Bushranger history has long been the province of male authors and historians, even as far back as 1818 with the infamous pamphlet Michael Howe: The Last and Worst of the Van Diemen’s Land Bushrangers by T. E. Wells being perhaps the first dedicated text on the subject. However, in recent years we have seen a new guard forming that is being largely driven by female authors and historians, whose unique perspectives on both an emotional and intellectual level have challenged long held beliefs and, in many cases, set the record straight by digging up information that has long been forgotten or ignored by their predecessors. The first signs of this shift in the 1970s when Margaret Carnegie wrote the first biography of Daniel Morgan, Morgan: The Bold Bushranger. It went beyond the oft-repeated hyperbole about how nasty Morgan was and returned to the source material with a fresh pair of eyes to sift through it all and get to the truth of the man rather than the infamous legend. Similarly, Dagmar Balcarek’s contributions in subsequent decades infused many bushranger stories with more feminine sensibilities and helped inject some life into what was seen at the time as stale and boring by many.
Here we will showcase some of the more notable individuals who are, at present, making a big impact on our understanding of some of the most notorious men (and women) in Australian history.
Carol Baxter is one of the most notable female historians where bushranging is concerned. Her biography of Frederick Wordsworth Ward and Mary Ann Bugg is the most definitive account to date, locking in place an understanding of the story derived from recorded facts rather than folklore and hearsay. This refusal to accept many of the long held assumptions and oral traditions has seen her looked down upon in some quarters, but respected by others. Baxter describes her situation succinctly on the website for her book:
I soon realised that the role of mediator had become my own. As a professional researcher, genealogist and historian, I had no personal connection to either Fred or Mary Ann and no pre-conceived ideas, prejudices or agendas. All I sought was the truth. And the truth was most surprising. Many of the well-known Thunderbolt and Mary Ann stories proved to be wrong. Utterly and unquestionably wrong. They were myths propagated by the ignorant and perpetuated by the gullible, and are still being voiced today – vociferously – by those with a personal, political or financial agenda.Carol Baxter
Baxter’s background in genealogy has given her a knack for sniffing out information that is often overlooked or forgotten. Rather than regurgitating the same old stories about Thunderbolt that have done the pub circuit for 150 years, Baxter made an effort to find the truth of who the historical Ward and Bugg were. The result is a new understanding of these fascinating historical figures that has redefined how they are portrayed.
Not all librarians have a knack for writing, but in the case of Jane Smith it is certainly true. A desire to write children’s books cane to Smith after working with children in a library setting, resulting in her series of children’s non-fiction books on Australian bushrangers. Since then she has written a historical fiction series (Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy), and the definitive biography of Captain Starlight.
While most historians and authors have been more inclined to write about the Kellys, Ben Hall or Frank Gardiner, Smith’s decision to chronicle the life of the notorious Frank Pearson has gifted bushranger enthusiasts a detailed account of a frequently forgotten figure. The ability to put her resources to use in nailing down the narrative of a renowned conman, notable for his use of aliases, demonstrates her formidable prowess as a historian.
It is also important that so much of her work is aimed at younger audiences, as it reflects a desire to ensure these stories are kept alive into the future, which is essentially the purpose of historians and authors. In an interview with A Guide to Australian Bushranging, Smith explained what keeps her so engaged with researching and writing about bushrangers, and history in a broader sense:
I really enjoy history; I enjoy learning about how things were in the past and marvelling at the differences and similarities compared with life today. I think that knowing something of history is really important if you want to be a well-rounded human who can make informed decisions. When I was at school, however, I found history lessons boring. It seemed to me that history just meant memorising names and dates – and yet it’s so much more than that!Jane Smith
One of the most important things a historian must do is ask questions. In the case of Judy Lawson, her journey of exploration is a series of questions that started from one key query: did Tommy Clarke really murder the special constables in the Jingera Ranges?
This question resulted in her book The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures, which explores the crimes attributed to the Clarke bushrangers and the cultural context in which they arose. The discussion around the police murders raises more questions than answers, leaving the conclusion open for the reader to interpret rather than the author feeding their opinion as fact. By providing an alternative viewpoint on the crimes, Lawson has challenged the deeply held assumptions that have made the Clarkes a taboo subject in the Braidwood district for 150+ years.
The second edition of her book goes further, examining many of the other crimes attributed to the Clarkes and their associates in the same way, bringing readers to reassess their views. Ultimately, this was all born from encountering a depiction of events that contradicted the information that she had come upon herself independently. This assumption of guilt, combined with the assumption that the crimes were the result of some innate criminality, or simply the product of work-shy laggards who simply didn’t want to follow the rules proved irksome, and were motivations to set the record straight.
Today we can sit back in our climate controlled houses, complaining about our increasing weight while planning our next overseas trip and say well if they had lived an honest life they would not have had those dreadful things happen. But is that the answer? Can the events of the 1860s in Braidwood be attributed only the the fact that the boys were seen as dishonest? They were not in this class alone.Judy Lawson, The Clarke Bushrangers: A Clash of Cultures
This assumption of guilt where many bushrangers are concerned has been all too common, but authors like Lawson are working hard to turn the tide.
Followers of A Guide to Australian Bushranging will be familiar with Georgina Stones, who has frequently contributed to the website and social media. Her work on Joe Byrne sheds light on parts of his story that had been overlooked or completely ignored by other historians, and has allowed Byrne’s story to be studied in much the same level of detail as Ned Kelly’s. Her ongoing project, An Outlaw’s Journal, is a mixture of her historical research and short stories based on, or inspired by, the recorded history. While this has, in some corners, attracted some level of controversy, Stones’ work does not shy away from some of the more taboo or risque aspects of Joe’s life and times. In her research she has uncovered some aspects of Joe’s early life not otherwise talked about such as his role as a witness in the murder case of Ah Suey, and his relationship to Ellen Salisbury.
Since then, Stones has also begun a second project titled Michael Howe: Governor of the Woods, which operates in much the same way as An Outlaw’s Journal. Her research has quickly redefined the way Howe is viewed, and is proving to be invaluable in learning the stories of his gang members, and the men that hunted them. Though the research is ongoing, the impact this has on our understanding of the early Tasmanian bushrangers is profound, and she has plans to release a book later this year.
Stones’ interest is firmly on peeling away the myths to uncover the forgotten histories of the bushrangers, but she is the first to admit that her age and gender play a significant role in how her work is perceived. During a live stream on A Guide to Australian Bushranging’s Facebook page she explained:
Sometimes I don’t think that we’re taken seriously for our work and I think we’re dismissed. I mean, I honestly believe sometimes that if I was a man perhaps some of my work might be taken a bit more seriously and I mightn’t be sometimes spoken down to as often as sometimes I am, which is a bit upsetting but true. I think people assume we are soft on these men, like because we’re females we’re just doe-eyed, but I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of the time people like Judy Lawson and Carol Baxter, the reason why they’ve been able to kind of shine a new light is because as females we can kind of… understand things a bit different and deeply than maybe what men sometimes do.Georgina Stones