UNE historian solves the mystery of Thunderbolt’s lady

Published 12 July 2011

carolbAn historian at the University of New England has finally uncovered evidence that dates the death of the “wife” of the New England bushranger Captain Thunderbolt.

Carol Baxter (pictured here), an Adjunct Lecturer in History at UNE, has spent the past few years tracing the life of the part-Aboriginal woman Mary Ann Bugg, who was born at Berrico outstation on the Gloucester River in 1834.

Mary Ann roamed for many years with the bushranger Frederick Ward – also known as Captain Thunderbolt – living in the bush with him, helping him to evade the police, and bearing him three or four children including a son, Frederick Jnr. Mary Ann, who has become a legendary historical figure in her own right, was long thought to have died in November 1867. However, Ms Baxter’s research has now determined that Mary Ann lived for another four decades. “A few researchers have suggested that the woman who died in 1867 might not have been Mary Ann,” Ms Baxter said. “But until now the actual date or location of her death has not been positively proven.”

In late 1867, reports in Parliament and the Press announced that Thunderbolt’s “half-caste” female companion had died near the Goulburn River. While the Press reports named the dead woman as Louisa Mason, the fact that she was referred to as Thunderbolt’s “half-caste woman” led most Thunderbolt biographers to declare that the dead woman was in fact Mary Ann Bugg and that “Louisa Mason” was one of her nicknames.

Records uncovered by Ms Baxter show that Louisa Mason, also known as “Yellow Long”, was definitely not Mary Ann Bugg. A few months before her death, Louisa, a Scone district resident, married a labourer named Robert Michael Mason, otherwise known as “Cranky Bob”. Soon afterwards she encountered Captain Thunderbolt. “Louisa was evidently smitten with the bushranger – and he with her,” Ms Baxter said. “She abandoned her husband late in 1867 and eloped with Fred into the bush – an unfortunate decision, as it turned out.”

Ms Baxter, who is a professional genealogist and an expert in colonial Australian history, spent months sifting through original records and birth, marriage and death certificates, finally confirming that Mary Ann died as Mary Ann Burrows at Mudgee in 1905. She had borne at least 15 children.

The discovery may go some way towards setting the record straight about the life and times of the notorious New England bushranger, who was fatally captured at Uralla in 1870. Ms Baxter is currently working with UNE’s Senior Lecturer in Australian History, Dr David Andrew Roberts, to investigate claims raised in the NSW Legislative Council in March 2010 alleging a government censorship of secret police records relating to Thunderbolt’s death.

Ms Baxter’s forthcoming book, Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady, to be published by Allen & Unwin in September 2011, will reveal startling new information about the lives of both Mary Ann and Frederick Ward. Some of it is bound to prove controversial.

THE PHOTOGRAPH of Carol Baxter displayed here was taken at Chilcott Swamp, Uralla, where the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt was shot and killed on the 25th of May 1870.