While there have been a great many nicknames and nom de plumes for bushrangers, nothing caught on in quite the same way as the tendency to call bushrangers “Captain”, but why the militaristic prefix? Perhaps the origin lies in the names given to the legendary highwaymen of the British Isles and America many of these bushrangers would have grown up hearing about like Captain Gallagher, Captain Hollyday, Captain Lightfoot and his associate Captain Thunderbolt. Furthermore, the titles the bushrangers gave themselves were on occasion even mimicked by copycat bushrangers. Here we see a selection of the most notable bushranging captains ranging from the obscure to the legendary.
1. Harry Readford, aka Captain Starlight
Henry Readford was the main inspiration for the character of Captain Starlight in Robbery Under Arms though he did not use this pseudonym himself. He was born in Mudgee, New South Wales but lived in Queensland as a young man. While working as a stockman in Longreach he devised a plan to steal cattle along with two accomplices, George Dewdney and William Rooke. The men stole 1000 cattle and herded them through the Strzelecki desert to South Australia. Readford was soon arrested and put on trial in Roma where he was found not guilty. Readford continued his stock theft however and did time in Brisbane for horse stealing. Readford died from drowning in 1901 while attempting to swim across Corella Creek during a flood. While Readford does not technically fit the description of “bushranger” as his crimes were not strictly committed from the bush, nor did he seek refuge in the bush to escape authorities, his contribution as inspiration for the greatest fictional bushranger warrants his inclusion in this list.
2. Frank Pearson, aka Captain Starlight
The other Captain Starlight is somewhat of an enigma. On his records it claims he was born in London but Pearson would rarely tell the same origin story twice and was at various times known to claim he was born in America or Mexico. He was also prone to using so many aliases that it was almost impossible to keep tabs on his movements – which was presumably the idea. What is known is that he arrived in Australia in 1866 and kept a reasonably low profile before taking to crime in 1868 as “Doctor Pearson”. Teaming up with a chap named Charley Rutherford he robbed post offices and stations in northern New South Wales, generally making themselves a lawless reputation that prompted police to hunt them down. Pearson and Rutherford intercepted the police party as they were gathering supplies in a store and there was a shoot out that resulted in Constable McCabe being shot in the chest and Pearson being shot in the arm and wrist. McCabe would later die form his injury. The bushrangers fled and stole horses to aide their escape before splitting along the Darling River. Pearson continued to Mount Gunderbooka where the authorities had sealed off access to the waterholes. Pearson was captured in a cave severely dehydrated and suffering from bull-ant bites. He was tried for murder, found guilty and sentenced to death. The death sentence was commuted however to fifteen years imprisonment in Darlinghurst Gaol. During this time Pearson studied art and in particular became exceedingly good at crafting stained glass windows, one of which was donated to the local church. When Pearson was freed in 1884 he allegedly returned to bushranging, some claiming he helped stick up a police station in South Australia and locking the police in their own cells (a crime also attributed to Captain Moonlite who had been dead for four years by that point). Pearson spent the rest of his days in Queensland where he got himself in trouble for forgery and obataining goods under false pretenses. After doing time in St Helena he ended up in Toowoomba prison and eventually headed to Western Australia where he continued to spread fanciful stories about himself and ended up working for the Western Australia Geological Survey, dying in 1899 after drunkenly swallowing cyanide tablets.
3. Thomas Smith, aka Captain Midnight
Captain Midnight is yet another enigma who operated mostly in the Dubbo region in the 1870s. He had scores of aliases and started out as a cattle thief for which he was given 5 years in Bathurst Gaol. He was released early and went straight back into crime doing time at Darlinghurst and Parramatta. Midnight escaped Parramatta Gaol in 1872 and was soon making a nuisance of himself with accomplices, specialising in stealing cattle in Queensland and selling them in New South Wales. After an incident in September 1878 when an accomplice was nabbed in Marthaguy, Midnight was intercepted by Senior-Sergeant Wallings, Senior-Constable Souter and Constable Walsh. In the ensuing chaos Midnight shot Wallings in the chest, killing him before riding off on Wallings’ horse. Midnight was soon tracked down and captured on Cuttaburra Creek by a party led by Sub-Inspector Francis Duffy. The police shot Midnight in the body and killed his horse before arresting him. He was taken to Old Wapweelah Homestead where he died from his wounds saying he’d lived like a dog and wanted to die like one.
4. Andrew George Scott, aka Captain Moonlite
Andrew Scott, as has been discussed in other articles here, was an Irishman from Rathfriland who moved to New Zealand and fought in the Maori Wars. He was a trained civil engineer and when he moved to Australia in 1868 he became a lay reader for the Church of England in Bacchus Marsh then later in Mount Egerton. When he was embroiled in a bank robbery in Mount Egerton, Scott quit the church and moved to Sydney where he soon ended up in prison for using dodgy cheques. After he was released he was re-arrested and extradited back to Victoria where he was tried and found guilty of robbing the bank in Mount Egerton using the alias Captain Moonlite. Scott escaped from Ballarat Gaol and was transferred to Pentridge Prison where he met James Nesbitt. Once out of gaol he tried doing a lecture tour on prison reform but was harassed by police and decided to move back to New South Wales, accompanied by his friends Nesbitt, Tom Williams, Tom Rogan and Gus Wernicke. Starving and broke Scott tried to get food, shelter or work at Wantabadgery Station but was turned away. That night he snapped and decided to live up to his reputation as Captain Moonlite and stick up the station. The gang held the station and its occupants captive and had a stoush with police from Wagga Wagga, but forced the police to retreat and stole their horses. The next day the gang were intercepted by police from Gundagai and in the gunfight that spilled over to McGlede’s farm, Nesbitt, Wernicke and Constable Webb-Bowen were fatally wounded, the bushrangers dying there and the policeman a few days later. Scott and the other surviving bushrangers were put on trial and found guilty of the murder of Constable Webb-Bowen. Scott and Tom Rogan were sentenced to death and hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol in January 1880.
5. Frederick Wordsworth Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt
Frederick Ward was Australian born and grew up in Windsor, New South Wales. His first brush with the law was when he was gaoled for horse stealing with his cousin. In 1863 he and another prisoner, Fred Britten, escaped from Cockatoo Island prison by swimming across Sydney Harbour. Fred Ward then took to bushranging as Captain Thunderbolt around Uralla. He was accompanied by his wife a half-Aboriginal woman named Mary Ann Bugg, and formed a gang with Tom Hogan, Tom McIntosh and John Thompson. During a shootout Thompson was shot and the two Toms fled to Queensland. Thunderbolt formed a second gang with Jemmy the Whisperer and Pat Kelly but that gang fell apart when Jemmy shot a policeman. When Mary Ann was arrested and gaoled for vagrancy, Thunderbolt worked with a lad named Thomas Mason until Mason was arrested in 1867. Thunderbolt then worked with another half-Aboriginal woman known as Yellow Long, who died of pneumonia while on the run. When Mary Ann got out of gaol she and Thunderbolt were reunited but not for long as they now had four children together and Mary Ann needed to look after them. For a time Thunderbolt worked with a boy named William Monckton who later surrendered to police. Things came to an end when Thunderbolt was chased by Constable Walker to Kentucky Creek and shot dead. Even though the body was positively identified as Fred Ward some people believe that he escaped and there was a cover-up to hide that someone died in his place.
6. Frank McCallum, aka Captain Melville
Francis McNeish McNeill McCallum was a colourful character indeed. He was born at sea but raised in Scotland and from his teens used aliases to obscure his actions. He was transported to Van Diemans Land in 1837 for house breaking and served time at Point Puer Boys prison at Port Arthur. For years the teenager was flogged and kept in solitary confinement until gaining his first taste of freedom by going bush with a boy named Stanton – it didn’t last long. When McCallum was eventually liberated he went bush and the legend of Captain Melville began. There were claims that Melville lived with Aboriginals before crossing the Strait to Victoria in 1851. Melville appears to have operated around the northern part of the colony in areas like Ballan, Inglewood and Mount Macedon. The Melville caves in Mount Kooyoorah and Mount Arapiles as well as the Melville Forest are claimed to be named after him. The stories about Melville are many and few of them can be substantiated, though his reputation is as a charming highwayman who would occasionally stick up a station for a good meal and a pleasant sing-along. In 1852 he teamed up with William Robert Roberts and decided to make their fortunes from the diggings – by robbing the miners. By working the roads around the Ballarat diggings they made themselves a small fortune and made the poor decision to treat themselves to a night at a brothel. After a few too many drinks Melville let slip about the reward on his head and a prostitute escaped to notify the authorities. After attempting to steal a police horse to escape on Captain Melville and Roberts were arrested and taken to Geelong Gaol. When he was finally tried in 1853 by judge Redmond Barry, he was sentenced to 32 years imprisonment for highway robbery – by the time he would get out of prison he would be an old man and this realisation did not make him a cooperative captive. Taken to the prison hulk Success he tried to bite off a warder’s nose and spent 20 days in solitary confinement. Each day the work party would be rowed from the moored ship to the land where they were employed building a wharf among other amenities. During the transfer one day Melville and two accomplices bashed Constable Owens and threw him overboard and a fellow convicts was killed. Melville was sentenced to life imprisonment in Melbourne Gaol where he attempted to murder the gaol governor. In the end Frank McCallum, alias Captain Melville, was found dead in his cell where he had strangled himself to death.
7. John Kerney, aka Captain Thunderbolt
South Australia had its own Captain Thunderbolt in the form of John Kerney, the son of a cabinet maker. Living in Adelaide, 22 year old Kerney decided to follow in the footsteeps of the infamous highwaymen of New South Wales teamed up with his brother David and a friend called Thomas Field and stole a shotgun before going bush in 1866. Along the way they added Thomas Creamer, John Martin, and Robert Allen to their number. The gang would stick up travelers in the usual fashion and four innocent were arrested and convicted for the crimes. The bushrangers took to wearing black masks and on the night of 19 May 1866 broke into the home of Ann Taylor, a widow, firing their guns indiscriminately and forcing the terrified woman to the floor. They made off with Taylor’s watch and jewellery. The robberies continued with one victim refusing to back down and lashing out at Kerney with a whip. In October of 1866 the wild career of the Thunderbolt Gang came to an abrupt end when the Kerneys and Field were arrested. The boys were tried and in March 1867 they were found guilty of armed robbery and sentenced to death. This sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment in Yatala Prison, Dry Creek.