Pat Studdy-Clift’s book, a wanted poster and bushranger Elizabeth Jessie Hickman.
Pat Studdy-Clift’s book, a wanted poster and bushranger Elizabeth Jessie Hickman.

Wollemi Pine Bushranger story to hit the silver screen

IN 1994 the Wollemi Pine, a 2000-year-old living fossil, was discovered in a remote canyon in the Blue Mountains. Two years later, Lismore author Pat Studdy-Clift published a story that had remained dormant, protected by the same ravines and escarpments.

The historical biography, The Lady Bushranger: The Life of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, is now being made into a major feature film, and like the discovery of the living fossil, the real-life story of one of Australia's female bushrangers seems almost too good to be true.

The Perth-based producer of Jag Films, Jennifer Gherardi, met with 88-year-old Mrs Studdy-Clift at Caroona Village recently to talk about Hickman (born Hunt), the woman who has high-profile directors talking.

Ms Gherardi, who came across Mrs Studdy-Clift's 1996 book by accident, believes the early-1900s story is simply "the best true story ... ever".

The film based on the book has attracted the interest of some high-profile Australian directors. Industry analysts told Ms Gherardi that the story deserved a medium to high production budget.

Hickman's story does not offer screenwriters any Kelly Gang-style shoot-out, but there will be action aplenty.

"Her whole story has this perfect dramatic arc," the producer said.

At the age of eight Ms Hunt joined the circus, which her impoverished mother described as the "chance of a lifetime". Resplendent in silks and satins, her early life as a circus buckjumper provided the perfect training for her role as a resourceful, chameleon fugitive.

Hickman had five aliases and a gang of young men she called her "young bucks". She stole cattle and outsmarted an Aboriginal tracker hired by police.

Her story even culminates in a surprising court scene.

"You couldn't make this stuff up," Ms Gherardi says.

Mrs Studdy-Clift explains: "Because of her training in the circus, she had the nerve and the skills to go where no male bushranger could ever go."



When her circus days expired, independent Jessie made her way stealing cattle from those she considered could afford it.

Whether she killed her abusive husband Fitzie with a blow to the head from an old chair leg is disputed by other historians.

But in Mrs Studdy-Clift's book, it was this desperate act of self-defence that began her life on the run.

After years evading arrest, the lady bushranger was captured in the late 1920s but on the day she faced court, the Aboriginal tracker, who had become her ally, did away with the evidence.

And like all endearing Aussie anti-heroes, the lady bushranger had a strict moral code: "No sponging, no dobbing and no prostitution."

There have been other books about the bushranger penned since, but Mrs Studdy-Clift was the only author to track down men from her gang for interviews.

Due to their criminal association, many of the men initially refused to spill their tale, but Mrs Studdy-Clift persisted and eventually she recorded their stories just before they died. If it were not for Mrs Studdy-Clift's courage and perseverance, Hickman's story may never have come out of the cave.

Then in her 60s, Mrs Studdy-Clift, with her husband's wavering blessing, had the grit and foresight to follow her sources to go deep into Wollemi Pine country to explore the lady bushranger's lair for herself.

She penned the book just before her eyes started failing her. By the late 1990s, her macular degeneration had left her to a world of blurred images and shapes, with some very minor peripheral vision.

A foreword by Australian author Penelope Nelson explained how it took a woman of strength and resourcefulness to uncover the story of an Australian heroine: "Pat Studdy-Clift, with her determination, tact and commitment to her subject, to say nothing of her rural credentials, overcame obstacles and gained co-operation throughout her research. She has courage to match Jessie Hickman's."

Given the time it will take to bring the movie to cinemas, there is a chance Ms Studdy-Clift may not be around to see The Lady Bushranger premiere on the big screen, but this doesn't seem to faze the witty woman.

"I think Australia is finally ready to hear the story of The Lady Bushranger," she said.

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