The canny woman who helped Meg challenge folklore

Dr Meg Foster

Junior Research Fellow Meg Foster uncovers the hidden history of Australian outlaws who defied the law and social convention

When Dr Meg Foster was preparing for the launch of her book, Boundary Crossers: the hidden history of Australia’s other bushrangers, she knew it might prove controversial, challenging as it does Antipodean folklore. So she turned to her fellow historians at Newnham to help her prepare.

The book explodes the popular image of Australian outlaws, known as bushrangers, who are celebrated for their exploits and ridicule of corrupt authorities. Ned Kelly and his ilk are such a part of Australian history they even featured in the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony. But Dr Foster’s research uncovered some who didn’t fit with the white male image of legend, including a canny Aboriginal woman whose impact lasted long after her death.

Expecting a media storm, Dr Foster turned to her peers, sharing her research with colleagues at Newnham to help prepare for the launch.

“Kate Fleet and Janine Maegraith had organised a history network and every couple of weeks we get together to talk about someone’s work in progress. Before the launch in Australia I was nervous about the media and even the possible response of the Far Right, so I took that to the network and asked for their insights, any questions they had, any challenges. It was friendly and informal but robust and thought-provoking too. That’s one of the things I love about Newnham. Being surrounded by community and feeling supported often encourages the best ideas.”

Dr Foster’s initial interest was piqued by a mentor who suggested she seek out Aboriginal bushrangers, who she’d never heard of. That took her to the extraordinary Mary Ann Bugg who ran rings around authorities as she sought to use their prejudices for her own ends.

She was the companion of the gloriously-named bushranger Captain Thunderbolt and cropped up initially in passing mentions alongside him. Meg delved further and pieced her story together from sparse sources, including when she was arrested for vagrancy and proved to have a canny understanding of the need to reinvent her image to avoid prison and spare her children.

“What came across was how savvy and aware of her audience she was. Mary Ann was very demure in court and said she was kept by her husband but couldn’t be held responsible for his actions. This was quite different from the account of police who arrested her who said she was wearing men’s trousers and boasted of her exploits as the Captain’s partner in crime.”

Debate about whether she was the Captain’s accomplice or a poor harmless creature continued while she was in jail and a campaign for her release was ultimately successful.

It wasn’t the last time Mary Ann reinvented herself. Long after legend had it that she had died, Mary Ann was living quietly with another partner. She chose to walk away from life on the run, became a nurse, owned land and changed her origin story to Māori, which held higher status in British colonial eyes. It was a fateful decision, which possibly saved her children when the government began taking others from Aboriginal families.

Mary Ann’s story shows the importance of challenging existing narratives, but ultimately Meg’s explorations came from being curious and drawing on what we understand of women now. In this instance, questioning how a woman with children survived on the run.

As Dr Foster said: “What excites me about history is people. History opens a new window onto past lives, bringing back worlds that we would never otherwise have access to.”

There has been great interest in the book, particularly in Australia, and it has proved to have a broad appeal. Dr Foster has reached particularly large audiences on BBC radio, Australian TV and in popular magazines like Take 5.

She is now researching the connections between British highway robbery and the origins of Australian bushranging, exploring how the actions of Dick Turpin and his like were mimicked and adapted to local circumstances. She is also interested in how visual representation of bushrangers changed over time, and is looking at collaborating on a contemporary art piece featuring a bushranger from her book.

Boundary Crossers: the hidden history of Australia’s other bushrangers by Meg Foster is available from Eurospan Bookstore here.