The most grisly bushranger stories

[Warning: The content in this article may be distressing for some readers. Discretion is advised.]

Justin Kurzel’s hyper-stylised and ultraviolent interpretation of True History of the Kelly Gang received positive reviews when it debuted in Toronto in September 2019 and seems to be landing blows in the UK where it opened this weekend. Many critics praised the gritty aesthetic and the subversion of history employed throughout. Fans of the historical Kelly story were not so embracing and questioned why the creative team felt the need to stray from history so radically to play up the violence and sex (and dresses). While Kurzel’s approach may be artistically valid, it certainly falls into his wheelhouse of telling grimy tales of psychopaths and nihilism. But is the Kelly story truly the one to use as a basis for this kind of story? Here is a list of five bushrangers stories more ripe for the Kurzel treatment than that of the Kelly Gang.

Kurzel’s Ned Kelly film exchanges historical accuracy for a grungy, gory aesthetic

1. Michael Howe: One of the earliest bushrangers to be labelled as such was Van Diemens Land’s most notorious outlaw. Already the subject of a film that took vast liberties with the history to create a twisted and gory tale of a madman (The Outlaw Michael Howe), the historical Howe has more than enough violence and weirdness in his story to sustain even the most subversion-inclined filmmaker. According to the generally accepted story, Howe was a former Navy man, and a violent ruffian who joined John Whitehead’s bushranging gang in 1815. This version of events also describes the banditti roaming through the Van Diemonian frontier raiding farms and torching them for good measure, and attacking Aboriginal camps where they would kill the men and take the women as sex slaves, which is how Howe supposedly paired up with “Black” Mary Cockerill, who was portrayed as his love interest in the 2010 film. During a violent gunfight, Whitehead was wounded and Howe hacked off his head to stop the attackers claiming the reward that was on it (in those days presenting an outlaw’s head was used as proof to receive the bounty).

Michael Howe

Howe frequently escaped the law, once being granted minimum security incarceration in exchange for giving evidence about his colleagues, from which he simply walked away. This has fuelled conspiracy theories that he was working for the government to dob in bushrangers in exchange for leniency, though the historical record shows it is not so clear cut. Howe was said to have murdered his confederates when his paranoia got the best of him and even escaped from capture on one occasion by murdering his captors with a hidden dagger. He shot Mary Cockerill with a blunderbuss to create a distraction during a chase allowing him to escape from soldiers, resulting in her helping the military track him down in spite when she had recuperated. He kept a diary bound in kangaroo skin, supposed to have been written in blood and detailing his lust for power. Eventually Howe became a hermit, his clothes disintegrated and he wore a cloak made of kangaroo skins he had stitched together. When a former associate tried to lure him into a trap, Howe fled to the Shannon River where he was cornered and bludgeoned to death. His mangled head was then hacked off and taken to Hobart for the reward. It was displayed proudly on a spike near where the Drunken Admiral restaurant now stands. Of course, as with a great many bushranging stories, even though this is the most widely accepted version of events it is also very wide of the mark in terms of accuracy, and the real Michael Howe was nowhere bear as bloodthirsty or savage as he has been made out to be.

The Outlaw Michael Howe was a gritty, “grimdark” retelling of the story of one of the earliest bushrangers.

2. Alexander Pearce: The historical Pearce has been the subject of two feature films that were released close to each other (Van Diemens Land, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce) due to the harrowing narrative of his last years. Pearce was transported to Van Diemens Land and suffered the fate of all convict transportees. Malnourishment, hard labour and floggings were the daily grind. Pearce soon joined a gang that managed to escape from prison and went bush in an attempt to gain liberty.

Illustration of Pearce after death by Thomas Bock

The bushrangers soon realised the fatal flaw in their plan was their complete inability to navigate the wilderness and find food. When the rations ran out they turned to cannibalism, the victims being hacked to death in their sleep and turned into food for the survivors. Eventually the few that were left went seperate ways and Pearce was apprehended while raiding a sheep farm. He was returned to prison but escaped again with another convict who he immediately took into the bush and slaughtered. When he was recaptured Pearce declared that human flesh tasted “better than fish or pork” and had some of his companion’s flesh in a pouch that he was saving for later. Naturally, he was hanged for his crimes.

Post-mortem sketches of cannibal convict, Alexander Pearce.

3. Thomas Jefferies: Called “The Monster” by those who heard of his despicable crimes, Jefferies was another Van Diemonian bushranger of the 1820s. He was a transportee who quickly climbed the ranks to become flagellator (the man who performed the floggings), which was a job he relished. Jefferies was known for abducting female convicts and taking them into the bush to have his way with them. When this behaviour lost him his privileges he went bush with three other convicts. Jefferies travelled through Van Diemens Land raiding farms and committing arson, rape and murder.

Jefferies by Thomas Bock

In his most infamous crime, he and his gang raided a farm, murdered a neighbour and wounded the owner, abducted the owner’s wife and child, and when the woman slowed down to tend to her infant Jefferies plucked it out of her hands and smashed the baby’s head against a tree until it was dead, before dumping the body in the scrub to be eaten by wild animals. Jefferies went deeper into the bush with the traumatised woman and raped her before releasing her to walk home two days later. It was this crime that earned him his nickname. Jefferies also killed and ate one of his gang members when they got lost in the bush, later admitting that he had cut the remains into steaks that he would fry up with bits of mutton, adding to his horrendous reputation. Later he also murdered a constable by shooting him through the head. When he was finally captured by John Batman, he was sentenced to death. Lynch mobs formed to try and break him out of prison so they would have the joy of administering the punishment themselves. There was supposedly an elderly woman that was so enraged she tried to stab him with a butcher’s knife through the cage of the wagon he was being transported in. Even bushranger Matthew Brady, who had been a former associate of “The Monster” and was captured after Jefferies had given the authorities information about his whereabouts, refused to be kept in a cell with him, telling the guards that he would decapitate the villain if he was not relocated. When Jefferies was hanged many sighed with relief that justice had been served.

The notorious Thomas Jefferies was the most despised man in Van Diemens Land.

4. Dan Morgan: The story of Dan Morgan’s life is a complex one to retell due to so many decades of misreporting and folklore obscuring the truth. The film Mad Dog Morgan is a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to tell the story with adherence to the facts. Yet, if one was to create a narrative based on the folkloric Morgan, it would have be one of the most violent and perverse stories put to film. Morgan has no definitive backstory, the only reliable account of his life starts when he was imprisoned on the prison ship Success for highway robbery in the 1850s. Success and its sister ship President were reserved for the worst criminals in Victoria. On these ships prisoners were isolated, kept in undersized cells with poor ventilation, and subject to cruel and unusual punishment. During the day Morgan was ferried to the mainland to break rocks, which is where he lost the tip of a finger when his hand was crushed. Morgan was also a witness to the murder of prison inspector John Price by convicts, who bludgeoned him to death with their tools over the harsh conditions he enforced. When Morgan was released he became a swaggie and never used his real name. He worked for a time breaking horses on stations around Victoria and New South Wales but eventually went rogue. He was joined by a man called German Bill or Fancy Clarke and began a career of robbery. One of their victims was Henry Baylis, the magistrate of Wagga Wagga, who they bailed up but quickly released. Baylis, accompanied by a party of police, located the bushrangers and engaged them in a shootout. During the battle, Baylis was shot but survived, but depending on which version you believe German Bill was either mortally wounded by police or by Morgan attempting to create a diversion to facilitate his escape. The more damning accounts of Morgan’s exploits tend to be based on hearsay and exaggerate his bloodthirstiness. He was accused of tying people naked to trees and leaving them to die from exposure; threatening a woman by backing her so close to a fireplace that her dress caught alight and badly burned her legs and back; branding people; making an old man dance on a table for him under threat of death; shooting a shepherd in the groin over a perceived slight; and tying people to fences and flogging them. While some of these may be grounded in actual incidents, albeit loosely, most are not. Even popular understanding of his known crimes portrays him as an unhinged monster. Most accounts of his visit to Round Hill Station suggest he got drunk on rum, then started shooting at people. He was supposed to have threatened the station manager whose wife begged for mercy so he shot the man in the hand instead, either putting a hole through it or blowing off one of the fingers. He then shot one of the staff who had gone for help, believing he was fetching the police. During another robbery, Morgan shot a Chinese man in the leg and in another he forced a station manager to write cheques at gunpoint.

Dan Morgan’s death mask

Eventually Morgan’s reign of terror ended when he was shot in the back at Peechelba station. His body was displayed and photographed then mutilated. A police superintendent had the jaw skinned so he could souvenir the beard; locks of hair were cut off and so was the head. There were also descriptions of the ears being hacked at and the scrotum being sliced off to be turned into a tobacco pouch. A film depicting Morgan as folklore describes him could indeed be a very grisly and twisted experience for the kind of director who wants to make a film that will shock and mesmerise.

The infamous murder of Sgt. McGinnity by Dan Morgan.

5. Jimmy Governor: Governor’s life was the basis of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which was first written as a novel by Thomas Kenneally then adapted by Fred Schepisi as a feature film. Both stick remarkably close to Governor’s real life. Governor was an Aboriginal man who worked briefly as a black tracker for the police. Undoubtedly he was used in acts of state sanctioned aggression against fellow Aboriginal people. Governor was part white on his grandmother’s side, which no doubt created some identity confusion. He then became a labourer for the Mawbey family, living in a hut on the edge of their property with his wife, a white woman, and their son, who was probably not Jimmy’s. Jimmy worked hard but was paid poorly and at the same time his wife complained about living in squalor away from her family, begging scraps from Mrs. Mawbey. She was also subjected to bullying from the Mawbeys and their associates for having married a black man. This reached breaking point when she threatened to leave Jimmy. He snapped and took his uncle with him to the Mawbey house where they slaughtered the women and most of the children with a nulla nulla (club) and a hatchet. Immediately afterwards they went on the run, but Jimmy decided to strike back at the white society that had bullied and demeaned him.

Jimmy Governor after his capture.

A murder spree began, where Jimmy targeted farms where he knew the families and murdered any women or children that were there, usually with his club. Jimmy had a list of around thirty names that he was systematically working through on his murderous vendetta. Jimmy and his brother Joe were made outlaws by act of parliament and stayed on the run for almost two years. Huge posses were formed to track them down as the murder count came to double digits. Governor was ambushed and shot in the jaw, but escaped. He survived by eating honey he took from a farmer’s beehive. He was soon caught and nursed to health so he could stand trial. He was found guilty of murdering the Mawbeys and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol.
The murders committed by Jimmy Governor prompted one of the biggest manhunts in New South Wales history.

As can be seen, there are far more gory and gruesome stories in bushranging history than that of the Kelly Gang, though none are as easy a sell as a movie. Still, we have already seen some of these stories adapted to screen in some form: The Outlaw Michael Howe, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, Mad Dog Morgan and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Whether any of these horror stories would get the exposure of Kurzel’s punk-gothic homage to A Clockwork Orange with Ned Kelly helmets is unlikely, however.

Jimmy Governor: An Overview

Note: The following will be discussing people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent and will also include images of persons now deceased.

Few bushrangers have such a horrific and blood soaked history as Jimmy Governor, the Aboriginal bandit who struck terror in New South Wales at the turn of the last century. Governor ended the lives of nine people, mostly women and children, and signified the end of the colonial era in Australia with his three month rampage at the dawn of federation and he was also the last outlaw in Australia’s history to date. The following is a brief overview of his tumultuous life.

Source: Australian Town and Country Journal, 03/11/1900, p.15

Governor was born to Aboriginal parents though his maternal grandfather was Irish, resulting in him having dark red hair (by some accounts). Governor was a Wiradjuri man and grew up learning the ways of his people. Although there is nothing recorded to definitively confirm this, it is more than likely. Jimmy was a hard worker and skilled. His skill breaking in horses was in high demand around Gulgong and Breelong before he became a police tracker at Cassilis in the 1890s. He soon left the force very disillusioned but having developed vital tracking skills.

Jimmy Governor (right) as a police tracker. [Source]

Jimmy was well liked by many who knew him and seems to have integrated well into white society thanks to his determination to succeed and aptitude for whatever he turned his hand to but he was still far from equal, a pain he carried deep inside. He married a sixteen year old named Ethel Mary Jane Page when he was twenty three and this would prove to be the beginning of the end.

Jimmy received a fencing contract at the Mawbey farm in Breelong and took his new wife with him. Ethel’s parents relocated to Dubbo and this seemed to fuel her isolation, which was firmly entrenched by Jimmy’s choice of accommodation – an Aboriginal camp near a creek outside of the station. The young family had a humpy for shelter, a far cry from Ethel’s previous lifestyle. When Jimmy worked on the fences Ethel would often travel to the homestead to do chores in exchange for rations for Mrs. Mawbey and her family and friends, who were not at all approving of her marriage. In their downtime Jimmy and his brother Joe would hunt possums, Jimmy favouring his nulla nulla (club) and Joe a tomahawk.

Things came to a head when Ethel tried to get a cup of flour from Mrs. Mawbey. Instead of getting the rations she received a verbal shredding about her marriage to Jimmy. Heading back to the humpy Ethel was beside herself. When Jimmy came back to the camp he and Ethel had an argument. Part of the dispute, Jimmy would later claim, was:

“The missis wanted a fortune dropped on her. She wanted us to rob people of money, and leave it at Jim Watson’s corner fence 2 ½ miles from Gulgong. Her brother Willy was to go there and get it when it was all over.”

The blue was explosive and Ethel expressed her feelings about living in away from other white people or family and barely being able to feed herself and their infant son. Jimmy took this rejection of his way of life and the criticism of his capacity to provide for his family as a statement that his wife would leave him. Years of alienation and insecurity welled up inside him and exploded in a murderous rage. “I suppose I am alone in this world with no one to care for me.” he bemoaned. Jimmy’s rage turned to who he felt must be responsible for making his wife feel this way – the Mawbeys. Grabbing his nulla nulla and taking his brother Joe and uncle Jacky Underwood with him Jimmy confronted Mrs. Mawbey and Ellen Kerz the local school teacher.

Jimmy pounded on the door and when Mrs. Mawbey answered he demanded an apology. When not only was the apology not forthcoming but he was met with further insults, Kerz calling him “black rubbish”, Jimmy snapped. The men went on a rampage and slaughtered Mrs. Mawbey, Helen Kerz and three children; Grace and Percy Mawbey and their friend Elsie Clarke.

With the blood of the Mawbeys and Kerz still warm, Jimmy Governor decided to go on a self-destructive spree of revenge killings, hoping to take out as many people who had slighted him as possible before he was inevitably put to death. According to some accounts Jimmy had a hit list of more than twenty potential victims including whites, Chinese and fellow Aboriginal people. This was not a man to be trifled with.

Source: Evening News (Sydney), 23/11/1900, p.4

It seemed like the Governor gang were unstoppable, adding the murders of Elizabeth O’Brien and her infant at Poggi, Kiernan Fitzpatrick at Wollar and Alex McKay at Ulan to their tally. Others were wounded and allegedly there were rapes as well. With more than 2000 people hunting these bushrangers down and Jimmy and Joe Governor being declared outlaws under the Felons Apprehension Act (the last people in Australia to be given such a distinction) with a reward of £1000 for their capture, it was only a matter of time before justice struck swiftly.

The first of the gang to be captured was Jacky Underwood who was quickly tried and executed on 14 January, 1901. His last utterance was asking if he would be in heaven in time for dinner.

Source: The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 01/11/1900, p.6

Time was running out for the “Breelong murderers” and things came to a head when Jimmy and Joe were ambushed on 13 October, 1900. A shot was fired hitting Jimmy in the mouth but he managed to get away alive. He and Joe split up and Jimmy spent the next few weeks struggling with his injury, living off oranges and honey for sustenance. He soon became too unwell to remain at large and was captured on 27 October by a civilian posse. Governor was taken to Sydney for trial. Mere days later Joe Governor was shot dead near Falbrook Creek, his body laid out and photographed.

Jimmy’s trial was of considerable interest at the time and the papers covered it in detail. The grim events of Jimmy’s bushranging career all seemed to come back to his tumultuous relationship with his wife and his rage against the world. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

Jimmy Governor was hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol at 9am on 18 January, 1901. He spent his last night with ministers and his last moments were spent smoking a cigarette. His last words were incoherent to the observers – possibly spoken in his nation’s language – and are thus unrecorded. Thus ended the life of Australia’s last outlaw.

Jimmy Governor’s mugshot

Selected Sources:

“JIMMY GOVERNOR.” The Pioneer (Yorketown, SA : 1898 – 1954) 10 November 1900: 3.

“JIMMY GOVERNOR.” Cootamundra Herald (NSW : 1877 – 1954) 24 November 1900: 2.

The Tracker (Review)

New from Umbrella Entertainment is the Blu-Ray release of Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker. Starring the legendary David Gulpilil in the first lead role of his career, it is the story of a posse in the Northern Territory searching for an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman and the harrowing misadventures that occur along the way. First released in 2002, it was lauded by industry types and critics for its lyrical and powerful study of racism in post-colonial times.

In the history of Australian law enforcement through the colonial era and the early 20th century, Aboriginal trackers were vital for finding victims and offenders in the bush or the outback. The abilities of these trackers were the stuff of legend and many superstitious whites considered their ability to read signs in the natural environment as supernatural. For almost the entirety of bushranging history, trackers were employed to find bandits in the bush – a terrain the settlers found alien and treacherous. By the 1920s, when The Tracker is set, bushranging was seemingly in its death throes (bushranging is like a blackberry bush – it never stays dead for too long) but the trackers were still the bushrangers’ greatest nemesis. And thus it is with The Tracker, a simple hunt narrative based around the incomparable abilities of the Aboriginal trackers. Though to refer to this as a bushranger film is tenuous, many common tropes are apparent: the bush-faring fugitive protected by friends and relatives, the haplessness of the police in searching the bush and themes of crime and punishment and justice. By focusing not on the criminal, not on the police but on the humble tracker we get a whole new perspective on this element of law enforcement, which creates fertile soil to grow from.

Gulpilil is amusing, enigmatic and captivating as the titular Tracker. His weariness of the white men he has been drafted to serve is matched by his determination to complete his task and his sympathy for his fellows who suffer immeasurably at the hands of white men. Gary Sweet is on top form as the relentless, amoral policeman hell-bent on finding his quarry. While his role may seem cartoonishly evil at times there’s a truth to it that perhaps many modern day Australians can’t recognise. Damon Gameau, in his screen debut, shows what has made him a mainstay of the Australian cinema ever since with his performance as a young man who becomes disillusioned and broken by the evils he witnesses. Finally Grant Page represents the settlers, halfway between understanding the Aboriginals and stuck in the sense of superiority of the whites. He does not approve nor condemn the horrifying things that the police do to Aboriginals and becomes the first casualty, testing his colleagues’ moral fortitude.

The film’s visuals are lyrical and immersive. The landscape dominates proceedings, the camera frequently pulling back to contextualise these figures in the undulating wilderness or lingering on craggy outcrops and cracked earth. The dust from the earth permeates everything, sapping the colours into shades of yellow, brown and orange with lashings of blue and green. The Blu-Ray transfer renders this with brilliant clarity and colour so vibrant you can almost taste it. Umbrella have continued their trend of producing the highest quality restorations and HD transfers, with The Tracker enjoying the benefits of its first 4K restoration.

An intriguing device utilised throughout is employing paintings by artist Peter Coad to illustrate the violence rather than depicting gore and turning it into a grisly spectacle. The violence here is not about titillation, it’s about highlighting the horrendous things people do to each other. The effectiveness of this technique is not 100% but it does create a welcome respite from the viscera employed by most cinema.

Rather than a score, Rolf de Heer uses the musical talents of Archie Roach as the soundtrack, lending a strange anachronistic vibe that reminds the viewer that this was not so far into the past.


Extras on this disc are generous and showcase the process as well as the reception for the film. The featurette David Gulpilil: “I Remember…” is an emotional road trip through the locations from the movie with Gulpilil describing his reminiscences. We are also treated to interviews and outtakes as well as footage from various premieres and festivals and an Archie Roach music video to round it off – overall a wonderful collection of supplementary materials.

If you are a lover of Australian film, drama or even just a simple yet moving story beautifully told, The Tracker is essential viewing and with this Blu-Ray release you get the benefit of seeing it the best that you probably ever could have.

If you would like to grab your own copy of The Tracker on Blu-Ray, you can purchase it online here. It is also available in its standard definition on DVD here.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Review)

Few Australian films have attracted the same degree of praise as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith which has received its first ever Blu-Ray release thanks to Umbrella Entertainment. 40 years after its original release the team at Umbrella bring us a beautiful re-release of this classic award-winning piece of Aussie cinema and it’s just as relevant now as it ever was.

Tommy Lewis as Jimmie Blacksmith

Set just before Australian federation, this tale is the trials and tribulations of a young half-Aboriginal man trying to find his way in a world of oppression. Jimmie (Tommy Lewis) is coached by his uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodd) in the ways of his people but raised by a white pastor (Jack Thompson) who discourages him from mixing with his Aboriginal kin. As he reaches maturity Jimmie becomes alienated. Repulsed by the alcoholism of the Aboriginals who take his earnings for booze and bullied by the whites who deny him his earnings and constantly abuse him, Jimmie is trapped between two worlds that both hold him back. Being a half-blood he belongs to neither world and spends his days fighting against his instinct to rebel against them both. The racial dichotomy of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith speaks to the struggles faced by Aboriginal peoples in the wake of the arrival of Europeans who brought with them the destructive forces of disease and alcohol as well as their prejudices, treating the Aboriginals as sub-humans worthy of nothing more than scorn and domination. It also highlights the difficulties faced by mixed race individuals who were frequently outcast from both white and Aboriginal societies. At a time when being of a mixed race was cause for almost universal scorn Jimmie Blacksmith tries to push ahead with optimism. He joins the police but is pushed to the edge by the evil acts he is forced to be complicit in by the repulsive Farrell (Ray Barrett) and flees. Becoming a fencer, Jimmie is a skilled craftsman who is again and again denied his rightful earnings by racist employers. Taking a job with the Newby family things begin to look up. He falls in love and marries Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor), a promiscuous white woman, and builds a hut for them to live in. Members of his Aboriginal community stay with Jimmie, declaring his marriage to a white woman is a bad totem. This in turn raises the hackles of Jack Newby (Don Crosby), the station manager, who refuses to pay Jimmie until he clears his relatives away. When his family is denied food he snaps and goes on a murderous revenge spree taking his brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds) with him. Jimmie becomes the most wanted man in the country, the most infamous bushranger since Ned Kelly.

Armed with little more than an axe, Jimmie Blacksmith declares war on white men.

The film is based on the book by Thomas Kenneally which is a fictionalised account of the life of Jimmy Governor. Closely following the real Governor story, while departing in aspects the film is still very faithful to the history in comparison to some films and books about historical figures. The screenplay is soulful, skillfully weaving humour and pathos throughout to highlight the themes of colonialism, disenfranchisement, racism and the plight of the Aboriginal people at the turn of the last century (which was just as relevant in 1978 when the film was first released). The light-hearted moments at the beginning soon evaporate into a harrowing tale of racial hatred and revenge zig-zagging between the world of whites and Aboriginals. You sympathise with Jimmie as he does all he can to succeed but is constantly knocked down but your sympathies are tested when he finally snaps and does the unthinkable. Fred Schepisi, who also adapted the screenplay from the novel, directs with deftness and intelligence, which is greatly facilitated by the superb cinematography of Ian Baker and the heart-wrenching score by Bruce Smeaton. Featuring stellar performances from newcomers and old hands such as Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Steve Dodd, Ruth Cracknell and Peter Sumner, the film is gripping from beginning to end. Lewis in particular is remarkable, his charming, youthful naivete giving way to a scintillating rage that leaves the viewer with a heavy feeling in the pit of their stomach as the injustices of Jimmie’s life result in the inevitable retaliation.

Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor) tries to comfort Jimmie after a heart-breaking revelation.

The restoration of the print is absolutely glorious with rich colours and crisp details often sadly lacking in the majority of such releases. It would be easy to think in some instances that this was a film made only in the last few years with its vibrant colour palette and epic cinematography. The Blu-Ray transfer means that you can now blow it up on a home cinema to soak it all in without the fuzziness that comes with the usual DVD format or indeed some Blu-Ray re-issues. The special features are fantastic and include such gems as an interview with the film’s director Fred Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker that discusses a lot of the history of the film industry they emerged from and how that related to the making of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; a report from Willesee at Seven showing people’s reaction to the premiere; a wonderfully detailed making of retrospective and a feature about the Aboriginal actors. Overall this is a complete package for film buffs.

Jimmie (Tommy Lewis) and Mort (Freddy Reynolds) become bushrangers.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is not a film to be entered into lightly. The violence is hugely impactful, the rampage in the Newby household in particular noted for its impact on audiences. The depiction of racism in the film is potent and was considered to be very raw when the film was released. It must be noted that when The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith reached cinemas Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had only been able to vote in Australia for thirteen years, only recognised by the census and Commonwealth laws for eleven, the governmental bodies that had facilitated the removal of Aboriginal children, known as the “stolen generation”, had only been dismantled for nine years, and the first Aboriginal parliamentarian, Neville Bonner, had gained a seat only six years before. Thus The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was truly a product of its times. This film will break your heart, fill you with horror and rage at historical injustices and keep you spellbound by the absolute beauty of its visuals. For lovers of Australian stories and cinema it is a must have.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is available now from Umbrella Entertainment. You can order your own copy here.

Bushranging: A Man’s World? 

Without doubt the world of bushrangers is dominated by men. However there are three notable female bushrangers who more than hold their own with their male counterparts. Here are the three lady bushrangers of note who stand toe to toe with the best of them.

“Black Mary” Cockerill

The first notable female bushranger is a companion of the infamous Michael Howe, an Aboriginal woman known as “Black Mary”. Previous little has actually been recorded about Mary, so much of what is available is often misreported, based entirely on unverified oral tradition or pure fiction.

Some accounts state that Mary was raised by a family of white settlers and was lured away to a life of adventure and banditry by Howe, while others state that Mary was one of several Aboriginal women kidnapped by the gang of bushrangers Howe was a leading member of during a violent raid that helped kick-start racial conflict in Van Diemens Land. Neither of these accounts are based in recorded evidence. Mary was first recorded as accompanying Howe’s gang in a raid on the property of Dennis McCarty in April 1815 and was frequently spotted with them thereafter as they raided the farms of prominent men in New Norfolk. Mary was not the only Aboriginal woman in the gang, but was the only one whose name was ever published.

As time went on and events escalated, Howe’s gang began to split up. There have been many inaccurate accounts of Mary’s relationship with Howe from this time, all of which seem to have taken a reference to her having once been his partner as an indication they were lovers. In fact, Mary’s role in the gang was more than likely to act as a scout and keep the gang away from Aboriginal tribes while they were moving through the bush. Claims that Mary became pregnant, again, are not based in fact but in fanciful, posthumous retellings.

Mary’s time with the gang came to an abrupt close when she and Michael were ambushed near the Shannon River. As they were attempting to outrun the soldiers, Howe fired back at them. Reports vary as to whether the shot actually hit Mary, let alone whether the hit was accidental or an act of desperation as she was slowing him down. Michael dumped his weapon and knapsack and took off into the bushes, leaving Mary behind. It is possible that Mary struggled to keep up because of a heart condition. Nevertheless she was captured by the soldiers and interrogated.

Though it is assumed that Mary was tortured, reports indicate that she was actually plied with new clothes and food in order to butter her up and encourage her assistance. This seemed to work and she agreed to help the military locate Howe and his bushranger colleagues. She led them to a spot where she knew the gang hid out, and the soldiers spotted Howe with two of his mates, who immediately gestured insultingly at them before vanishing into the bush. Mary continued to assist the government thereafter, working as a tracker.

Folklore suggests it was Mary who lured Howe to his doom in 1818, however this is yet another fabrication. Howe was lured into a trap, stabbed in the back then clubbed to death and decapitated for the reward on his head. Mary died in the Colonial Hospital in July 1819 of pulmonic affliction.

Mary as portrayed by Rarriwuy Hick in “The Outlaw Michael Howe”

Mary Ann Bugg

Mary Ann Bugg was a half-Aboriginal woman who was born in the 1834 in an outstation of the Australian Agricultural Company. Well educated for her class and time, Mary Ann married an ex-convict named Baker but remarried in 1851 to a man named John Burrows to whom she had two sons. By 1855 she was with a new fella, another ex-convict named James McNally. The couple had three children: Mary Jane, Patrick William and Ellen. She would soon achieve infamy as the female accomplice of Frederick Wordsworth Ward aka Captain Thunderbolt. In love with the romance of their lifestyle as much as Ward himself, Mary Ann referred to herself as The Captain’s Lady.

Fred Ward met Mary Ann while out of prison on a ticket of leave. Mary Ann was already married at the time but that could not stop the two from having a passionate affair. As a result Mary Ann became pregnant and Fred Ward decided to take her to her family home in Dungog for the birth. That was all well and good in theory but in doing so Ward left the district prescribed in his ticket of leave and returned three days late for the muster. The direct result of this was Ward being thrown back into Gaol on Cockatoo Island. Mary Ann was independent enough not to require assistance from Ward, but her love was too strong. Some have claimed that Mary Ann assisted Ward in his escape from Cockatoo Island, however she was already accounted for at that time and could not have been there. Ward made his way back to his beloved Mary Ann and it wasn’t long before the two started living like Bonnie and Clyde, travelling together and committing crime.

Mary Ann was nothing short of astounding in her resourcefulness and determination. Whether hiking over mountains with children on her back or catching cattle to feed the family, Mary Ann was irrepressible. Frequently dressed in men’s clothes, Mary Ann was a spectacular horsewoman. Her preferred method of catching cattle was using a tool of her own design which was effectively a butcher’s knife on a broom handle. She would ride up to the beast of choice and using her tool would cut its hamstring whereupon she could slaughter it. This practice brought her unwanted attention and she was often nabbed in an attempt to get at Thunderbolt. Twice she was arrested and tried for vagrancy but she never gave in. On one occasion Mary Ann managed to give the police the slip by feigning labour and was rescued by Thunderbolt and his gang.

Eventually, the pair separated during Mary Ann’s final pregnancy to Ward. No doubt Mary Ann had grown tired of enabling her husband to lead a lawless life and wanted to concentrate on raising her children, three of whom were to Ward – Marina Emily, Eliza and Frederick Wordsworth Ward jr. While the details of the split are unknown, the fact that Mary Ann named her third child to Ward after his father is telling of where her heart still resided. Mary Ann settled down once more with John Burrows and spent the rest of her days leading a quiet life. In total she had had fifteen children and in her later life working as a nurse before dying in 1905 of senile decay.

Mary Ann Bugg; The Captain’s lady

Jessie Hickman

Jessie Hickman was born Elizabeth Jessie Hunt at Burraga, New South Wales on September 9, 1890. She grew up learning bush craft, horse riding and survival skills. By the age of fifteen she had become a successful roughrider and entertainer, touring the country with Martin Breheney aka Martini. Her time with Martini was successful and she became an unofficial rough riding champion in 1906. She fell in love with a man called Benjamin Hickman and they had a son together who they gave away to another couple to raise. Jessie ended up in Long Bay Gaol in 1913 after taking to stealing stock and clothing. She was imprisoned using her mother’s maiden name, McIntyre, rather than her birth name. She married Ben Hickman in 1920 but it was a tumultuous relationship that ended when he found work in the city and Jessie refused to leave the bush.

After she was separated from her husband, Jessie headed to the Blue Mountains. Her brother lived in Rylstone and she stayed with him for a time but soon went bush. Setting up a camp in the Nullo Mountains, she furnished a cave with a bed and shelving to make it more habitable, an idea that never struck the male bushrangers in the 100+ years of bushranging prior. From here Jessie Hickman engaged in cattle duffing with her gang of men she called the “Young Bucks”, stealing the animals from local farmers that she would graze and water in the lowlands near her hideout then taking the stolen cattle to markets in Singleton and Muswellbrook. Eventually able to purchase land in Emu Creek, she was still wanted by police and on multiple occasions performed daring escapes when approached by lawmen.

In May 1928, Jessie was arrested at Emu Creek on cattle theft charges but was acquitted at Mudgee on a lack of evidence. Settling down on her Emu Creek property, she took ill with head pains. Eventually being moved from Muswellbrook to Newcastle Mental Hospital, Hickman died of a brain tumour on September 15, 1936 and buried in a pauper’s grave in Sandgate Cemetery. She was forty six years old.

Jessie Hickman’s prison record

Selected sources:

Aboriginal Peoples and Bushranging: An Overview 

NOTE: The following will be discussing people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent and will also include images of persons now deceased.

Telling the history of bushranging in Australia would not be complete without making note of the importance of Aboriginal peoples on both sides of the law. Whether we are referring to bushrangers like Musquito or Jimmy Governor, or the “black trackers” that so many police forces relied on to help them track down fugitives, it would be utterly ignorant to not highlight their contribution to this unique history.


Picture Credit: “The Black Tracker”. George Rossi Ashton. Australasian Sketcher, June 18, 1881. Courtesy State Library of Victoria

Aboriginal Bushrangers

The defining trait of bushrangers is an ability to survive in the wilderness and utilise it as a tool in the outlaw’s armoury. For people whose ancestors occupied the land tens of thousands of years before European occupation, such a trait was second nature.


Musquito was one of the earliest Aboriginal bushrangers, an Eora man from Port Jackson. Operating around 1805, Musquito began committing raids on farms around the Hawkesbury and was soon a wanted man. After being turned in by other Eora men, he was sentenced to eight years on Norfolk Island. In 1813, Musquito was taken by ship to Launceston where he remained. For a time he acted as a tracker and received commendation from Lieutenant Governor Sorell who gave permission for Musquito to be returned home. This never eventuated. After Sorell’s apparent betrayal, Musquito turned rogue. Forming a gang of Aboriginal men from surrounding areas that became known as the Tame Gang, Musquito was considered to be almost supernatural in his ability to blend into his environment and was notably tougher and stronger than his companions. Operating in the 1820s, the Tame Gang stole from farms to survive. He soon joined the Oyster Bay tribe and was implicated in the murder of several settlers with another Aboriginal bushranger known as Black Jack, before finally being captured by an Aboriginal boy named Teague in 1824. Musquito and Black Jack were tried and sentenced to death on dubious evidence. They were hanged on February 25, 1825. Musquito’s life demonstrates the impact of white settlement on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the early nineteenth century. His once proud people, who lived on the land and were in tune with the natural way of things, found themselves overtaken and forced away from their way of life and off their traditional homes, denied the right to observe the language and customs of their people dating back millennia. In their desperation to survive they broke white man’s laws and suffered fierce reprisals. Musquito’s use of guerilla warfare tactics made him a fearsome opponent for British soldiers.

Jimmy Governor

Another significant example of the persecution of Aboriginal people leading to lawlessness can be seen in the horrific story of Jimmy Governor and his gang. Raised in Talbragar at a time where it was impossible for a non-white man to be given equal footing in Australian society, regardless of aptitude, Governor felt oppressed and bullied his whole life. He was literate, was a renowned horsebreaker and even worked as a tracker for the police. Despite his obvious positive qualities, he was still looked down upon in white society. The scorn he felt only increased when at twenty three he married a white girl – sixteen-year-old Ethel Mary Jane Page. Mixed marriage in Australia was a big taboo and frowned upon, especially by the women. Jimmy managed to find work, gaining a position on the Mawbey farm in West Breelong. One day Governor snapped after his wife had gone to the main homestead for their ration of flour whereupon she was turned away with an earful of abuse for the nature of her marriage. When Ethel told Jimmy about what had happened, he was apoplectic. He stormed over to the manager, John Mawbey, and asked for his rations and Mawbey told him that he’d sort it out. Jimmy returned to the shack he and Ethel shared and stewed in his rage for hours before inducing his mate Jacky Underwood, also Aboriginal, to go to the homestead with him. They were armed with a rifle and an axe. In the dark of night, Jimmy roused Mrs. Sarah Mawbey and demanded an apology. Not only did Sarah Mawbey not apologise but she responded with another tirade, her friend the local school teacher Helen Kurz adding “You black rubbish! You should be shot for marrying a white woman!” That was enough for Jimmy. The years of abuse, scorn and ill-treatment bubbling to the surface. He and Underwood went on a killing spree, slaughtering Sarah Mawbey, Helen Kurz and the Mawbey children Grace, Hilda, and Percy. Bert Mawbey, age eight, escaped and raised the alarm. When the men reached the house they found Cecil and Garnet Mawbey still alive with their cousin George. It was claimed that Jimmy took his brother Joe, Ethel and Jacky Underwood with him into the bush saying “Now we’ll be just like Ned Kelly.” For months afterwards the Governor gang raged through the community adding more murders (usually women and children) and robbery to the tally of crimes and were hounded like foxes. On October 13, 1900, Jimmy and Joe Governor were found and set upon by Bert Byers and Bob Woods, Jimmy being shot in the mouth and separated from his brother. Jimmy was captured on October 27, 1900, severely malnourished as his mouth wound prevented him from eating properly. Joe Governor was shot dead on October 31, 1900, while attempting to seek refuge in an Aboriginal settlement at St. Clair. His corpse was put on display on a billiard table in Singleton. Jacky Underwood was hanged in Dubbo Gaol on January 14, 1901. Jimmy Governor was hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol on January 18, 1901.

Jimmy Governor, from his prison record
Frequently, what separated Aboriginal bushrangers from all others was that it was usually the introduced laws and culture that pushed them into criminality and their natural affinity for the land that made them formidable to the forces of the law.

Aboriginal Trackers

Since Australia had been occupied by Great Britain, the British forces had relied on the abilities of Aboriginal peoples to find water and food and later on people. The institution gradually became what would be referred to in law enforcement as Native Police or Black Trackers. Capable of reading the environment considerably better than any white man, some bushrangers considered them to be their only real opponents. First utilised in the 1830s in Western Australia, trackers became a vital part of law enforcement all across Australia by the 1870s, the first “Native Police” created in Victoria in 1837. New South Wales also formed a similar division of the police force in 1848 that operated until 1859 when the newly formed colony of Queensland took control until 1900. During the latter period trackers were hired in New South Wales unofficially. Unfortunately the trackers were frequently misused by colonial forces and the Aboriginal troopers often found themselves being forced to exterminate or round up their fellows to be shipped off to camps. One of the most infamous of these massacres was the Cape Bedford Massacre wherein Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor and his troop of Queensland trackers slaughtered around thirty indigenous people on a beach. A week later O’Connor was heading South with his troops to help the Victoria police find the Kelly gang.

Copy of PM0130

Sub-Inspector O’Connor (seated) poses with his Queensland Native Police and members of the Victoria police during the hunt for the Kelly gang
In many bushranger stories the trackers are just as important as the outlaws. No telling of the story of Ben Hall would be complete without the inclusion of Billy Dargin; the Clarke brothers found themselves facing off against a formidable police party that featured the famous tracker Sir Watkin Wynne who lost an arm to injuries sustained in battle with the Clarkes; Ned Kelly famously referred to the indomitable Queensland trackers as “six little devils” as they were the only people capable of closing in on the Kelly gang. Colonial police were typically out of their depth with bush work and this played into the hands of bush-going fugitives. Naturally, the disruption to this game of cat and mouse by introducing trackers kept outlaws on their toes and bred a deep resentment within them.

Without the talents of Aboriginal trackers, the forces of the law would not have been capable of succeeding against bushrangers at anywhere near the rate they did. Some police understood this and treated the trackers with respect, while others allowed their racist tendencies to taint their view and looked down on their contributions. In the case of O’Connor’s trackers, he campaigned after the dissolution of the Kelly gang for his troops to receive their cut of the reward as promised, and although the governments agreed to pay the money never reached the men and they ended up in internment camps as destitutes.

It is evident that Aboriginal peoples have shaped the history of law and order in this nation considerably and are an indispensable part of the history of bushranging. Whether on the forces of the law or against them, Aboriginal peoples have many fascinating stories to contribute to an already rich history of crime and punishment in Australia.


McIntyre, P. (2016). Musquito: How an Eora man from NSW sparked rebellion in Van Diemen’s Land. [online] ABC News. Available at: [Accessed 4 Jul. 2017].

Naomi Parry, ‘Musquito (1780–1825)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 7 July 2017.

Aboriginal trackers. Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, 24 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 July 2017. <;.
Kerwin, D. (2010). Aboriginal heroes: episodes in the colonial landscape. [online] Queensland Historical Atlas. Available at: [Accessed 6 Jul. 2017].

Hunjan, Raveen. “Aboriginal trackers in NSW given ‘long overdue’ recognition for law enforcement work.” ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 Nov. 2016. Web. 06 July 2017. <;.

Arthur Wilberforce Jose and Herbert James Carter (editors), The Illustrated Australian Encyclopaedia, vol. 1, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1925, page 170
Powell, G. (2016). Bushranger Tracks. 1st ed. Sydney: New Holland Publishers Pty Ltd.
Nixon, A. (1995). Stand and Deliver: 100 Australian Bushrangers 1789 ~ 1901. 2nd ed. Port Melbourne: Lothian Pty Ltd.