Captain Thunderbolt | Hero or villain

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FROM bridges and parks to mountains and lakes their names live on, but have you ever wanted to know more about the people behind these place names…. 

WINDING its way from Gloucester to Walcha through rugged countryside is the 290-kilometre Thunderbolts Way.  

Gloucester sawmiller and road builder Eric Carson has been credited with getting the ball rolling on this remarkable feat of engineering when he carved the first road through the ranges to bring out hardwood from the forests on the Great Divide. 

His contribution is recognised at Carson’s lookout - a popular halfway stop where you can take a break from the steep winding road and enjoy the stunning view but it’s the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt whose legend lives on in the road’s name.

Captain Thunderbolt was born Frederick Ward in 1835 to convict Michael Ward and his wife Sophia.  

Like so many other Australian bushrangers, he has been viewed with fondness and admiration.  His wife Mary Ann Bugg, who was of indigenous heritage, generates almost as much interest.

It’s important to remember that during the 1860s Australia was facing what’s been described as a ‘bushranging epidemic’ – when the rural working classes clashed with the recently established state-run police force and chose to support the bushrangers as their voice against authority.    

There’s a number of conflicting accounts of their lives on the run and how they died.  There is even a theory that it wasn’t Captain Thunderbolt who was killed by police in 1870 but his uncle who was posing as Thunderbolt, in the Uralla area at the time.  Authorities, embarrassed by their mistake, covered up the story and Captain Thunderbolt caught a boat to San Francisco then moving to Canada – so that theory goes.

As a young man, Frederick Ward (as he was still known) worked as a horsebreaker and drover on the Tocal Run on the lower Paterson River and acquired extensive knowledge of horses and the rugged mountains.

But in 1856 he was sent to the ‘hell hole’ penal settlement of Cockatoo Island for possessing a stolen horse that belonged to the station.  He was released in 1860 and not long after his release he met Mary Ann Bugg who became pregnant with their first child. Ward settled her in the Dungog area, however he was soon in trouble with the authorities for breaking his ticket-of-leave parole and for horse stealing. He was imprisoned again at Cockatoo Island.

After their first child was born it is reported that Mary wasted no time and left the child with a neighbour and moved to Balmain, near Cockatoo Island where she found a job as a housemaid.  

Some historians have reported that Mary swam to Cockatoo Island, with a file for Fred and another inmate to cut through their chains. Once again, it is hard to separate fact from fiction and this theory has been ridiculed by some. They all swam to freedom and the couple moved to the Maitland area and the legend of the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt began.

He would evade capture for six years – the longest of any bushranger – due in a large part to his wife’s knowledge of the land.  Mary’s father was an ex-convict and her mother was an Aboriginal woman.  

Captain Thunderbolt robbed mailmen, travellers, inns, stores and stations across much of northern NSW - from the Hunter Region north to Queensland and from Tamworth nearly as far west as Bourke.

He has generated much support and sympathy for his gentlemanly behaviour and tendency to avoid violence in his escapades.

Enduring bushranger mythology claims the name Captain Thunderbolt was established when he entered the tollbar house on the road between Rutherford and Maitland and startled the customs officer from his sleep by banging loudly on the door. The startled officer is said to have remarked: 'By God, I though it must have been a thunderbolt.’

Despite having three children by March 1866, Mary Ann was a valuable asset to Thunderbolt and the gang, entering towns to buy supplies and finding out the times that the coaches left the town and what route they would take.  Her indigenous heritage meant she had an intimate knowledge of the bush and how to find food and shelter.  It’s also believed that she taught Captain Thunderbolt to read and write (she had attended boarding school).

Aside from the ‘sailing to Canada’ theory, the widely accepted version of Captain Thunderbolt’s death is that on May 25, 1870, after robbing travellers (and ‘impaired by alcohol’ after a session at the Royal Oak Inn) he was shot and killed by Constable Alexander Binney Walker at Kentucky Creek near Uralla.

Multiple death certificates and her use of other names, makes it hard to determine exactly how Mary died.  One possibility is that she remarried and died at the age of 70.  Another scenario is that, knowing she was dying, Mary left her children to spend her final weeks with Ward in the Australian wilderness around 1867/68.

This story What’s in a name | Captain Thunderbolt first appeared on Gloucester Advocate.