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Image credit: Portrait of Mary Ann Bugg ("Thunderbolt ...Life and Legend" exhibition), McCrossin's Mill Museum, Uralla NSW

Mary Ann Bugg: Breakout mastermind

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5 min read
As the old saying goes, ‘behind every great man is a great woman’; however, in the case of bushranger Fredrick Ward and his First Nations wife Mary Ann Bugg, it could be argued the latter was always a few steps ahead. Ward, better known as Captain Thunderbolt, is one of Cockatoo Island’s most famous convicts and a celebrated Australian folk hero. Here, Harbour Trust volunteer Karyn Johnson makes a case for why Bugg is entitled to a fairer share of her husband’s thunder.

[Disclaimer: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are advised that this story may include culturally sensitive material. Reader discretion is advised.]

Thunderbolt's Rock is a time-worn cluster of granite boulders located just six kilometres south of Uralla on the New England Highway, NSW. In the town stands a life-size statue of Captain Thunderbolt. Nearby is a memorial to Constable Alexander Binning Walker, the officer who brought an end to the bushranger's career. Largely forgotten is Mary Ann Bugg, the woman whose bush skills, charm and intelligence make her the true hero of this story.

Mary Ann was a proud Worimi woman, born to an Aboriginal mother and convict father near Gloucester on the mid-north coast of NSW on 7 May 1834. As a child, she was sent to an orphanage in Sydney where she was raised in the ways of the European colonists and learnt literacy, numeracy, and domestic skills.

The Captain's Lady

In June 1848, less than a month after her 14th birthday, Mary Ann married ex-convict Edmund Baker in Stroud, NSW. She then gave birth to the first of her 15 children. Never one to sit still, she moved to Bathurst and then to Mudgee. It was there, in 1860, that she met ticket-of-leave convict Frederick Ward. He later became Captain Thunderbolt and she the Captain’s Lady.

When Bugg fell pregnant, Ward returned her to her father's farm, near Dungog, for the baby's delivery. In taking Mary Ann home, however, Ward was in breach of the ticket-of-leave regulations, which required him to remain in the Mudgee district and attend three-monthly musters. Running late for his muster, he made his situation worse by riding into town on a stolen horse, which led to his arrest. Ward was sent back to the penal establishment on Cockatoo Island to serve the remaining six years of his previous ten-year sentence plus an additional three years for horse thievery.

Legendary breakout 

In 1863, Ward became the only known convict to successfully escape Cockatoo Island. According to one legend, Mary was instrumental in her husband’s feat. Namely, she swam to the island from Balmain and left a file for Ward to remove his chains. After a swim through shark-infested waters, Ward made it to shore where Bugg was waiting with a horse and they rode to freedom.

Four years later, Bugg was arrested for not having a receipt for fabric bought in Maitland and, consequently, convicted for being in possession of stolen goods. She spent three months in jail but wrote a letter of petition to the NSW governor, explaining her situation. A visit to the fabric shop proved her innocence – the shop keeper vouched for Bugg, recalling she was eloquently spoken.

Underdog story

Although reports differ regarding Mary’s death, most believe she lived a long and quiet life as a nurse before passing away in April 1905. Her patients had no idea the woman taking their temperature was once ‘Thunderbolt’s Lady’.

Thunderbolt is recognised for having the longest bushranging career in NSW, but it is unlikely he would have survived for so long without Mary Ann's help. She taught the illiterate Thunderbolt to read. She helped provide food and shelter, spread false information to help him stay ahead of the authorities and nursed him back to health after he was shot.

There are no statues or monuments to celebrate the role of Mary Ann or other Aboriginal people in keeping the bushranging legend alive. If what we love about bushrangers is an epic underdog story, then nobody better fits that mould than Mary Ann Bugg.


Article was originally published on 2 September 2020.


It is unlikely [Captain Thunderbolt] would have survived for so long without Mary Ann's help. 

– Karyn Johnson

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