Outback MagazineOutback Magazine


Gold FeverThe Thunderbolt enigma

Though bushranger Fred Ward’s last stand was more than 130 years ago, his life – and death – is still surrounded by mystery.

Story Kirsty McKenzie
Photos Ken Brass

A cast having been previously taken, and a last glance given to at least a hundred anxious sightseers who have been waiting for the purpose, the coffin was fastened down, conveyed to the Uralla graveyard, and Thunderbolt’s body consigned to the grave which had been so long yawning for him. Without a prayer, without a tear in the presence of not more than a dozen witnesses, the earth closed over and shut out from earthly view one who, had his intellect and natural capabilities been turned to good instead of evil, might at the present time have been a useful and worthy member of society, instead of leaving a memory covered with disgrace, and his body the tenant of a felon’s grave …”

Gold FeverSo reported the Armidale Telegraph on the burial of Frederick Wordsworth Ward in May 1870. And that should have ended the final chapter in the life of the New South Wales bushranger known as Captain Thunderbolt. But such is the Australian love of the underdog, not to mention a good yarn, that tales of this antihero live on and have been embellished by the years. As is often the case with colourful figures, it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain the truth surrounding Ward’s life and demise, with supporters from all sides arguing that theirs are he ‘real’ facts.

What is known is that Fred Ward was born in 1835 or 1836 at Wilberforce, near Windsor, NSW, to convict Michael Ward and his free settler wife, Sophia. When Michael gained his freedom about 1846, the family moved to Maitland in the Hunter Valley, NSW. As the youngest of at least eight children, Fred’s family spread out all over north and central western NSW, giving him plenty of territory in which to find safe houses during his bushranging days.
Ward began his working career as a horsebreaker, which earned him great respect and the knowledge and judgement of good horses that probably led to his undoing. In the mid-1850s, when Ward was aged about 20, he and his nephew James Garbutt were found guilty of being in possession of horses which belonged to his employer on Tocal Station, near Paterson in the Hunter. Ward was sentenced to 10 years in Sydney’s infamous Cockatoo Island prison.Story end

Full story OUTBACK Issue 36 Aug/Sept 2004

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