Bushranger Captain Thunderbolt's demise - was it in Uralla or Canada?

Bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, real name Frederick Ward, born at Freemans Reach and brought up at Wilberforce.

Bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, real name Frederick Ward, born at Freemans Reach and brought up at Wilberforce.

OAKVILLE guitarist and half of blues band Doggn It – John Cupit –has written a song about Frederick Ward, better known as Captain Thunderbolt the bushranger, and has done some research on the famous highwayman’s Hawkesbury beginnings.

He said that while Thunderbolt’s birthplace is recorded as Wilberforce, he was actually born in a slab hut in Freemans Reach, “and there is a great story to tell”, Mr Cupit said.

He said Thunderbolt’s descendants believe it was Thunderbolt’s uncle, William Harry Ward, known as Harry, who was shot and killed by police near Uralla in 1870, not Thunderbolt, and that Thunderbolt and his mother Sarah went to America.

The official photo of the man shot at Uralla in 1870 who police claimed was Captain Thunderbolt, but which Mr Cupit believes is most likely Thunderbolt's uncle Harry who had made a habit of impersonating Thunderbolt.

The official photo of the man shot at Uralla in 1870 who police claimed was Captain Thunderbolt, but which Mr Cupit believes is most likely Thunderbolt's uncle Harry who had made a habit of impersonating Thunderbolt.

The relatives believe he died in Canada in 1903, more than 30 years after he was supposedly shot.

Mr Cupit said the conventional Thunderbolt history is that he was the youngest of Hawkesbury couple Michael and Sophia Ward’s 10 children, born in 1835. Sarah was another of their children.

However Mr Cupit says Sarah was actually Thunderbolt’s mother and that his grandparents Michael and Sophia Ward raised him as their son on their leased property on King Road, Wilberforce.

Sarah went on to marry John Garbutt at St James Anglican Church at Pitt Town. They had three children – Maria, John and James. 

In 1856 Thunderbolt partnered with these two half-brothers (who the conventional history names as his nephews) to steal 40 horses, 16 of which were rough justice payback for the death of his uncle (conventional history says his brother) George at Tocal station near Maitland.

Thunderbolt’s beef was that the overseers had forced George to take stock to market over the flooded Manning River to Maitland in 1854. Despite George’s complaints that it was too dangerous, he had been forced to go, and subsequently drowned.

“Thunderbolt had been a horse breaker on Tocal, and knew all the people concerned in the tragedy, and he and the whole Ward family felt Tocal Station owed the widow some restitution,” Mr Cupit said.

“This single act of overbearing management led directly to Thunderbolt going down the path he chose, becoming the most successful bushranger in Australian history.”

History says Thunderbolt was convicted of the horse stealing and sent to Cockatoo Island. He was given a ticket of leave later but was caught with a stolen horse again and sent back to the island. He escaped in 1863 by swimming to land and spent the next six years pursuing his bushranging career.

Mr Cupit said Thunderbolt was described at the time as possessing ''agreeable appearance and conversation and his gentlemanly behaviour and avoidance of violence made him loved by many''.

“This at a time when police corruption and overbearing British authoritarianism led to the rise of the ‘wild colonial boys’, who generally robbed the rich and gave to the poor and were as a consequence widely protected and admired by free settlers,” he said.

Mr Cupit said Thunderbolt’s actual uncle Harry (Sarah’s brother) would share in the bushranger’s popular notoriety by saying he was Thunderbolt when carrying out his own robberies “but while Thunderbolt carried an empty pistol, his uncle was inclined to shoot at police”, Mr Cupit said.

Mr Cupit believes it was this uncle Harry who was shot and killed by police at Uralla, despite police producing witnesses saying the moles and bullet scars on the corpse matched those of Thunderbolt.