Part of our collection of articles on Australian history’s missing women, in collaboration with the Australian Dictionary of Biography
The figure of the bushranger looms large in Australian history. White men who took to the bush and committed “robbery under arms,” bailing up unsuspecting travellers and confiscating their money and possessions, are more than characters from history books. They are Australian legends. Far from being condemned as criminals, these men are often celebrated as honourable outlaws and associated with bravery, chivalry and ridiculing inept or corrupt authorities. But not all bushrangers were white men. There was also an Aboriginal bushranger named Mary Ann Bugg.
Born on 7 May 1834 in the Gloucester area of New South Wales to a convict named James Bugg and an Indigenous Worimi woman named Charlotte, Mary Ann’s early life had little to do with bushranging. Indeed, despite her Aboriginal ancestry (which was frowned on at the time), Mary Ann was brought up a lot more respectably than many rural, white, working-class children in this era. For one thing, she could read and write because her father had paid for her to attend school in Sydney. And unlike with many liaisons between Aboriginal women and white men that were brief, casual or coerced, Mary Ann’s father petitioned the church for seven years to allow him to marry her Indigenous mother, and the pair were eventually wed in September 1848. That same year, at the age of fourteen, Mary Ann was also married, to an ex-convict named Edmund Baker, and the pair welcomed their first child in 1849.
So far it seems to be a conventional tale of marriage, motherhood and family, but this would not last for long. In 1861 Mary Ann became pregnant to a man named Frederick Wordsworth Ward. It appears that Mary Ann left Baker in 1849, and after a further two partners and six children began a relationship with Frederick Ward that would last for at least six years. And yet it was not the number of Mary Ann’s partners, nor the number of her children (who were born both in and out of wedlock), that made her noteworthy. In the nineteenth century, before the introduction of state welfare, it was not uncommon for a woman to change partners, especially if her and her children’s livelihoods were at stake. Rather, the issue came when Ward became one of the most troublesome and long-lasting bushrangers in New South Wales, Captain Thunderbolt.
Although Mary Ann accompanied Ward in his bushranging escapades from about 1863, it was not until 1865 that she leapt, almost literally, into the popular imagination. That year, Mary Ann and two of her children were found by the police, alone, in Thunderbolt’s camp. Instead of going quietly with the authorities, a heavily pregnant Mary Ann taunted the police for their failure to capture Ward. According to the Maitland Mercury, she then “sprung like a tigress upon one of the police, ribboning his uniform, and taunting him with cowardice for seeking her apprehension instead of Thunderbolt’s.”
Her response was so severe, “with her passion she brought on, or feigned to bring on labour.” Against their better judgement, the police were obliged to leave Mary Ann at a nearby property while they continued to hunt for the male bushrangers. Miraculously, upon the police’s departure her contractions appear to have ceased, and when Thunderbolt came by the station Mary Ann and the children escaped.
As well as berating and assaulting the police, Mary Ann accompanied Ward around the colony, acting as his scout, informer, lover and confidante. She helped to provide food and shelter, disseminated false information, nursed Ward back to health after he was shot, bore him three children and, many colonists alleged, took part in the robberies herself. In 1866 she was arrested for vagrancy; in court, Senior Sergeant Kerrigan declared that he had “no doubt” that Mary Ann had accompanied Thunderbolt and “assisted him to plunder.” He also disclosed that when living in the bush, Mary Ann dressed in men’s pants.
Now, for us, swapping your petticoats for pants when you are on the run may appear to be an understandably practical choice. But it conflicted with the respectable public persona of a refined lady that Mary Ann tried to cultivate. Many bushrangers relied on local supporters to help them survive and to strengthen their popular appeal, and Mary Ann and Thunderbolt drew on well-known tropes of gallant and chivalrous highway robbers. The idea was that while Ward may have been a working-class criminal and did not have noble blood, he did have nobility of spirit. And just as Robin Hood had Maid Marian to illustrate his tender, gentlemanly side, Thunderbolt had Mary Ann. Mary Ann declared herself to be “the Captain’s Lady” and Ward’s lawful wife.
Although her actions seem to belie this interpretation (and there is no evidence that she and Ward ever married), this itself is important. The tension suggests that Mary Ann decided when her public persona had to be kept up, when it could slide, and when to define herself by her actions or her words. And her awareness of popular opinion continued for the rest of her life.
The Thunderbolt legend holds that Mary Ann died a tragic death from exposure in 1867, mourned by her heroic lover. But the truth is much more interesting. It appears that she chose to leave Ward that year, and that another Aboriginal woman, Louisa Mason, was the one to die in the wilds of New South Wales. In 1867, after Mary Ann became pregnant with her last child to Ward, the couple parted ways for good. Thunderbolt famously died at Uralla in 1870, but Mary Ann far outlived her famous partner. After giving birth to at least five more children, becoming a nurse, purchasing land and marrying her longest-term partner, John Burrows, she died at the age of seventy in Mudgee on 22 April 1905.
Mary Ann’s death certificate states that she was from the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, and while she was alive, she had begun to circulate the myth that she was Māori. Here we can see Mary Ann shaping her public persona yet again. At a time when Aboriginal people were increasingly being controlled by the government and children beginning to be taken from their families (in what we now call the stolen generations), concealing her Aboriginal heritage saved her family from being so dramatically affected.
While Mary Ann Bugg lived as a bushranger for four tumultuous years, perhaps her greatest achievement was to live a prosperous, quiet life afterwards, and to cultivate a narrative that protected the ones that she loved most. Mary Ann Bugg was an Aboriginal bushranger but she was also an extraordinary woman. She was clearly far more than “the Captain’s Lady.” •
Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady: The True Story of Bushrangers Frederick Ward and Mary Ann Bugg, by Carol Baxter, Allen & Unwin, 2011
“‘Mrs Thunderbolt’: Setting the Record Straight on the Life and Times of Mary Ann Bugg,” by David Roberts and Carol Baxter, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 2013