Captain Thunderbolt

Captain Thunderbolt, despite a name seemingly custom-designed for a comic book, was not a superhero. He certainly couldn’t stop bullets from hitting at his chest.

I went in search of places named for "Captains Less Prestigious" recently. The effort intended to find memorable places associated with second-tier captains who never achieved the same level of fame or renown of Captain James Cook. This prompted reader "John of Sydney" to mention Thunderbolts Rock and Thunderbolts Way in the vicinity of Uralla, New South Wales, Australia. While neither designation specifically included a military title, John noted that both referred to a Nineteenth Century character known colloquially as Captain Thunderbolt.

This "captain" was a bushranger, an Australian highwayman, born with a much less memorable name in 1835: Frederick Wordsworth Ward. His criminal life began early as a horse thief and involved a prison sentence a failed parole and finally an escape from the Cockatoo Island penal establishment (map). Wanted by the authorities, Ward returned to criminal pursuits to support himself in an attempt to avoid another trip to prison. He also returned to lands already familiar to him, to the New England District of New South Wales. Here he could rob soft targets with impunity while hiding in the rugged, sparsely-populated terrain he knew so well.

Thunderbolt's Hideout
Thunderbolt’s Hideout: Melanie J. Cook on Fickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Ward dubbed himself Captain Thunderbolt by 1863 as his fame or infamy began to spread. Bushrangers as a class were viewed in some quarters as folk heroes for their ability to live by their wits in harsh terrain and remain one step ahead of the law. Unmistakeably, these bands of roving outlaws were criminals. Captain Thunderbolt focused on easy marks such as remote country stores, postal carriers, highway travelers, livestock stations and hotels. This was not a romantic lifestyle.

Nonetheless the bushrangers generated a level of sympathy in the face of a justice system perceived by the underclass as socially unfair. It’s really not all that different than some of the bandits roaming the Old West of the United States. Captain Thunderbolt may not have achieved a level of name recognition as did other famed bushrangers such as Ned Kelly, however he may have been the most proficient. His career lasted nearly seven years, perhaps the longest continuous streak of any bushranger. Longevity was not a hallmark of this particular occupation.

Australia’s Famous Bushrangers noted:

[Captain Thunderbolt]… undoubtedly had great nerve, endurance and unusual self-reliance and his success as a bushranger can be largely attributed to his horsemanship and splendid mounts, to popular sympathy inspired by his agreeable appearance and conversation, and to his gentlemanly behaviour and avoidance of violence; he also showed prudence in not robbing armed coaches, or towns where a policeman was stationed. The last of the professional bushrangers in New South Wales, Ward was the most successful.

Detailed accounts of Ward’s life include the Australian Dictionary of Biography and the aforementioned Australia’s Famous Bushrangers. The second source is particularly useful and includes a photograph taken of Ward after his death plus a long list of crimes attributed to him by date and location.

View Thunderbolt in a larger map

Thunderbolt territory consisted primarily of the western side of the Great Dividing Range north of Sydney and south of Brisbane. It is still readily identifiable within the modern terrain. I consulted the Government of Australia’s Geoscience Australia Gazetteer of Australia Place Names to produce the map displayed above. Notice the tight clustering of various Thunderbolt-themed geography: mountain; lookout; cave; gap; gully; gorge; hideout; hill; hole; and rock. It’s a veritable treasure map of Captain Thunderbolt’s Nineteenth Century haunts.

Notice the road that I marked with a red line. This is Thunderbolts Way that John mentioned in his original comment. It is well regarded as a great scenic road covering a variety of terrain including mountains and plains, running 290-kilometres (180 mi) between Gloucester and Copes Creek. It cuts directly through territory once roamed by Captain Thunderbolt.

View Larger Map

Thunderbolts Way takes travelers through Uralla, NSW. Here, the town erected a Captain Thunderbolt statue at the intersection of the Thunderbolts Way and the New England Highway. Uralla figures significantly in the demise of the bushranger. Along Kentucky Creek (nearest Street View image) just outside of town, a constable finally caught-up with Frederick Ward and shot him dead. Captain Thunderbolt came to an untimely end in 1870 although legends of survival and mistaken identity continued for years thereafter.

Uralla leverages its Captain Thunderbolt connection as a tourism draw. In addition to the road and the statue, Uralla hosts an exhibit at the McCrossin’s Mill Museum and draws attention to various of his bushranger hideouts nearby. One can even visit his grave in the Old Uralla Cemetery.

Thunderbolt, most definitely, would be a "captain" less prestigious.

Totally Unrelated Weather Update

Hurricane Sandy gave the Washington, DC area a pretty severe pounding of rain and wind into the early hours of this morning as expected. I was pretty lucky. We kept electrical power throughout the storm in spite of numerous trees and wires down within my immediate neighborhood. The family is fine. So is the gecko.

2 Replies to “Captain Thunderbolt”

  1. Glad to read that your family has survived Hurricane Sandy safely.
    Your research into the life and times of Captain Thunderbolt has increased my desire to travel along Thunderbolt’s Way soon.
    I am amazed that you uncovered so many places which claim a connection with the bushranger – of course as is usual in these cases the connection may be nonexistent, but to quote the journalist’s motto – never let the facts get in the way of a good story!

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