Women who rode with
criminals in early Australia

The Kelly gang, Mad Dog Morgan, Thunderbolt, Starlight, Moonlight, Ben Hall and Frank Gardiner are names readily recognised as Australian bushrangers from around the turn of the 19th Century.

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.

It is not surprising that with convicts among the early settlers from the Old Dart that some of the “new Australians” turned 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.

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

Heavily armed, the bushrangers took possessions, valuables and animals.

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.

The legendary bushrangers – Kelly, Morgan, Thunderbolt and others – 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.

There are three known female Australian Bushrangers: 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.

Mrs Thunderbolt


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.

Riding with the Governor

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.

Head of her own gang

Police mugshot of Jessie Hickman

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 8 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.”

Nice try

Three-would-be female – unidentified – bushrangers were a menace to travelers 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.

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. CM