Spotlight: Thunderbolt’s confession

Many tall tales are told of the various bushrangers from the “glory” days of the 1860s. It must have seemed at one stage that every man and his mother had a story to tell of Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner, Johnny Gilbert, Blue Cap, Dan Morgan or Captain Thunderbolt. Through these yarns, well-spun and oft-repeated, many of the falsehoods generated to raise one’s standing among barflies were accepted as fact and the facts forgotten in favour of the more preferable “big fish” stories. Perhaps owing to his longevity, Frederick Wordsworth Ward, alias Thunderbolt, became the subject of much myth-making. Even today, people maintain beliefs in things like Thunderbolt’s hidden treasure or that he was never really killed, simply because the idea of a colonial Robin Hood with a name that conjures images of a dashing highwayman, on a braying steed illuminated in the night by the jagged streak of a bolt of lightning, are far more exciting than the reality of a robber who was considered more of a nuisance than a bold outlaw. So when someone comes forward with a story of meeting Thunderbolt that portrays him as neither a dashing highwayman or even a competent bushman, it leads one to think that there may be more than a grain of truth in the tale. So it is with this anonymous article, published in 1902 – just over thirty years after Thunderbolt was killed.

Sydney Sportsman (Surry Hills, NSW : 1900 – 1954), Wednesday 19 November 1902, page 2


THUNDERBOLT!

FREDERICK WARD.

A CONFESSION.

(By ‘Bucket.’)

(From “Truth’s” Country Edition. )

In digging among some musty old newspapers I came across a communication headed ‘Recollections of Thunderbolt,’ which may interest the reader : — “As my acquaintance with Thunderbolt was of very recent date prior to his being shot, it has occurred to me that it might interest the majority of your readers (‘Armidale Telegraph, August, 1870) were I to give an account of the leading occurrences of his life, as narrated to me by the bushranger himself since the time he took up lawless pursuits. My first introduction to the freebooter arose in this wise: My father and myself, who are miners, were engaged in prospecting in a very wild and desolate part of the district of New England, situated among the gorges at the head of Guy Fawkes, a tributary of the Clarence. And here, while we were engaged in driving our packhorses over a creek, we one day encountered a lone bushman, who joined our party. The man was dressed in moleskin trousers, long boots and spurs, Crimean shirt, and rough high hat. He bestrode a horse which was more remarkable for strength than beauty, and carried, rather ostentatiously, as I thought, a revolver in his belt. The stranger seemed equally surprised with my father and myself at the meeting, and after merely exchanging the compliments of the day, rode off, and disappeared in the neighboring ravines. My father, who told me afterwards that he had known Ward personally at an earlier period of his career, said, ‘Did you know who that was?’ And on my answering him in the negative, replied, ‘That is Thunderbolt.’ After the bushranger’s departure we continued our work for some hours till the sun was getting low, and when we settled in camp for the night and were seated at the fire I was surprised on looking round to see the mounted bushranger at my back. He accosted me by saying, ‘Good evening, stranger,’ and inquired whether I had seen any horses about. After telling him that I had not he inquired the name of the nearest station, and how far it was away. I said that Nowland’s or Newby’s was the nearest, the latter being called ‘Paddy’s Land’, which was 12 miles off. ‘And what may your name be?’ said the bushman. ‘My name is —, and the man with me is my father.’ Thunderbolt thereupon dismounted, hobbled his horse, and spent the night with us. He revived his old acquaintanceship with my father, gave us an account of his later career and the robberies, perils, and hardships of his bushranging life. He refused the proffered shelter of our tent, remarking that for the last seven years he had never slept but for one night in a bed, and preferred camping in his own blankets outside. I had never seen the bushranger before, and was much struck with the mildness of his conversation, the candor of his narratives, and the justness of his views regarding his unlawful courses. I was astonished at his tales, and felt much commiseration for the misguided and unhappy criminal. His account of his daring and courageous escape from Cockatoo, seven years before, more particularly interested me, as I had often heard it stated by those well qualified to give an opinion that he never could have swum from the island, by reason of the distance, not less than on account of the number of sharks, and that he must have been assisted by some confederate in a boat. The way he told he accomplished his escape was by getting a fellow prisoner, as a first step, to build him up and secrete him in a quantity of bricks lying near the water. There in silence he lay, awaiting the approach of night. He heard, with anything but satisfaction, an officer order a party of convicts to place upon the bricks a quantity of lime, in bags, a small cargo of which had been landed at the island. The order was executed, and for a short time the bushranger was under the idea that he would be smothered. At dark he commenced to disentomb himself, and after many struggles succeeded. He heard the sentries marching their round by the margin of the island, one of whom was posted just opposite to where he lay concealed. The first idea which occurred to him was to run and tumble the guard into the water and swim away, but, fortunately for the sentry, he himself rendered such a step unnecessary by withdrawing to have a chat with his comrade, during which the bushranger glided into the water and swam three miles to a place of safety. He hated the bondage of Cockatoo and its convict company, and seemed to regard it as a place little better than the infernal regions. Besides his natural hatred of confinement, another object, he said, induced him to effect his escape from Cockatoo, which was a desire to shoot his uncle, who, he affirmed, bore false witness against him, thereby leading to his conviction on a charge of horsestealing, of which he was quite innocent. This revengeful purpose forsook him as he was swimming, when he formed a resolution to shed no blood on any account, and his whole criminal career was free from cruelty, treachery, and bloodshed.

‘Thunderbolt was a generous robber, if a term like that can be applied to such a criminal. He related to us how he had occasionally visited Queensland, Liverpool Plains, the Gwydir, and other districts in the course of his predatory life. He boasted that he was not afraid of the police, because they were no bushmen, and unable, consequently, to ride after him. He referred, among other encounters he had had with the police, to one at the Rocks at Uralla (near the spot where he ultimately met his death), where the police, under Sergeant — now Superintendent — Grainger, attacked him and his mate, and wounded him. He said his horse got bogged and that he limped away on foot, the police not daring to follow him. He confessed to having been hard pressed at times, particularly on one occasion by a Constable named Dalton, near Tamworth, who he said was a brave man. On one occaslon he said he had robbed the mail of £1700, but he seldom had as much money as would pay his way, which he always did when possible. He had often to endure great hardships for want of food, and more especially for want of water. On one occasion, in company with another bushranger, during drought, they were three days without water. His mate’s horse died and the rider succumbed, and lay down to die also. Thunderbolt left him in search of water, assuring him of his return if he found it. His own hunger and thirst increased to such a degree that he shot his horse for the purpose of drinking its blood, after which he collected a quantity in his boot for future supply. Wandering about for more than a day he came upon sludge, and sucked the muddy water from the earth, but could collect none for his mate. Looking about, he saw a hole covered with a piece of bark, but no water in it. He continued his search, and found other holes covered in like manner, and dry. At last, on lifting a piece of bark, imagine his delight on discovering about a bucket of water in a hole. After refreshing himself he filled his boots, and travelled back to where he left his dying mate, from whom he found the breath of life just departing. Wetting his lips, and gradually supplying him with more water, he recovered strength, and joined Thunderbolt in his journey. New England was the chief place of the bushrangers’ resort. He was afraid to leave what he deemed his safe haunts in that district and imperil his liberty by attempting to escape to a foreign country. It was his proud boast that he never violated female virtue, nor shed blood, and he regretted that he should ever have induced youths to join him. Some had joined him unasked: He himself was 16 years of age before he was guilty of any crime, and then he was led by others into it. Although in appearance he looked between 40 and 50 years of age, he was not more than 30. It was a peculiarity of Thunderbolt’s that he could never rob anyone with with whom he had first entered into conversation, his nature would not permit him, hence his custom was to ride up to a person whom it was his intention to rob, and, without another word, demand his money. He pretended never to have known what fear was and instanced this by telling a story of some gentleman in New England who had made a boast that he would shoot him the first he met him. A short time after Thunderbolt met the boaster and saw that he was armed. Boldly riding up to him the bushranger asked his name, and he told him. He intimated that he knew who he was, adding that he was Thunderbolt. The gentleman, he said, trembled and fumbled for his revolver, observing which he cried out, ‘Up with your arms, or I’ll blow your brains out. You were to shoot me, now is my time.’ He then took from him his gold watch and a revolver, the gentleman expecting as a matter of course to be shot. Thunderbolt, however, assured him of his safety, and rode many miles along with him on his way. In company with one of his youthful proteges he one day stuck up a public-house where a number of men were drinking in the bar. He entered and, according to the usual fashion, ordered them to ‘bail up’. The publican, calculating how a compliance with the demand would affect his cash box, made a desperate leap and seized the bushranger by the arms in a way which prevented him from using his revolver ; the half-drunken men stolidly looking on during the struggle without rendering assistance. His young mate began to think Thunderbolt was captured, and before proceeding to remount his horse called out, ‘What shall I do?’ ‘Your knife,’ replied the bushranger, ‘Let his bowels out.’ At once the boy’s knife was unsheathed, seeing which, Boniface instantly released his hold and ran for shelter. The bushranger admitted this to have been the narrowest escape from capture he had ever experienced.

“The morning following the conversation just related Thunderbolt rose up early, before we were astir, and rode away up the creek. About an hour after he brought down, a mob of young horses, which he rounded among some large rocks near our camp. Pointing to a high-bred animal, be said, ‘I want that one,’ and with a little trouble he had him roped and saddled. The horse, which had never before been tackled, he proceeded to mount, when it bucked in a most furious manner until completely exhausted. Thunderbolt then riding off on it, leading another horse. The thought possessed me for a moment to capture the bushranger, and the opportunity was a good one, for he was most careless and confiding ; but I felt unable to betray the confidence be seemed to repose in us. On an after-occasion, when meeting him at Puddledock, the same thought possessed me respecting his capture, and the same feeling of reluctance to betray one so confiding prevented me. The thought and object of his life must have been to elude capture, and I am inclined to think, from the recklessness he showed in encountering the police at Kentucky Creek, that he rather courted death than shunned it.”

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