May 28

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Elizabeth Jessie Hickman – My Bushranger Grandmother

The Australian bushranger can be loosely described as a cross between the American cattle rustler and the English highwayman. Although bushrangers were the cause of much concern to the authorities during the early days of the colony, it was not until the discovery of gold that they really gained the notoriety which reached its peak with the famous – or infamous – Ned Kelly. They robbed travellers, gold transports and even country farms even holding up whole townships. Ned Kelly’s visits to Jerilderie and Glenrowan have gone down in the pages of history. As could be expected, most of these bushrangers met violent deaths either under the gunfire of the police or at the end of a rope.

Ask an Australian about the female bushrangers and the answer will almost certainly be “There were none!”

That is not true. The three best known were Mary Ann Bugg, who actually rode with Fred Ward alias Captain Thunderbolt on many of his holdups; Black Mary, an Aboriginal woman who helped Michael Howe on his depredations in Tasmania and Elizabeth Jessie Hickman who ran her own gang in the area now covered by the Wollemi National Park.

Elizabeth Jessie Hunt was born in Burraga, New South Wales, on 6th September, 1890, her parents being James Hunt and Susan Ann McIntyre. At an early age, believed to be about 8 years old, she was given to a travelling bush circus and, given the conditions of those days, it can be supposed that she was both used and abused.

She learnt many skills involved in circus life, particularly that of roughriding and is reputed to have been the Australian Female Roughriding Champion in 1906. Research has revealed that a recognised national competition did not take place until 1945 so it seems more likely that this title was the outcome of some competition between rival travelling circuses. This actual claim, which gained wide acceptance when it was published in The Lady Bushranger by Pat Studdy-Clift, probably arises from a newspaper article published in the Mercury newspaper, Mackay, Queensland, in 1906 which says that Jessie was a ‘champion roughrider’.

Jessie joined up with Martin Breheny, known professionally as James Martini, who was the proprietor of Martini’s Buckjumping Show and ultimately became his mistress when she was about 14 or 15. Although there are claims that she married Martini, searches through the marriage records of all the Australian states, the Northern Territory and New Zealand have failed to produce any documented proof that she did so. When he was accidentally killed in 1907, Martini’s father inherited the show, not Jessie, which casts further doubt that the marriage took place.

Jessie became ring mistress of the show and, with assistance from some of the circus employees, managed and promoted the circus until it was sold in 1910. During these years she went under the name of Mrs. Martini and there are references in Martini’s obituary notices to his ‘widow’.

Somewhere during this period Jessie met Benjamin Walter Hickman and had a son with him in 1913. This son was given to a friend of Jessie’s to raise as her own child and Jessie took little interest in him thereafter. Ben Hickman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces during World War 1 where he was seriously injured, taking two bullets in the chest.

During the period following the birth of her son, Jessie, who was using the name of Jessie McIntyre, turned to a life of crime in Sydney and served two gaol terms in Long Bay Goal, one 1913-1914 and the other 1915-1916, the charges being for theft of a variety of items ranging from cattle to clothing. In 1918 she was again before the Courts on the charge of cattle stealing but the case against her collapsed and she was acquitted.

When Ben Hickman returned to Australia after the war, he and Jessie married in 1920 and settled down to a short period of marriage during which Jessie often visited her brother in the Kandos/Rylstone area of New South Wales. It was a stormy marriage and they finally separated in 1924. However, by this time Jessie had established herself near Kandos, starting her career as a cattle and horse thief. She really gave the police a hard time and due to her excellent bush skills and superb horsemanship was able to give the police the slip on many occasions. There is a story that there was a dingo in the area which was so destructive and elusive that it was called ‘Mother Hickman’!

Another story is that one of her gang spread the story that someone was poisoning possums in the mountains. This was highly illegal and the police went to investigate. While they were gone from town, Jessie and a few of her gang rode in and stole the cattle from the police holding yard. With such impudent exploits, it is little wonder that the local people of that area gave her the title of ‘The Lady Bushranger’ and she is still known by that name there today.

In 1928 the police finally caught up with her and charged her with cattle stealing. Once again she was facing gaol time. However, despite positive identification of the cattle by their owners Jessie was able to convince the jury that the cattle had strayed into her herd without her knowledge. She was duly acquitted. During this same year Ben Hickman divorced her and faded from her life. Despite his war wounds, he lived to the age of 89 and died at The Entrance, New South Wales, in 1971.

After this last brush with the law, Jessie seems to have settled down in Widden Valley where she still continued to steal cattle and horses but on a much smaller scale. Her own health was failing and her behaviour becoming more and more erratic. She finally died of a brain tumour in 1936 and is buried in an unmarked paupers grave at Sandgate Cemetery, Newcastle NSW.

In a country which has recovered from the cultural cringe of its convict past, many people now boast of their convict ancestors, taking great pride in what those forced immigrants have achieved in the past couple of centuries. To have a bushranger on one’s family tree, places one in an elite group! In fact, I feel that Jessie’s story is so interesting and usual, I have written a book about her life, a book which is set against the exciting backgrounds of bush circuses, cattle stealing, arrests, escapes, gaol terms and the harsh Australian bush.

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