Thunderbolt’s Last Ride

Tuesday, 24 May, 1870, began as any usual day would for Fred Ward, alias Captain Thunderbolt. He arose early and left his camp at the big rock on horseback. The rock was a bizarre natural structure, like a huge marble defying physics to teeter on a cliff, split down the middle providing ample space to hide for a bushranger. On the way he met a man named Pearson who was en route from Salisbury Mountain. Ward asked Pearson if he would make it to Blanche’s Inn by going in that direction, to which he replied in the affirmative. Pearson was an old associate of Ward’s and asked if he remembered him from their days breaking in horses in Mudgee. Ward replied that he did but added that he could not stop to chat. After the brief interaction Ward rode off on his way. For months Ward had laid low, only emerging once in a while to resume his trade. Many had assumed that he had left New South Wales altogether. Now he was ready to get back to work and he thought he knew the perfect spot for highway robbery.

Blanche’s Inn was situated at Church Gully between Bendemeer and Uralla and it was here that Ward decided to work for the day. Before midday Ward had robbed three travellers, including the proprietor of the inn and his wife who were returning on a spring cart from an outing to Uralla. Ward deprived Mrs. Blanche of a purse then allowed them to continue on their way. Word reached the police in Uralla at 3:30pm when Giovanni Cappasoti, a hawker who had been one of the victims, made a complaint that a bushranger had stuck him up at Blanche’s Inn and stolen £3.13s.6d, a watch and chain, a gold nugget and jewellery. Cappasoti had been heading to the Uralla races from Tamworth when accosted. Following this he had gone into the inn for a drink, which Thunderbolt shouted him after following him inside. Cappasoti then drove his wagon to Donnington’s farm, took his horse out, and rode to the police station. In response to the news Senior Constable Mulhall and Constable Walker set out in pursuit of the infamous Captain Thunderbolt.

Ward was in the process of robbing a man when Senior Constable Mulhall came into view. The hapless victim had been taking a horse belonging to a Mr. Huxham into Armidale when Ward had bailed him up. The handsome grey horse Ward was on when Mulhall appeared was in fact Huxham’s and the man was attempting to get it back when they were interrupted. Spotting the trooper, Ward immediately turned and fired twice at the him, who returned fire twice. Ward took off towards Kentucky Creek, the stockman in pursuit. Mulhall turned back and met Walker who had been bringing up the rear.

“There is the wretch; I have exchanged shots with him. Shoot him,” Mulhall ordered Walker. Walker, dressed in plainclothes, immediately pursued Ward. The other man accidentally cut Walker off by blocking the path with his horse, which was evidently spooked by the commotion. As Walker drew his revolver he accidentally discharged it into the ground. Ward, believing he was being shot at, fired at Walker but missed. The bushranger took off as fast as the horse would take him, the trooper following suit.

For the prior seven years, Ward had been able to outride the police and escape capture at every opportunity, however this time he was missing the key ingredient for his success – his wife Mary Ann Bugg. In previous incidents, Mary Ann had often run interference for Ward, allowing herself to be captured in order to give her lover time to get away. Now that Ward was operating alone he was entirely reliant on his horsemanship and the speed and endurance of his horse.

Constable Walker galloped after Ward, brandishing his revolver and calling on the outlaw to halt in the name of the Queen. Ward replied by firing at the trooper with a pistol. The hooves of the animals churned up the dust, which coiled in large sandy coloured clouds behind them. The rhythmic pounding of the galloping passed through the bodies of the riders. Wind whipped at Ward’s thin curls and he jabbed his spurs into the horse’s flanks. Walker stuck to him like glue, matching every dodge and weave as they bounded over creeks and through bush for around an hour.

Finally Ward reached a junction of Chilcott’s Waterhole and Kentucky Creek. He dismounted and began to wade out into the waterhole. Walker rode to the bank, shooting Ward’s horse to make escape impossible should he double back. As Walker found a spot to cross, Ward climbed out of the waterhole and discarded his coat. He ran 120 yards up Kentucky Creek and crossed to the opposite bank. By now Walker had caught up and was by the creek with his pistol drawn. Ward returned the gesture. As they faced off Walker finally got a good look at the legendary Thunderbolt. Far from being a handsome, dashing highwayman in stolen finery, Ward was skinny, ill-kempt and balding. His sinewy hand flexed as he steadied his revolver towards the trooper.

Constable Walker, dressed in the same clothes and riding the same horse as on the fateful confrontation, recreates his capture of Thunderbolt at the exact spot where it occurred.

“Who are you?” Ward demanded, confused by the policeman’s attire.

“Walker.”

“Are you a trooper?”

“Yes, and a married man,” Walker stated.

“In that case, think of your family and keep off,” Ward barked.

“Will you surrender?”

“No! I will die first.”

Walker tightened his grip on the reins of his horse. He could feel his heart in his throat.

“Well, then it is you or I for it,” Walker said. With that he directed his mount into the water and the beast crashed into the creek, becoming totally submerged.

[Source: National Museum of Australia]

Ward, unable or unwilling to follow through with his bluff, rushed into the water attempted to drag Walker out of the saddle. Water splashed around them as they struggled, the horse becoming increasingly hard to control. Walker fired a shot into Ward’s left breast just below the clavicle. The ball punctured both lungs as it made its way out under the right shoulder blade. Ward collapsed into the water but the rose and lunged at Walker again, the trooper clubbing the bushranger in the head with the pistol. Ward uttered no words as he sank into the water. Walker waited for a reply, but none came. He rode back onto the bank of the creek and dismounted before wading into the water to recover the body. He dragged the drenched bushranger onto dry land but by now dusk was settling in. Walker rode back to Blanche’s Inn and procured a horse and cart to recover the body but by the time he reached the location again it was too dark to find the exact spot.

The following day at 3:00am, Walker and Senior Constable Scott returned to the junction of Kentucky Creek. To Walker’s consternation, the body was gone. The immediate panic was allayed after a brief search of the area when they found Ward’s dead body in the scrub on the opposite side of the road. After Walker had left Ward had just enough life left in him to drag himself across the road. As he made it into the scrub he collapsed and there he died alone in the night. The body was loaded into the cart and taken back to Blanche’s Inn. When the corpse was inspected by the troopers they found a collection of jewellery taken from the Italian hawker, a silver stop watch, a small gold nugget, imitation gold jewellery and a well-used meerschaum pipe. They also found an iron horseshoeing hammer that they suspected was Ward’s own. Ward was dressed in strapped moleskin trousers, long boots, two Crimean shirts, and had been wearing an old cabbage tree hat. After a post mortem was completed the corpse was photographed so that it could be identified without the body having to be viewed as there was not adequate facilities for the body to be preserved.

J. Buchanan, esquire, the local police magistrate, helmed the magisterial inquiry into the remains at 2:00pm on the Thursday. For six hours evidence was taken from Walker, Mulhall, Senior Constable Scott, Cappasoti the hawker, a banker named Ward who had been robbed by Thunderbolt near Moredun the previous April, Senior Sergeant Balls, Pearson, Blanche the innkeeper and Dr. Spasshat. The body was compared to the official description put out by police in October 1863: 5’8 1/4″ tall; pale, fallow complexion; light brown, curly hair; hazel eyes; mole on right wrist and two warts on the back of the middle finger of the left hand. Senior Sergeant Balls, who had been one of the guards on Cockatoo Island when Ward had escaped with Fred Britten, positively identified the body as Ward, as did Ward the banker, Pearson and Dr. Spasshat.

In consequence of his meritorious conduct, Alexander Binning Walker was given a promotion to the rank of Senior Constable and placed in charge of a station. He also received £32 from a subscription collected at the conclusion of the inquest.

It was considered by a great many people that the death of Captain Thunderbolt would signify an end to bushranging in New South Wales. By this point Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert, John O’Meally, Dan Morgan, and Tommy Clarke were all dead, and Frank Gardiner was in prison along with scores of other bushrangers. Many were hopeful that now they could travel safely through the colony without fear of molestation, and they need not worry that their farms or stores would be raised. It was true that the peak of bushranging ended with Thunderbolt’s death, but it would be at least another fifty years before the scourge of bushranging had evaporated almost entirely.

Frederick Wordsworth Ward, post mortem [Source: State Library of New South Wales]

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