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Captain Thunderbolt: Legendary bushranger

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8 min read
Death of Thunderbolt, the Bushranger. Samuel Calver, 1870, State Library Victoria [IAN18/06/70/116]
The most famous figure from Cockatoo Island’s convict era (1839 to 1869) is arguably Fredrick Wordsworth Ward. A convicted horse thief, Ward cemented his place in Australian folklore when he escaped Cockatoo Island and embarked on a bushranging spree that culminated in his death. In this DigiTale, volunteer Michele Harper examines the life and the legend of the ‘currency lad’ turned bushranger better known as ‘Captain Thunderbolt’.

Ward was born in northern New South Wales in 1835, the youngest child of ex-convict Michael Ward and his wife Sophia. He spent his early years in the region of Windsor on the Hawkesbury River before moving with his family to Maitland in the mid-1840s.

At the age of eleven, Ward entered employment with a cattle station in the New England district. Over the next decade, he variously worked as a station hand, drover and horse-breaker and developed into an excellent horseman.

Ward’s freedom for a horse

Ward fell afoul of the law in April 1856 when he was arrested for aiding his nephew, John Garbutt, to move dozens of stolen horses (by some accounts 45, by others 75) to Windsor for auction in the sale yards. In August, that year, he was tried and found guilty of receiving stolen horses and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour on Cockatoo Island.

In 1860, Ward was released from Cockatoo Island, having received a ticket-of-leave for good behavior. His only transgression during his four years of imprisonment had been falling asleep during while rostered as night wardsman. For that lapse, he’d served three days in solitary confinement. His pardon was conditional on him checking in for muster at the police station in Mudgee every three months.

Not long after leaving Cockatoo Island, Ward fell in love with and married Worimi woman Mary Ann Bugg. Later, he accompanied Bugg to her father’s farm near Dungog for the birth of their child. In doing so, however, he missed his regular muster.

Consequently, Ward’s ticket-of-leave was revoked and, owing to changes to the penal regulations in 1863, he was required to serve out the remaining six years of his sentence. To make Ward’s situation worse, his sentence was extended by three years. Why? He’d not only arrived late for muster… he’d ridden in on a ‘borrowed’ horse.

The legendary island escape

Upon returning to Cockatoo Island, Ward joined dozens of prisoners in protesting the recent penal regulation changes and, for this rebelliousness, was placed in a prison ward (the solitary confinement cells were at capacity). Furious, Ward refused to return to work – and consequently remained in the ward – for a total of 46 days.

On 11 September 1863, Ward dared to escape Cockatoo Island with accomplice and fellow prisoner, Fred Britten. The pair managed to sneak away from their work station and swim to the foreshore; however, accounts vary as to their escape and it has become difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Some hold that Bugg was instrumental in her husband’s escape, taking a job as a housemaid in Balmain in order to swim to Cockatoo Island and leave Ward and Britten a file to remove their chains and swim to Balmain.

Others argue Bugg could not have assisted the men as she was working in Dungog and also that they swam north to Woolwich, not south to Balmain. In any event, Ward and Britten made their way to New England and, after a run in with police near Uralla, they went their separate ways

“I am thunder…this is my bolt”

Soon afterwards, Ward gained notoriety for bushranging and adopted the moniker ‘Captain Thunderbolt’. Legend has it that in December 1863, Ward hammered on the door of a tollkeeper he was robbing, causing the bushranger’s victim to proclaim: “By God, I thought it must have been a thunderbolt”. It is claimed that Ward, his gun drawn, replied: “I am thunder and this is my bolt”.

Ward evaded the law for a further six years, during which time he carved out a career robbing mailmen, travellers, inns, stores and stations. By March 1866, Ward had three children with Bugg, who supported his bushranging by entering towns to buy supplies and inform him of possible marks for his next robbery. Bugg’s in-depth knowledge of the bush also assisted Ward to avoid capture.

Ward's demise and legacy 

On 25 May 1870, Ward met his demise after drinking at Blanch’s Inn near Uralla and, while drunk, robbing travellers. One of Ward’s victims, a hawker, raised the alarm in Uralla and the bushranger was pursued to Kentucky Creek by Constable Alexander Binney Walker, both men on horseback. When Ward’s horse was shot, he refused to surrender; instead, he lunged at Walker, whose horse had stumbled in the creek, and was fatally shot by the lawman’s revolver.

Ward’s corpse was placed on public display and hundreds flocked to see it, some paying a shilling to purchase a photo of his remains. Ward was the last of the professional bushrangers in New South wales and he also became a folk hero due to his reputation for avoiding violence and behaving in a gentlemanly manner towards his victims. Ward was survived by his wife, Bugg, who is believed to have passed away in 1905, having led a quiet life after his death.

References

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Regarding Ward's escape from Cockatoo Island, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.

– Michele Harper

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