It is often said that behind every great man is a great woman. In the case of Australia’s colonial outlaws it is just not conceivable to tell the stories of the men without drawing attention to the vital role played by women. The Kelly and Clarke women were just as notorious as the men, often getting into trouble with the law on their own accounts. Jimmy Governor, Captain Thunderbolt and Michael Howe all relied on their wives while on the run. Ben Hall and Johnny Gilbert had many doxies and partners during their time on the run from the law to give them a warm bed when the opportunity presented itself. Then there’s the reputation of Matthew Brady who set a standard for other outlaws by making a point of treating women well, which resulted in hordes of female admirers filling his death cell with love letters and gifts. Here we will look at a few notable examples of the women behind some of Australia’s most notorious men.
It is impossible to tell the story of the Kelly Gang without mentioning the women who kept them going. The Kelly matriarch, Ellen King (nee Kelly, nee Quinn), was tough as nails, impulsive, antagonistic and fiercely protective of her brood. She was a woman ahead of her time who took her ex-lover to court for maintenance of their illegitimate child and who rode furiously through the streets to intimidate those who were looking down on her and gossiping. Unfortunately her explosive temper frequently caused trouble culminating in her assaulting Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick with a shovel landing her in gaol for aiding an attempted murder. There is little doubt that had she not impulsively lashed out at the policeman the situation would not have escalated as it did and in turn the Kellys would have been little more than colourful characters in their locality. Ellen lived into her nineties, doted on by Jim Kelly, but as a result lived to experience the deaths of most of her children and some of her grandchildren. The Kelly sisters were vital to the story as well for it was they who kept the gang fed, clothed and informed during their outlawry. None of the sisters, however, can rival Maggie Skillion. Maggie was Ned’s younger sister, married to Bill Skillion who had been gaoled in the same case as Ellen. Maggie was left to raise her own children as a single mother, as well as her younger siblings all while taking supplies and news to her brothers, misdirecting the police and running the family farm. She was a daring horsewoman who would lead police on a chase to distract them and used various connections in the region to gather news for her brothers. During those turbulent years she fell in love with her cousin Tom Lloyd with whom she had a son they named Ned. This obviously posed a problem as she was still married to Bill Skillion who was in Gaol at the time. Maggie and Tom were the two greatest pillars of strength to the gang right to the bitter end. It was Maggie who tried to secure Ned’s defence, provide him with clothing, and in the end lead the petition campaign to have him saved from the noose. At every turn the authorities stifled and stymied her efforts. Despite this remarkable life, most of her daring feats were attributed to her younger sister Kate in folklore.
Just like the Kellys, the Clarkes’ story is reliant on the women. During the heady years of outlawry the women kept the farms running while the boys hid out in the bush and caused trouble. The woman’s lot was unenviable at the best of times but to add the man’s lot on top is unthinkable. They kept the house in order, raised and kept the cattle, did the maintenance and on top of all that acted as spies for the bushrangers. The Clarkes’ sister Annie was a glamorous and feisty young woman and well known in the Braidwood district. Tall and handsome, Annie was always running errands for her father and brothers, especially when they were in trouble with the law when she was tasked with organising legal representation among other things. She was known to case the places Tommy and the gang would raid and gather information wherever she could about police movements. She was just as popular with the men in the Clarke syndicate as the police and in fact was believed to be having a fling with a constable named O’Reilly, much to the chagrin of special constable Carroll, assigned by Sir Henry Parkes to weed out the bushrangers. It is likely this situation that led to the rumours that one of the special constables had insulted Annie who then told her brothers. This combined with the arrests of Annie and her sister Maggie seemed to lead directly to the ambush and slaughter of the four men. She was known to flaunt the success of her outlaw brothers by changing her dress multiple times a day, favouring a bright red number that made her stick out like a sore thumb. Annie was also rumoured to be promiscuous among the eligible bachelors within the Clarke syndicate, allegedly using her feminine wiles to keep the supporters in check by gleaning info from pillow talk like a Monaro Matahari, but that’s probably just gossip from disapproving locals who were affronted by the behaviour of the Clarkes. Yet, not all the Clarke women were so brazen about their connection to the crimes or indeed were femme fatales. Charlotte Clarke, wife of gang leader Thomas, initially lived with her father, Michael Hart, in his house, seeing Thomas at night when he visited or she sneaked out to his camp. While her father disapproved of the union it continued all the same. Unfortunately for Tom, Charlotte was caught wearing a hat he had stolen and this evidence got him locked up. Clarke soon escaped and took to the bush proper. As Tom’s notoriety increased and the gang’s exploits became more violent Charlotte made a tough choice and separated from her husband. In September 1867 she bore Tom a daughter though he would never get to see her as he was executed in June of that year.
Ben Hall’s Women
Ben Hall’s life seems to have been punctuated by his loves. He began his adult life when he married Bridget Walsh and the two were very happy for a while. Being the wife of a stockman was hard for Bridget, better known as Biddy, and the pair would be separated from each other for long periods when Ben was away mustering. Ben and Biddy had a son together and living as essentially a single mother would have been tremendously difficult. So when Jim Taylor started making moves on Biddy it must have been a welcome change in a forbidden and thrilling sort of way. When Ben was being remanded in Orange on suspicion of aiding Frank Gardiner Biddy took their boy Henry and ran off with Taylor. When Ben returned home to discover his wife and son gone he frantically searched for them for weeks.
With Ben’s life crashing off the rails he was tended to by Susannah Prior who was hired as his caretaker. The two had a whirlwind romance and soon resulted in Susannah falling pregnant with their daughter. By now things had heated up for Ben and the pair split. Ben became a bushranger shortly thereafter.
It was during the height of his infamy that Ben Hall met Christina McKinnon and the two fell in love. McKinnon was young and naive enough to be roped in by Hall’s bad boy persona and wound up helping him exact vengeance at Binda. Having already helped bail up Mr. and Mrs. Morris on the way to the Boxing Day ball, McKinnon and her cousin Ellen Monks joined their boyfriends Ben Hall and Johnny Gilbert in burning down Morris’s store for escaping and trying to set the gang’s horses loose. For this McKinnon and Monks were arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Within months Hall was shot dead at Billabong Creek.
No woman is as notorious in bushranger tales as Kitty Brown, the lover of Frank Gardiner. Kitty was one of the three Walsh sisters – Helen, Bridget and Catherine. All three were of convict stock, married young and known to be “flighty”. The marriages did not stand the test of time.
Kitty met Frank Gardiner while he was in Lambing Flat violating his ticket of leave and up to no good. The two soon fell in love and had a clandestine romance until Gardiner’s robbery of the gold escort at Eugowra Rocks. Kitty’s liaison with Gardiner was vehemently opposed by her step-mother, especially given that she was a married woman (despite technically being a teenager). After the robbery Gardiner and Brown escaped together to Victoria to attempt to make a score on the diggings. It wasn’t long before they changed their minds and headed to Queensland where they ran a pub in Apis Creek. Unfortunately, Kitty’s letters to her sisters were intercepted and the police soon made plans to nab Gardiner in Queensland.
When Gardiner was captured and imprisoned Kitty worked tirelessly to liberate her lover. Eventually she gave in to defeat and moved on, pairing up with Richard Taylor, brother of Jim who was her sister Biddy’s new partner. They moved to New Zealand where poverty and desperation drove her to attempt to take her own life in 1868 by shooting herself. The shooting was not effective and she died in agony four days later. Gardiner was released from prison in 1874 and sent into exile.