Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bushrangers in Balmain - Captain Thunderbolt

The folklore of bushrangers have touched the hearts and minds of all Australians. Their romantically rogue ways of highway robbery and living a life on the run have become legend in Australian history. Balmain, more specifically, Cockatoo Island became an island known for housing some of Australia's most notorious bushrangers. In 1857, a local newspaper called Cockatoo Island "a hot bed of vice, a nursery of crime and a den of the blackest infamy where crimes that would rise the blush of burning shame upon a demon's check are nightly perpetrated." After that description, no one could mistake Cockatoo Island for being a nice place!

In 1833, Governor Bourke established a gaol on the island that originally housed 250 convicts. The island, situated in a remote part of Sydney and surrounded by strong tides and currents, made for a perfect fortress to hold the derelicts of society. It stood as a goal for 38 years before being shut down. During that time, the gaol housed the famous bushranger - Captain Thunderbolt. Captain Thunderbolt gained notoriety as being one of the few prisoners to escape Cockatoo Island prison, braving the strong currents to set foot in Balmain.

Born with the name Frederick Ward in 1833 to convict parents in Wilburforce, Ward was originally sentenced to 10 years hard labour at Cockatoo Island for selling 75 stolen horses. He was 23 at the time. After serving 4 years on the island, he was released and married Mary Ann Bugg. In 1860, he was sent back to Cockatoo Island for stealing 2 shoes and a horse. His wife devised a plan to break him out of gaol.

On 11 September 1863, Mary Ann Bugg swam from the cliffs at Birchgrove to Cockatoo Island carrying tools to release her husband. The plan was a success with Ward, his wife Mary Ann and another prisoner, Fred Bitten, escaping Cockatoo Island and successfully swimming the narrow water ways to the Balmain Peninsular.

The trio then made their way north to the Hunter Valley region where they soon became notorious bushrangers committing crimes ranging from highway robbery to horse stealing. Their crimes were so quick, yet brutal that Ward quickly earned the name Captain Thunderbolt.

Captain Thunderbolt terrorised the NSW central north west for 7 years until he suddenly disappeared. There are a few theories about what happened him. One theory is that he was shot during a highway robbery in 1870 by a Constable Walker in Uralla; however the locals at the time maintained that it was Ward's uncle who was killed and not Captain Thunderbolt. Another theory was that he had fled to America where a "Frederick Ward" shows up in an American census in 1871.

Captain Thunderbolt's violent legacy remains with a statue to him in Uralla and at the Moonan Flat Pub in Scone, where there still remains a bullet hole in the wall made by the bushranger during a hold up.

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