Weird History: A Bushranger Called Mary
History|Nov 3, 2021

Weird History: A Bushranger Called Mary

Famous Australian Bushranger Captain Thunderbolt Had A Strong Female Sidekick.
Ben Pobjie

There are many professions that have been traditionally seen as male-dominated: motor mechanic, military strongman, James Bond, etc. But the job of bushranger may be the most stereotypically masculine of all. When we think of bushrangers we tend to think of rough men with big beards and funny hats. 

While women were definitely in the minority, they weren’t entirely absent in the history of bushranging.

In fact, one of the most famous of all bushrangers owed a good deal of his success to his right-hand woman.

Mary Ann Bugg was born in Gloucester, New South Wales, in 1834, the daughter of an Aboriginal woman and an English convict. A precocious girl, she was married at 14 because these were history times and people were OK with all sorts of horrible stuff. She had one child with her first husband before ditching him and high-tailing it with another man to Bathurst. After having another two kids with her new fellow, leaving him for another man, and having another three kids with him, a somewhat exhausted Mary Ann chanced to meet one Frederick Ward, a ticket-of-leave convict with some big dreams. 

By this time Mary Ann was 26 years old, had borne six children, and was looking for a change.

For a lively young woman with a taste for bad boys, Fred Ward was paydirt.

This was because Ward would, within a few years of hooking up with Mary Ann, become the legendary Captain Thunderbolt, one of Australia’s most feared and admired bushrangers. Thunderbolt and his gang cut a swathe through the north and west of NSW for a good seven years, but he wouldn’t have been nearly as successful at his chosen profession if it hadn’t been for Mary Ann Bugg who, in an early example of how women truly can have it all, combined her duties of wife and mother to a constantly increasing brood of little Thunderbolts with her new career as a bandit.

Mary Ann became the Thunderbolt gang’s reconnaissance expert: keeping her man Ward safe by keeping her eyes and ears open and providing advance warning of any danger. 

For a lively young woman with a taste for bad boys, Fred Ward was paydirt

Before Thunderbolt would ride into a town, whether to pull off a job or just to rest up and drink their savings, Mary Ann would go ahead as scout. Townsfolk would see the young woman ride in on her own, dressed like a dashing stockman in moleskin pants, Wellington boots, monkey jacket, cabbage tree hat, and various other items of clothing with bizarre names that people liked to put on in the 1860s. She would check out the town, determine whether there were  any troopers about, and report back to her captain. 

Mary Ann also took care of the gang’s camps, making sure the men were well fed and annoying them by cleaning bits of dirt off their faces with a hankie in front of their friends. 

On occasion she ran into trouble with the law, but each time managed to extricate herself through cunning and a little bit of luck. Once she was arrested for vagrancy, but was released after questions were asked in Parliament as to what on earth the police were doing arresting a woman, well-known as the non-vagrant gender.

The combination of Captain Thunderbolt’s brilliant horsemanship and ruthless criminal ambition with Mary Ann Bugg’s sharp eyes and quick wit made the couple an unstoppable bushranging team. 

It can be no coincidence that Thunderbolt, with Mary Ann by his side, proved to have a much longer bushranging career than any other of his ilk – most bushrangers either met their end or got out of the business after a year or two. 

Neither can it be a coincidence that after their relationship finally ended – probably because of the Captain’s roving eye, Frederick Ward got himself run down and killed. Without Mary Ann, he wasn’t half the bushranger he had been with her.

Mary Ann outlived Thunderbolt by more than three decades.  She returned to one of the men she had lived with pre-bushranging, having another four children to add to the three she had with Thunderbolt and the six she had before Thunderbolt, making a grand total of far too many. She was 70 years old when she died at Mudgee, NSW. Less than 10 of those years had been spent with Frederick Ward, but to her dying day, she would always be, in her own words, “The Captain’s Lady.”