Mary 'Mrs Winter' Herd
A bushranger known simply as 'Mrs Winter' is only the third known female bushranger active in Australia in the 1800s. The other two were Mary Cockerill ('Black Mary') whose crimes are reported in Tasmania in the 1810s and Mary Ann Bugg ('Mrs Thunderbolt') of northern NSW in the 1860s. Both had high-profile bushranger spouses: Fred Ward and Michael Howe. Mrs Winter was connected to Canberra's first bushranger, John Tennant.
She was 'rediscovered' in 2020, and it is now believed that Mrs Winter is Mary Herd, who was part of a large London counterfeiting gang. Herd was transported to NSW in 1820 for a term of 14 years. On arrival, she was allocated as a 'domestic' to Robert Winter, an emancipist farming on the Nepean River. They were soon married. In November 1826, the Winters and two others robbed Samuel Terry at nearby Cranebrook. Robert Winter was sentenced to hang, but Mary was discharged on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
Aged 41, she fled to the frontier where she took up with John Tennant, who had earlier been working in an iron gang on the opposite bank of the Nepean River at Emu Plains. Tennant and his gang of Rix, Cain and Murphy had been terrorising the Canberra and Goulburn district from October 1826 until their capture in January 1828.
An article in Sydney's Monitor (15 October, 1827) contains the only surviving account of Canberra's bushranging couple. It says that the two bushrangers were at large in the district north of Canberra. After Tennant had shot and seriously wounded an Aboriginal man, the one-eyed constable, John Jones and a group of Aboriginal trackers found Tennant and Winter fishing on the Yass River, probably somewhere near Gundaroo. Tennant grabbed a loaded musket and threatened to take out Jones' remaining eye. Jones lost his nerve and allowed them to escape. Later, Mrs Winter held up seven men in a hut at an unknown location. She threatening them with a brace of pistols, while Tennant used their milling equipment to grind some flour. Provisions were scarce on the frontier in those years. The pair then disappeared and Winter is not heard of again.
The incidents match a time in Tennant's history, when his gang committed a robbery without him. He had recently been shot by James Farrell and had 12 pieces of buckshot dug out of his back. He may have been recovering with 'Mrs Winter' on the Yass River when Constable Jones tracked him down.
Unfortunately, Mary Winter's trail goes cold in 1828. There are various newspaper reports in the 1830s mentioning women named 'Mary Winter' or 'Mary Herd', but none of them can be specifically linked to Mrs Winter. She is not mentioned in the later events associated with Tennant. Their relationship may have ended, she may have died, or assumed a new identity.
(Kindly contributed by James McDonald)
- J. McDonald, 'Winter in Argyle: Unearthing Canberra's Female Bushranger', Canberra Historical Journal, vol. 84 (March), 2020, pp. 11-16
- J. McDonald, 'Unearthing a female bushranger', Canberra Times (Panorama), 2 May 2020, p. 11