Stephan Williams’ in A Ghost called Thunderbolt (p.165) attributes the ballad to Annie Rixon, author of many fictional works about Thunderbolt. Rixon, in her earlier novel Captain Thunderbolt (1951, pp.73-77), also mentioned Mary Ann’s employment at Long Nose Point, the dog disguise that allowed her to swim unnoticed to Cockatoo Island (interestingly, the dog disguise has not passed into Thunderbolt mythology), the file required to cut off Fred’s irons, and the escapees’ swim to Balmain.
Rixon’s novel obviously takes its cue from A.R. Macleod’s The Transformation of Manellae (self-published in 1949 two years prior to Rixon's Captain Thunderbolt) in which Macleod wrote (p.23):
At this stage Mary Ann accepted domestic service in Sydney and proved herself a very capable servant. After a time she discovered the whereabouts of Ward and contacted him by swimming across to the island at night and returning before daylight. Suddenly Ward disappeared from the island. Many thought that he swam the dangerous water with legirons on … Before her death Mary Ann revealed to [Police Inspector] Langworthy how the thing was done. She had provided the tools and a sympathiser among the prisoners had removed the irons. Ward had hidden in a disused boiler for several days, Mary Ann bringing him food. On the fourth night he made his famous swim.
However, Rixon’s writings contain some important additions to the Macleod account that have since become accepted as fact. For example, Macleod states that Mary Ann found work in Sydney, whereas Rixon – and the well-entrenched Thunderbolt myth – says that she found work at Balmain and that Ward and Britten swam to Balmain after fleeing their Cockatoo Island gaolers.
Significantly, Rixon does not include any mention of Mary Ann’s involvement in the Cockatoo Island escape in her 1945 edition of Thunderbolt.
Ten years after Rixon added fictional detail to the story of Mary Ann’s involvement in the Cockatoo Island escape of 1863, author Frank O’Grady co-opted the story and used it to open his Thunderbolt novel Wild Honey, further cementing the myth in the popular imagination. In Wild Honey, Mary Ann swam to Cockatoo Island within a pile of drifting seaward, then floated with the seaward along the shoreline until she reached the old ship's boiler in which Fred was hidden. She gave him food, fresh water and wine to keep him going. Interestingly, O'Grady made no mention of a file to cut off Fred's legirons.
Tracing the genesis of these myths and the specific details within the myths is a fascinating exercise – a challenging detective hunt! – but we need your help. We are interested to know if anyone can come up with a pre-1951 reference to Long Nose Point or Balmain or the dog-disguise. We think that Rixon’s novel is the first time these Balmain details appeared in print, and that her novel spawned this part of the Thunderbolt mythology.
If anyone can produce a specific reference to published information, we are offering as a prize a free subscription to the Journal of Australian Colonial History courtesy of the University of New England.