.

Maybe they drew inspiration from Lady Katherine Ferrers, wife of Sir Thomas Fanshaw, who came to notice in the 1650s. Her husband was oblivious to the fact that the highway robber who was preying on his dinner guests after they left the safety of his home was Katherine. Hostess by evening, she would slip away to her chamber as the guests left, dress in black pants and cloak, sneak out to her black horse and ride down the darkened roadway to rob those she’d just entertained at her house. Or perhaps that’s a story for another time.

Three known female Australian Bushrangers were Mary Ann Bugg (aka Yellilong) a half Aboriginal who rode with Captain Thunderbolt; Mary Cockerill (aka Black Mary) an Aboriginal who rode with Michael Howe; and Elizabeth Jessie Hickman who ran her own gang in the area which is now part of the Wollemi National Park.


Mary Ann Bugg was born near Gloucester in New South Wales in 1834.Her father was an ex-convict named James Bugg and her mother was an Aboriginal woman named Charlotte.

Her father was actually named James Brigg (who by the time of Mary Ann’s birth had changed his name to Bugg). He was born in Essex in England in 1801 and on 18 July 1825 was transported for life for stealing meat. Gaining his Ticket of Leave, he became a supervisor of shepherds in the Gloucester area.

Mary was sent to boarding school where she was taught to read and write.

After her return from boarding school Mary Ann married (apparently under orders to do so) Edmund Baker, a worker with her father’s company, on 1 June 1848, aged 14.

Baker found a job at “Cooyal” station just north-east of Mudgee in north-western NSW and owned by the Garbutt family. Mrs Sarah Ann Garbutt was Frederick Ward’s mother. It is surmised that during visits to his mother’s place Ward met Mary Ann.

In 1856 Ward was sent to prison on Cockatoo Island for 10 years for receiving stolen horses. After four years he was freed on a Ticket of Leave and returned to Cooyal. But in that four year-period, Baker apparently had died, and Mary Ann returned to Stroud.

Ward followed her but had to return to Mudgee once a month for muster under the terms of his Ticket of Leave.

Ward and Mary Ann married in Stroud NSW in late 1860.

They had a child named Marina Emily but as soon as Marina was old enough, Mary put the child in care.

There are a couple of versions of how Ward came to be sent back to prison on Cockatoo Island soon after the child was born.

One version is that at some point, Mary Ann went to the Walcha district, north-west of Gloucester but longed to return home, so asked Ward to bring her back. Ward had no horse to carry her but always resourceful, he “borrowed” one.

Or this: In October 1861 Ward borrowed a horse from his employer and returned to Mudgee to attend muster. When he arrived, he was arrested again for arriving late for muster and for being in possession of a horse for which he could not prove ownership.

Whatever the reality of the circumstances, police didn’t see his use of a horse as a loan; he was arrested, convicted of horse-stealing and sent back to Cockatoo Island.

Some reports said Mary Ann moved to nearby Balmain where she worked as a house maid and aided Ward’s escape. Some refute that, saying that she remained in the Gloucester area where she met up with Ward after his escape.

Ward, helped by inmates, broke his shackles and after hiding out for a couple of days swam to freedom and found his way back up north.

The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser reported on Thursday 29 March 1866:

(From our Stroud Correspondent.)
Information reached this town, on Thursday last, that Thunderbolt was again on this side of the country, encamped on a mountain situated near the head of the waters of the Little Manning, quite crippled. The informer is a female, who states that she has been with him for the last ten months, that she engaged to attend on Mrs. Thunderbolt during her confinement, after that occurred she wanted to leave, but that he prevented her by keeping her tied up, and it was only the other day she effected an escape. She states that Thunderbolt is hurt in the back from a fall off his horse, also suffering from a bad knee, preventing his getting about without assistance ; that his wife had herself had to put him up on horseback ; his wife always accompanies him (dressed in men’s attire) out to plunder; that she has a large butcher’s knife fastened on the end of a stick, rides up alongside the cattle and with this instrument she hamstrings the beast, and then kills it. They principally live on beef (very seldom they have flour), wild yams, and wattle gum. The last place they stayed at they remained from June to January, near to a station of a Mr. Parnell, and were never molested. The informant made her escape while Thunderbolt’s wife was out after beef; she wandered six days through the bush before she came to an inhabited place, and three days from there to Stroud, living on yams and wattle gum during that time. She asserts that there is no one else with Thunderbolt except his wife and three children. He has in his possession ten head of horses, and all are in low condition.

Just a week later, the newspaper’s Stroud correspondent reported:

On Friday last, sergeant Finlay, with sergeant Kerrigan and constable Sculley, of Maitland, arrived, bringing with them Mrs. Thunderbolt and one child, and safely lodged her in the lockup here. It appears that Thunderbolt made his escape two days previous to the arrival of the Stroud and Maitland police at the camp. The Manning police came upon him in the very act of skinning a bullock. The moment he espied the police he made off to the camp, where he leaves the horse he was riding and takes another, a fine racehorse, I believe. He was closely pursued by one of the police (Buckley) and a black tracker. When within a short distance of him the horse Buckley was riding fell in jumping a log, and hurt his rider much, but still he followed on; the black tracker, when Buckley’s horse fell, pushed up close upon him, but was afraid, and turned back, stating that he thought he was going to shoot. These two were still on the track when the other police left. His revolver has been picked up, which he threw away during the chase, and three horses also taken at the camp; among these is the one he first rode when the police came upon him. Mrs. Thunderbolt was taken at Pignaum Barney, with three children, but got away at Mr. Hooke’s station, where she was left while the police went out again in search of Thunderbolt; she was retaken by sergeant Kerrigan, and brought on here. This morning she was tried under the Vagrant Act, and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in Maitland gaol. The other two children, with the informer, arrived to-day in charge of troopers Cleary and Underwood, and two of the horses—one having cut himself very much, was left at Mr. Gorton’s station. We have not ascertained as yet what they intend doing with the informer.
Mrs. Thunderbolt, at her trial, acknowledged to her killing cattle in the manner described, but not as to her going about in men’s costume.

Frederick Ward had slipped through the fingers of the law again and went on to become the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt who operated throughout the New England area. By this time there were said to be three children, including a son named Frederick Wordsworth Ward who was born not long after the couple had separated.

According to a Wikipedia entry, Mary Ann settled again with John Burrows and had another four children. After Burrows died Mary Ann found work as a nurse to support herself, before dying on 22 April 1905 at Mudgee. Her son Frederick became a groom and later a horse-trainer; at his death in 1937 his name was recorded as Frederick Wordsworth Burrows. He was unmarried.

If the recollections of the life and times of Mary Ann Bugg are hazy, the limited information on the records is far greater than the scant details available of Mary Cockerill.


Mary Cockerill is mentioned – almost in passing – in reports about the notorious Tasmanian bushranger, Michael Howe, transported from England to Australia in 1811 for committing highway robbery, a practice he was soon to resume in the new land.

By 1815 the activity of bushrangers in central Tasmania was so worrying that Lieutenant-Governor Davey declared martial law.

That had no immediate effect on Howe, however, who by that time was known as “Governor of the Woods.”

He reputedly gained his power through alliances with some wealthy and influential landowners and with local Aboriginal people through his partner, Mary Cockerill, known to some settlers as “Black Mary”.

Howe’s life ended inevitably and violently in 1818 at the hands of two convict bounty hunters assisted by Private William Pugh of the 48th Regiment.

Mary Cockerill is said to have supported Howe’s exploits with her knowledge of the bush.

History of Australian Bushranging (1900) by Charles Wright records:

In all his marauding expeditions he was attended by a faithful aboriginal girl named Black Mary, who must have been invaluable to him both as scout and as servant. But his gratitude was as feeble as his morals, and her fidelity had but ill reward. Some soldiers of the 46th, who had been despatched in pursuit of the gang, once came across Howe and Mary apart from the others. Howe ran for his life: the girl could not keep up with him; he saw that the soldiers must overtake her and capture him if he remained with her; so he turned and fired upon her. She fell and was seized. Her master, throwing away his knapsack and gun, plunged into the scrub, through which his pursuers could not follow him. In the knapsack was a primitive-looking book of kangaroo skin, upon which were recorded, in letters of blood, the dreams of greatness which filled the bushranger’s mind.

Mary could not forgive her faithless lord. The wounds were not mortal, and when they had healed she determined to have her revenge. Leading his pursuers, she tracked the hunted bushranger from place to place, until the chase grew so close and hot that Howe offered to surrender on terms. He wrote to the “Governor of the Town” and managed to get the letter forwarded by a person who was able to go between the two “Governors” without injury to himself. And, strange to say, Governor Sorell entertained the proposals made by “Governor” Howe, and actually sent one of his officers to treat with him.

Outlaws have dictated terms on many occasions, but never, I venture to say, under such conditions. Society must have been on the verge of dissolution when letters and messages could pass between the Government and an outlaw. The surrender took place in due course, and Howe was once more a prisoner.

The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter noted on 3 July 1819:

On Tuesday died in the Colonial Hospital, the native woman usually called Black Mary, particularly known as having been at one time the partner of Michael Howe, and subsequently a guide to the parties of troops which were employed successfully in subduing the gang of bush-rangers; in which her knowledge of the country and of their haunts, and especially her instinctive quickness in tracking foot-steps, rendered her a main instrument of the success which attended their exertions. She had been victualled from His Majesty’s Store, and had received other indulgences in clothing, et6c; but a complication of disorders, which had been long gaining ground upon her, terminating at last in pulmonic affection, put an end to her life.

There are no known images of Michael Howe. He was described on the day he died as having a black beard and dressed in possum skins. His history of joining gangs and bringing the members either to death or imprisonment led to speculation he may have been co-operating with the government to capture fugitives and highwaymen.

The Outlaw Michael Howe was a 2013 movie made for television, starring Damon Harriman as Howe and Rarriwuy Hick as Mary.


Elizabeth Jessie Hickman was in a class of her own in bushranger history. She wasn’t married to or cohabiting with a gang leader. She ran her own gang in an area now covered by the Wollemi National Park.

She used five aliases and there were rumours she killed her own husband. She was expert at avoiding the police. So when Jessie Hickman rode into Kandos in the early 1900s, the locals steered well clear of “The Lady Bushranger.”

Elizabeth Jessie Hunt was born in Burraga, NSW, on 6 September 1890, to James Hunt and Susan Ann McIntyre. When she was quite young, thought to about eight years old, she was given to a travelling bush circus.

Jessie learned many skills in the circus – one of them said to be rough-riding which was to become useful in her chosen pursuit in later life.

When she was 14-15 years old she became the mistress of Martin Breheny, known as James Martini, owner of Martini’s Buckjumping Show. It is believed they never married.

Jessie became ring mistress of the show and she managed and promoted the circus with the help of the other performers. The circus was sold in 1910 after Jessie was injured in a fall from a bucking horse.

James was accidentally killed in a wagon accident in 1907.

Jessie met Benjamin Walter Hickman and in 1913 they had a son. Their son was given to a friend of Jessie to raise as her own child.

Ben Hickman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in World War 1 and was wounded.

After the birth of her son, Jessie lived in Sydney under the name of Jessie McIntyre. She served two jail terms in Long Bay jail; in 1913-1914 and 1915-1916 for stealing items from clothes to cattle.

Benjamin Hickman returned to Australia after the war and married Jessie in 1920. They separated in 1924. Ben Hickman died at The Entrance, NSW, aged 89 in 1971.

The Sydney Evening News on Monday 29 October 1928 reported the divorce proceedings:


My wife told me she would sooner live under a sheet of bark in the country than live in the city.’ said Benjamin Walter Hickman in the Divorce Court today.
Hickman said his wife, Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, had left him, and in spite of his frequent appeals to her to return, she was still living apart from him. ‘She was very fond of animals horses and cows — and wanted to live on the land,’ said Hickman. ‘I had to get work in the city.’
Mr. Justice James: You didn’t come into it at all? No, your Honour.
The parties were married at Richmond in December 1920. Mr. Justice James found that the wife had deserted her husband without just cause and granted the husband a decree nisi for a dissolution.

It was said in some accounts that Jessie became housekeeper to a John Fitzgerald who was an alcoholic and treated Jessie badly. Nevertheless, they married but after a few years of domestic violence she is said to have killed him in self-defence with a wooden chair leg and fled. That story is still disputed. No collaborating death certificate has been found.

Jessie established herself near Kandos, starting her career as a cattle and horse thief. Her excellent bush skills and horsemanship helped her to give police the slip time and again.

Jessie used at least five aliases and supervised a gang of young men she called her “young bucks”.

In 1928 the police finally caught up with her and charged her with cattle stealing. However, despite positive identification of the cattle by their owners Jessie was able to convince the jury that the cattle had strayed into her herd without her knowledge. She was acquitted.

Jessie seems to have settled down in Widden Valley after the acquittal but continued to steal cattle and horses – albeit on a smaller scale.

Her health began to fail and she died of a brain tumour in 1936 She was buried in a pauper’s grave at Sandgate Cemetery, Newcastle.

Jessie’s days of crime were revealed only recently by West Wyalong woman Di Moore, who discovered to her shock in 2002 that she is the granddaughter of the notorious cattle rustler from the wild countryside around Rylstone and Kandos, west of the Putty Road.

Mrs Moore’s research took 11½ years culminating in the release of her book, Out of the Mists.

Subtitled The Hidden History of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, the book covers the infamous bushranger’s career to her lonely death at age 46 years.

Mrs Moore said in an interview in 2014: “Jessie was a great storyteller and was never inhibited by a need to adhere to the truth.”

“Tales that people have solemnly assured me were told to them by Jessie have proved to be, at best, a much-distorted version of some event; at worst, a total fabrication in order to play a joke on some poor friend. Jessie could lie with the best of them.”


 Three-would-be female – unidentified – bushrangers were a menace to travellers in the bush south of Sydney in the early 1900s.

The Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal reported on Wednesday 11 November 1931 reported:

BUSHRANGERS: As Mrs. Feehan, a respectable woman from Gerringong. was proceeding by Crooked River to the ferry at Numbaa, she was stuck-up by three female bushrangers, who with abusive language, demanded her purse and threatened to push her into the river unless she delivered the same. And I have been informed that her riding skirt was torn in the struggle for she resisted ‘manfully,’ but being in a public place, and I suppose their first attempt at bushranging, and also seeing her unwillingness to part with her money, they made their retreat without using further violence. We hope the next time Mrs. Feehan comes along this way, she will provide herself with a good pair of revolvers, as these daring amazons are still, at large. It is to be hoped proper steps will be taken to prevent the repetition of such out-rages on the persons of travellers here after.


Further reading, sources and references: TROVE National Library of Australia newspaper archives; Wikipedia; www.starlightjanesmith.com ; Australian Dictionary of Biography; Australian Geographic; www.thunderboltbushranger.com.au; aguidetoaustralianbushranging.com; History of Australian Bushranging (Charles White) Gutenberg.net.au; State Library of Victoria; State Library of NSW.

Author’s note: Verification of all the facts surrounding the bushrangers has not been possible. While press reports from the time have been heavily relied upon it is noted that accounts in various books and on web sites are at variance on some points, particularly with the passing of time which has seen what at the time was criminal activity later elevated to legend, and probably embellished.
Appropriate suggestions and comments are welcome via feedback – CM