Thunderbolt the Bushranger, real name Fredrick Wordsworth Ward, was a taboo subject at home when I was a child.
In my early teens I realised there was something my mother’s family didn’t want revealed and when I asked her, my mother refused to say more than, “It wasn’t Thunderbolt they shot.”
How would she know, I thought, but there was no more and it took several years of digging around to find out the truth.
The family secret
You see, my mother’s maternal family had dealings with the bushranger no-one was ever supposed to know, especially when Thunderbolt’s partner, William Monckton, after having given himself up to police and serving time in gaol, married into my great-grandfather’s family in Uralla, NSW.
When a man calling himself Thunderbolt was shot dead in 1870 by Constable Alexander Binney Walker at Kentucky Creek near Uralla, no-one would admit they knew him for fear of the police so Monckton, out of gaol by then, was called upon by the Police Inspector in Armidale to identify the body, which he subsequently did.
The next day, two troopers from Armidale, attending the races at Glenn Innes (130km north) had spied Thunderbolt and had given chase far to the east towards Ebor where they lost his trail. They reported back to the Inspector in Armidale who told them they were wrong; the body of the bushranger was in the morgue in Uralla and the case was closed.
The two troopers who believed they knew better wrote reports which remain today but were never taken as being true.
Many years later, Monckton admitted to family members he had identified the body as Thunderbolt but it was in fact, Frederick Ward’s uncle, William Harry Ward, who also identified himself on occasions as Thunderbolt.
John Cameron had taken up a run near Bundarra on the Gwydir River, NSW, he called Lochiel in 1835 and the run is recorded as officially his in 1838.
Cameron sold Lochiel to Alexander Barlow in 1841 who, one year later, changed the name to Abington and the same property still exists today.
In 1852, Barlow sold Abington to WH & GP Morse, the brothers who employed Thomas Beard and his family to drive a mob of about 3,000 sheep from near Sydney to Abington in 1856.
The Beards arrived in Sydney as free settlers in 1856 aboard the Tantivy.
Thomas stayed on Abington working for the Morse Brothers for a number of years before some of the boys married and moved on around the district however, the youngest boy, Ridgewell, remained living with his father and his step-mother, Mary (Ridgewell) Beard.
Now there are several versions of the visit to Thomas Beard’s hut by Fred Ward and Will Monckton about 12 years later which I’ve compared to family history. You see, Ridgewell Beard was my great-grandfather.
Apart from oral history, Anne Harris, owner of Abington, wrote about the incident in her book Abington, published by the University of New England in 1982 and many other versions exist in books and newspaper articles.
Ward and Monckton arrived at the hut of Thomas Beard late one afternoon, intending to stay overnight. Apparently it was a regular visit when in the area.
Much later the same night, the Armidale Police Inspector and his sergeant arrived at the hut, also wishing to stay overnight. They were following the trail of Thunderbolt but needed to rest their horses.
Ridgewell Beard immediately volunteered his services and took their tired horses out to the stable where the two bushrangers were hidden.
As it turned out, the Police Inspector was riding in a brand new and expensive pig-skin saddle which Ward found to his liking, exchanging it for his own.
The Thunderbolt saddle remained for many years in the Newling Heritage Centre at the southern end of Dangar St., Armidale. More records can be found in Uralla at McCrossin’s Mill & Thunderbolt Gallery.
Frederick Ward’s great-great nephew, Barry Sinclair, who researched the Thunderbolt life for over 15 years, has evidence Ward and his mother, Sarah, took flight to Canada after his ‘death’ and his research has even uncovered their graves.
While there are several records of them being in Canada, none of this became known to the NSW Police. The Wards’ apparently lived quietly in Canada using money accrued over the six years of bushranging in Australia.
Did Fred Ward ever repent of his sins? Did he ever come to know Jesus as his Lord and Saviour? Did he live out his life believing Jesus was the Son of God and that he was crucified and later rose from the dead?
Answers to these questions will never be known by us while we live but if he did, he will be living in heaven with others who did exactly that.
Even the most vile criminals, if they can say yes to the questions above and repented, will be saved if they called upon the name of Jesus.
John Skinner served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo based in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his small farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with 3 children and 7 grandchildren.