When Captain Thunderbolt was arrested in Ipswich

Inside Captain Thunderbolt’s Cave in the New England district

Captain Thunderbolt was known as the “gentleman bushranger” and holds the record as the longest roaming bushranger in Australian history. His real name was Frederick ‘Fred’ Wordsworth Ward, the son of a convict, whose self-styled pseudonym of Captain Thunderbolt stuck. He was on the run in northern New South Wales and the Queensland border region for almost seven years.  

One hundred and fifty years ago back in 1870, Ipswich policeman Sergeant William Francis was particularly keen to catch Thunderbolt. Francis had been sworn into the newly reformed Queensland Police in 1864 and was in charge of the station at Warwick in late 1867 when the bushranger paid a visit. Thunderbolt was on his way south after visiting Toowoomba and stopped to observe who was winning cash at the Warwick race day. He avoided being recognised and, in the process, humiliated the local constabulary.

A few months later Thunderbolt held up grazier Nicholas Hart and robbed him of £105 which was his winnings from the Tenterfield races.

Quite a sensation was produced in Ipswich on the evening of Tuesday the 8th of February 1870 when it became known that a man believed to be the notorious bushranger Thunderbolt had been apprehended by Sergeant Francis. The police court was particularly well attended the next morning by those anxious to catch a glimpse of the prisoner. The news quickly spread around Australia.

Ipswich in 1870 when Thunderbolt was arrested

A policeman who had seen Thunderbolt seven years earlier was brought up from Sydney. He arrived to identify the prisoner, but he couldn’t say one way or the other.

In the meantime, several Ipswich locals were casting doubt over the case by saying that there was not the slightest resemblance.

Nicholas Hart was brought up from Tenterfield. He was the man who’d been stuck up by Thunderbolt just two years earlier.  Hart said that he was certain that this wasn’t the same man.

Francis wanted an incorruptible police witness and sent for Senior Sergeant Thomas Kerrigan from Maitland. Kerrigan was familiar with Thunderbolt and had arrested his wife a few years earlier. But he arrived too late.

The Ipswich magistrate had already released the prisoner. The man had claimed the name ‘Joseph Leech’ and then ‘Joseph Inge’. As I explained on West Bremer Radio, I have not been able to find a trace of anyone anywhere likely to have been him using either name. The man that police believed to have been Thunderbolt had appeared and then disappeared amid a fog of mystery.

It’s interesting that the Ipswich police sergeant Francis had been involved in another high-profile case a few years earlier. In 1866, Francis had got into a public slanging match in Roma with the local priest Reverend Father Larkin. The priest successfully sued Sergeant Francis for defamation after it was claimed that Francis had called him, “a clerical imposter, that he was drinking with bullock drivers, and that he was suspended by the Bishop.”

Just two years later, Father Larkin was convicted in New Zealand of rioting and seditious libels, later in Canada was charged with manslaughter, and Father Larkin had indeed been suspended by the Bishop just as Sergeant Francis had said.

It seems that the Ipswich policeman had a nose for crooks, so maybe he got it right when he thought he’d arrested Captain Thunderbolt.

“You are looking for Jim Ward,” the mystery prisoner had said when charged. Why he got the name wrong of Australia’s most famous bushranger at the time could have been to cause confusion.

Thunderbolt was killed in northern New South Wales just three months after the alleged Ipswich episode.

The death of Thundebolt after his alleged Ipswich arrest


Photo credits:
Inside Captain Thunderbolt’s Cave – my own
View of Ipswich from the Ipswich Grammar School c1870 – State Library of Queensland
Death of Thunderbolt – wood engraving by Samuel Calvert 18 June 1870, State Library of Victoria


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