Captain Thunderbolt: An Overview

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*** Revised and Updated, 2022 ***

Frederick Wordsworth Ward has gone down in Australian history as the quintessential bushranger. Gentlemanly, daring, and a skilled horseman and bushman, he operated under the alias of Captain Thunderbolt until his death in 1870.

Frederick Wordsworth Ward was born near Wilberforce in New South Wales in around 1834. Fred Ward was the youngest of the eleven children of ex-convict Michael Ward and free settler Sophia. When Fred was still young the family moved from Wilberforce to Maitland, and at age eleven he worked as a station hand at Aberbaldie Station in New England. From these early days, Fred had a passion for all things equine, and he had already developed bush skills that would serve him well in years to come. He spent the bulk of his adolescence working at various stations including the renowned horse stud Tocal Station.

Through early 1856 a huge theft of horses and cattle was made from Tocal and surrounding stations. Fred Ward was spotted helping his nephew John Garbutt, who had been using aliases to employ auctioneers to sell stolen horses and cattle. It was widely believed at the time that many of the Ward and Garbutt siblings were in on the crimes, engaged in wholesale horse and cattle theft. In fact, James’ brother John Garbutt, who was considered the ringleader, was sentenced to ten years hard labour in June of that year over his involvement. Ward was nabbed and held in Maitland Gaol until his trial. When he finally went to court with James Garbutt on 13 August 1856, it was on a charge of having stolen sixty horses from William Zuill, fifteen horses from Charles Reynolds, and a second charge of knowingly receiving stolen goods. This got him his first and only conviction: ten years hard labour to be served on Cockatoo Island.

After four years in prison, in 1860 Ward earned himself a Ticket-of-Leave that allowed him to work within the Mudgee district. However he was required to attend a parole muster every three months as part of the conditions of his ticket. This was when he met the charming Mary Ann Bugg, a well-educated half-Aboriginal woman who was married to a squatter. The marriage didn’t seem to bother the pair much as evidenced by the fact that soon Mary Ann was pregnant to Ward. He decided to take her back to her father near Dungog for the birth, which was an unfortunate decision as not only did this require him to leave his district, it resulted in him arriving late to his muster and thus violating the ticket of leave. Moreover, in his rush to get to the muster, Ward had pinched a horse to get him there. Needless to say this combination resulted in Ward back on Cockatoo Island, with an extra three years for the stolen horse to boot.
During his re-internment he was informed that he had to remain imprisoned for the entire duration of the sentence — a total of seven years — with no option to obtain a Ticket-of-Leave due to new regulations. Ward was subsequently involved in a prison riot. Unwilling to ride out his sentence in penal servitude, Ward conspired with a fellow inmate, highwayman Frederick Britten, to escape.

Absconding on 11 September 1863, Ward and Britten managed to breach the prison walls and swim to Woolwich. Some claimed that Mary Ann was there to help but she was accounted for elsewhere at the time. Ward would never again see the inside of a prison.
Taking to the bush, Ward and Britten began committing highway robberies around New England. With word of the crimes reaching authorities came a reward of £25 offered for their capture, and with it was an increase in search parties. Inevitably the bushrangers were spotted by a search party near the Big Rock — nowadays known as Thunderbolt’s Rock — outside of Uralla and a conflict arose. Ward was shot in the back of the left knee as they escaped, but even with this injury the police could not keep up. They followed him into the rock but only managed to collect some of his supplies.

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Fred Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt

Soon the pair went their own ways and Ward began calling himself Captain Thunderbolt, possibly as a homage to a British highwayman who used the same moniker. One story goes that late one night Ward robbed a toll-keeper at Rutherford who responded that the bushranger’s bashing on his door sounded like thunder. It is said Ward presented a pistol and introduced himself, “I am the thunder and this is my bolt.”
He reunited with Mary Ann and, leaving her children with family, they kept a low profile throughout much of 1864 in the Bourke district of New South Wales. By the end of the year, however, Ward teamed up with three other desperadoes: Thomas “The Bull” Hogan, McIntosh (AKA “The Scotsman”) and John Thompson. The gang committed robberies around Bourke, Walgett, Barraba and Narrabri but in April 1865 things fell apart. During a robbery at the Boggy Creek Inn in Millie, the gang, carousing and already slightly intoxicated from a previous raid, were interrupted by a party of police in bush clothes. A gunfight ensued during which Constable Dalton was shot and wounded through the body, and Thompson was shot through the jaw and captured. Both survived their injuries. As for the others, they fled to Queensland to avoid the increased police presence with McIntosh seemingly vanishing and Hogan getting himself arrested after a drunken spree.

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In a corner on the Macintyre (aka Thunderbolt at Paradise Creek), by Tom Roberts (1895) [Source]

Thunderbolt was on his own again and now more robberies were committed around Collarendabry and Liverpool Plains before a daring raid on the township of Quirindi on 8 December 1865. Thunderbolt was now accompanied by two men and they committed various robberies in town before rounding up the locals in the pub for singing and dancing. They evacuated just before a party of police arrived to chase them. The bushrangers returned the following day and did it all again.

Realising that he again faced operating alone, Ward had recruited Jemmy “the Whisperer” and Patrick Kelly. While undertaking a raid at the Carroll Inn a few days after the Quirindi caper, Jemmy shot and wounded Senior Constable Lang in yet another gunfight. This iteration of the gang did not last long and was disbanded in early 1866, whereupon Ward took Mary Ann to the Gloucester district where she was soon arrested for vagrancy and imprisoned, but was later liberated by the Governor after protests from the public.
With the new Felons Apprehension Act in place, and pressure from the public on the police force to put an end to bushranging, more search parties were sent out after Thunderbolt. Despite police and bounty hunters being hot on his tail, Ward continued his depredations.

Portrait of Frederick Ward alias Thunderbolt, by Shallard Gibbs (The Illustrated Sydney News, Vol. V, No. 75, 8 June 1870, p. 405) [Source]

On 25 May 1867 a Proclamation was made announcing a reward of £200 for the capture of Thunderbolt. At around the same time Ward recruited teenager Thomas Mason and they robbed coaches, inns and stations until Mason was nabbed after a horseback chase in September of that year. He was subsequently convicted at Tamworth and given three years hard labour. Around this time Mary Ann was also nabbed for possession of stolen goods and imprisoned.

Desperate for company, Ward took up with a married, part-Aboriginal woman named Louisa Mason, also known as “Yellow Long”, who accompanied him on his robberies but died of pneumonia at Denman on 24 November 1867.
After this turn of events Ward went back to Mary Ann who was now at liberty again. Soon Mary Ann was pregnant to Ward with their third child, and they both knew that a life on the road was not suited to her condition, so they separated for the last time. In August 1868 Mary Ann bore Ward a son whom she named Frederick Wordsworth Ward junior.

Ward continued his epic tally of crimes during 1868, this time with a young lad named William Monckton, who had joined Ward after running away from home. One of their most renowned adventures during this period was when they bailed up Wirth’s band at Tenterfield on 19 March 1868. As the story goes, Thunderbolt and his sidekick stuck up the travelling German band and were displeased with the mere £16 takings from the robbery, so Thunderbolt ordered them to perform for him for several hours. When the musicians complained about how poor they were, Thunderbolt took down a postal address and promised to send them the money back when he had more, which he supposedly did some months later.
The reward for Ward’s capture was raised to £400 just in time for Christmas 1868. While it was a fraction of what had been offered for his peers Dan Morgan, Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert, John Dunn, and the Clarkes and Connells, it was still an enormous amount to the average settler of the 1860s.

Ward and Monckton split in December 1868 and Monckton found work at Wellingrove Station. He got himself into trouble over some minor offences after leaving Ward, and was eventually recognised as Ward’s accomplice and tried in 1869. He was sentenced to serve six years hard labour, the first year in Darlinghurst Gaol, the rest in a reformatory.
After the split, Ward went quiet and would not make any notable appearances until he began to undertake intermittent mail robberies in New England. When he did appear he was alone. He would never take on any other accomplices ever again.

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Death of Thunderbolt, The Bushranger by Samuel Calvert, (Illustrated Australian News, June 18, 1870)

On 25 May 1870, Ward was spotted near Blanch’s Inn near Uralla by two constables responding to a complaint about an Italian hawker having been robbed. Fleeing on horseback, Ward was pursued by Constable Alex Walker and engaged in a riding gunfight for almost an hour. Ward’s horse was shot dead and he attempted to cross Kentucky Creek on foot. Walker rode into the stream, shot Ward in the chest and clubbed him with his revolver until he was unresponsive. Walker dragged Ward onto land and rode back to the inn. The next day he and his partner rode back to retrieve the body.
The corpse was taken to the courthouse, identified and autopsied. Photographs were taken post mortem to help establish the identity in the event that decomposition began to take hold before a positive identification could be recorded. One of the people that positively identified Ward was his former sidekick Monckton who had been released after serving the first year of his sentence. Ward was buried in the local cemetery.

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Cadaver of Frederick Ward, the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, by A. Cunningham, Armidale (1870) [Source]

Despite Ward’s body being positively identified, rumours were started posthumously that it was not actually him, and moreover that there was a government conspiracy to cover up the fact that he had actually escaped. The stories of Ward’s survival have been frequently debunked, but to the minority that choose to believe the folklore over the history the facts are not enough to prove them wrong.
While other bushrangers have been somewhat lionised for having never taken life, Thunderbolt conducted himself in such a way that his largely non-violent career is far more laudable. This is perhaps reflected in the way that despite his innumerable robberies, the reward for his capture was so comparably low when measured against other bushrangers. He seemed to be viewed more as a nuisance than a threat. This has helped considerably in fostering the image of Thunderbolt as a “gentleman bushranger”.

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New England Highway and Thunderbolts Way, Uralla, NSW, By C. Goodwin (2008) [Source]

Further Reading:

The Captain and his Lady by Carol Baxter

Three years with Thunderbolt: being the narrative of William Monckton, who for three years attended the famous outlaw, Frederick Ward, better known as Captain Thunderbolt, as servant, companion and intimate friend: during which period he shared the bushranger’s crimes and perils and was twice severely wounded in encounters with the police edited by Ambrose Pratt

Captain Thunderbolt by Annie Louise Rixon

Riding with Thunderbolt : the diary of Ben Cross, Northern New South Wales, 1865​ by Allan Baillie

Captain Thunderbolt and Mary Ann Bugg : history, myth, legend and the ethical responsibility of the story teller​ by Warwick Hastie.

Captain Thunderbolt : horsebreaker to bushranger​ by David Brouwer

Captain Thunderbolt, bushranger by Robin Walker

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