Elizabeth Jessie Hickman died a pauper's death but her name lives on

THE “Lady Bushranger” Elizabeth Jessie Hickman would be turning in her unmarked grave at the news that a Hong Kong-based mining company’s $5 million community fund – kept secret from the community for nearly five years – could finance a project linked to her memory.

Hickman was eight when she was given to a travelling circus in 1898; spent two stints in jail and was a noted Upper Hunter cattle and horse thief; had stormy relationships with men and reportedly killed one husband, and is a colourful tourist draw for towns like Rylstone, Kandos and Sandy Hollow where she plied her trade in the 1920s. 

Now a project to upgrade Sandy Hollow’s main street to accommodate increasing tourist interest is one of 20 proposals competing for a $5 million Ridgelands Coal Resources fund kept secret from the community for nearly five years.

A committee that includes Ridgelands, community and Muswellbrook Shire Council representatives will meet in late January to finalise funded projects, after Ridgelands in August confirmed the existence of $5 million that should have been paid to local groups under the terms of a 2013 mining exploration licence.

The secret fund, known to the NSW Government and signed off by disgraced former resources minister Chris Hartcher, was revealed after Ridgeland’s unsolicited offer of $500,000 to Muswellbrook Shire Council in July, 2016.

The Lady Bushranger’s story is a great part of our folk lore here. She was pretty much a cattle duffer who would go into the hills and hide in caves when the police came looking for her, but she was a terrific horsewoman and a very appealing sort of character when you consider her history.

Sandy Hollow artist David Mahony

The council, which was unaware of the licence condition, took legal action and by August Ridgelands’ website acknowledged $5 million was required to be paid to the community “during the exploration stage until the granting of a mining licence”.    

The acknowledgement came only months before the five-year licence over large parts of Wybong expires in February, and while the company is believed to be negotiating an extension after limited exploration since late 2016. Under the terms of the 2013 licence the money must be distributed before the licence expires.

Licence conditions requiring Ridgelands to provide “bi-annual written reports to the Minister through the director industry coordination” detailing payments made and projects funded raise serious questions about NSW Government inaction. Breaching licence conditions is an offence with a $1.1 million penalty.

The secret fund’s existence and public silence by at least one state department for nearly five years prompted former Wybong resident Christine Phelps to comment: “It’s the NSW Government and the mining industry in cahoots again to shaft the community.”

In its statement of claim Muswellbrook Council alleged secrecy around the deed condition raised questions about whether NSW Government representatives “have not and do not care whether the local community obtains the benefit” of the condition.

Ridgelands did not respond to requests for comment. In August the NSW Department of Planning said it had referred the matter to the Resources Regulator.

Community groups given less than two weeks in November to apply for money under the Ridgelands fund proposed 20 projects, including the Sandy Hollow upgrade, a Muswellbrook Council/University of Newcastle innovation hub and upgrade of Muswellbrook’s oldest surviving building, the 1830s heritage-listed Loxton House.

It’s the NSW Government and the mining industry in cahoots again to shaft the community.

Former Wybong resident Christine Phelps

Sandy Hollow art gallery and sculpture park owner David Mahony, whose works include a “sensuous” naked mosaic treatment of the woman who came to be known as “the Lady Bushranger”, said an upgrade of facilities in his village to include post and rail fencing would be “one million per cent appreciated”.

“The Lady Bushranger’s story is a great part of our folk lore here. She was pretty much a cattle duffer who would go into the hills and hide in caves when the police came looking for her, but she was a terrific horsewoman and a very appealing sort of character when you consider her history,” Mr Mahony said.

“Rylstone has claimed her and named a bar after her but there’s no doubt Sandy Hollow was a part of her territory and she used the coach route as one of her thoroughfares. This part of the world was her patch.”

Mr Mahony said male bushrangers such as Captain Thunderbolt, who also called the Upper Hunter home, attracted publicity but Elizabeth Jessie Hickman was a colourful reminder that female bushrangers existed.

His naked mosaic of a stylised Hickman, displayed at his Sandy Hollow gallery, was designed to “give the Lady Bushranger a little bit of status and make her look a little sensuous as a reminder she wasn’t just one of the men”.

In 2014 Hickman’s granddaughter, Di Moore of West Wyalong, produced the book Out of the Mists: The Hidden History of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, to help sort fact from fiction in the short but fast life of her ancestor.

“Jessie was a great storyteller and was never inhibited by a need to adhere to the truth,” Mrs Moore said in an interview in 2014 to promote the book.

“Tales that people have solemnly assured me were told to them by Jessie have proved to be, at best, a much distorted version of some event; at worst, a total fabrication in order to play a joke on some poor friend. Jessie could lie with the best of them.”

Hickman died of a brain tumour in 1936, aged 46, and is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave at Sandgate Cemetery. 

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