Does Our Museum Glorify A Criminal? – Thunderbolt – Life and Legend

Well, that depends on whether you are a woke, latte-sipping, counter-cultural, moralising history revisions or…Fred Ward, “Captain Thunderbolt”?

Me? I’m in the latter category, so let me explain.

When we first chose to settle in Uralla in 1974, I thought it quaintly amusing that a Pub, built in 1909 as “The Imperial”, would be renamed “The Thunderbolt Inn”, during what had been a hugely successful “Thunderbolt Centenary Celebration” in 1970. Of course, we’d visited the grave, an obligatory duty for every traveller back then. (And now.) “Why the popularity?”, I wondered, in my ignorance. When our Museum opened on 2 May, 1982, our first exhibition was, “The Life and Legend of Thunderbolt”, curated by young professional Michael van Leeuwin, who we shared with the already established Armidale Folk Museum. Michael had borrowed Monckton’s whip and horse hobbles and Thunderbolt’s saddle from Armidale for our “show”, consisting mainly of images and text panels. But the main feature was a mannequin, custom-made in Sydney, of Thunderbolt’s body, laid out on the original Court House table, lent for the exhibition, then subsequently donated, by Harry and Edna Wooldridge. The warts on the effigy’s hand were spot-lit, to prove that it was definitely Fred Ward (and nobody else!) who daringly escaped from Cockatoo Island prison in 1863, pursuing a colourful bushranging career for an impressive seven years before being shot dead by Constable Walker in 1870. Michael, too, had grown weary of all the “fairy-tales” circulated by “experts” whose “grandmother told me. . etc.” Uralla’s “Mrs O’Malley’s Magnificent Music Hall” had begun in 1976, a sensational melodrama always the feature. In 1982, I was writing a new drama, “Thunderbolt”, so I’d read everything ever published about him – of which there was a lot, so there was obviously public curiosity about him and his exploits. Public curiosity? There surely was!
Bookings for The O’Malley’s six weekends Season featuring “Thunderbolt” , opened at 9am on a Friday morning. By noon that very day, every performance was booked out; that’s about 2,500 seats! From all my research, I‘d learned why the general public tended to empathise with Ward back then, just as they do today! I’m touched that baby Frederick, born into a barely literate family was blessed with the middle name “Wordsworth”. Was his mother hoping her little boy might one day have some of the tender nature of the most romantic poet of the era? But Fred proved to be no classroom scholar, excelling instead as a horseman and bushman, far more admirable talents than the three Rs in those wild colonial times, when respect for the law in general and policemen in particular was at a very low ebb. Falsely (?) charged with cattle and horse stealing, Fred copped “ten years hard labour” in the horrid Cockatoo Island prison, but earned his ticket-of-leave after four years. A free man, the love story with Mary Ann Bugg began, Ward obviously smitten with this educated, attractive and fiery “part-Aboriginal”. Fred, away visiting Mary Ann, missed “muster” at Mudgee Police Station and was sent back to Cockatoo Island. Miraculously, in the company of Fred Britten, he made his heroic escape in 1863. Thus began a seven-year- long career as an outlaw with a price on his head, starting at 50 pounds, increasing eventually to 400 pounds. In all that time not one member of the public turned him in nor attempted to shoot or capture him despite the substantial reward. In fact, many families harboured him, providing a meal and supplies to go on with, further proof that there was widespread sympathy for his cause. As Thunderbolt’s daring depredations increased unabated, a NSW Member of Parliament suggested that Ward be pardoned on the condition that he then instruct the hapless Police in horsemanship and bushcraft. “Nay”, the response. Mary Ann was constantly harrassed by the troopers, frustrated in their attempts to capture Thunderbolt.

She was imprisoned twice on trumped-up charges, and on both occasions was promptly set free by order of the Parliament. Remarkable! Thunderbolt was unfailingly courteous to women, so half the population was somewhat charmed as the stories spread. His wicked sense of humour appealed, even to victims of his robberies. For example: When he’d bailed up a coach and robbed the occupants one day, he then stole the driver’s silver watch. The driver spun him a story about his beloved mum’s gift of the watch adding, “Besides, if I haven’t got my watch, the coach won’t run on time and you won’t be able to rob it! A chuckling bushranger handed the watch back. (It’s now in our exhibition.) When Fred and Mary Ann bailed up a coach carrying a German band (“Wurtz”, eventually to become Wirths Circus!) the two outlaws requested the famous band to stand out on the road and play some of Mary Ann’s favourite tunes. The band protested when Thunderbolt took 20 pounds from them, but reassured them that he intended to hold up whoever won big money at the Tenterfield Races, and if successful, he’d leave the 20 pounds for them at the Post Office.
And so he did. Around the campfire at night, Mary Ann taught Fred to read from the newspapers stolen from the coach during the day. And together, they would sing the beautiful 1864 popular song, “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still”. (Uralla’s own Fran Kaberry composed a lovely two-part arrangement performed by the “O’Malley’s “ choir.) Finally, recognising that bushranging was a significant phenomenon in NSW’s history, four Thunderbolt sites are now listed on the NSW State Heritage Register . . . The Big Rock; the nearby site of Blanch’s Inn; site of the fatal shooting and Thunderbolt’s Grave. The point is, there was (and still is today) an abiding fascination with this “criminal”, Thunderbolt. What became a frenzy (for me) began when Singleton Military Museum offered to donate a Thunderbolt revolver from their collection. The “handover” was featured in the Sydney “Daily Telegraph” and other regional papers. My phone then gave me no peace. So many people just had to tell me about their Thunderbolt artefacts. I followed them all up, driving all over NSW, convincing people to part with their treasured possessions t proved something to me, that, if you’re genuine and passionate, and the most difficult for me, patient, the people will agree that it’s a good thing to give things to a museum so they can be enjoyed by everyone from far and wide, not just in your own close circle. In all that exhausting journeying, I only got one knock-back, and that bloke would have turned away the Salvos. So now, we had to design a new exhibition, but because this subject was so significant, we agreed to employ a professional. After advice from Museums & Galleries NSW and others I knew in the museum world, we chose Peter Tonkin of 3-D Projects from Sydney, who had created “The Rocks Discovery Museum”. Having been made aware of our credo, “Exhibitions must respect the restored buildings”, Peter measured up, and went back to Sydney with photos and provenences of all our acquired artefacts. “More objects will turn up in the future, so we must allow for that”, we agreed. We stressed that the exhibition text was to be based on primary sources, not hearsay, because we wanted to separate fact from fiction . . . forever! In the midst of all this, Uralla Council was dilly-dallying over whether or not to buy the set of paintings “The Death of Thunderbolt”, “Yes” at one meeting, “No” at the next, until my impassioned plea finally changed the vote 5 – 4 “Yes”! The Mayor even quizzed me about “the violent nature of the paintings”. Now, visitors from all over the place, especially Coach Groups and schoolchildren, come to enjoy this very “graphic art”. Eventually 3-D Projects provided three designs. The committee reached a consensus almost immediately opting for the design which allowed visitors to enjoy an unobstructed view of the whole top floor structure, with the showcases as low, stylised sarcophagi. The whole exhibition was constructed and painted in Sydney at the then staggering cost of $70,000. When the trucks arrived, I’d cajoled the local Uralla Tigers Rugby League team to carry it all upstairs, no mean feat given each empty case weighed 500kg. During the next week, Peter and his wife Christine assembled the exhibition meticulously, our team most impressed with the images of Thunderbolt, Mary-Ann Bugg, Will Monckton and Constable Walker gazing out the windows across town, hauntingly back-lit at night. Most of us sat down to enjoy the remnant of the 1908 silent film projected on the white-washed wall. During all the preparations for the new Thunderbolt Exhibition, other work was in progress, especially the restoration of the Chaff Shed, “hard labour” indeed! We’d always had excellent relationships with the NSW Heritage Office (Dennis McManus) and the NSW Ministry for the Arts (Michael Goss). These two Funding Officers were fully aware of our dedication. Some of our Committee, not really aware of the scope of the new installations, had begun complaining when the Thunderbolt budget blew out. Our Society had received grants for the restoration work of the Chaff Shed from Heritage, and from Arts for modifications required to allow the public access to the top floor. I rang Michael Goss (Arts) to explain the situation with the two grants. “Kent, you haven’t been double-dipping, have you?” I explained and asked if we could transfer some of the grant funds to the Thunderbolt exhibition. “Kent. why do you bother asking, when you know the answer will be “yes”?” “You know that the Mill is the jewel in the Ministry’s crown, don’t you?” ***************
The homogenisers of history are still at it.
“The Thunderbolt Inn” (1970) is now “The Bottom Pub”. As the Americanisation of our culture and idiom continues (“whatever, guys”; “it is what it is, guys”; etc) Australia’s genuine Thunderbolt story may well devolve into a “Spaghetti Western”! Maybe, the “glorifying a criminal” brigade might do us the honour of actually visiting the Museum, study Phillip Pomroy’s “Death of Thunderbolt” paintings, spend time in the Thunderbolt exhibition on the top floor, and read the booklet “Thunderbolt Artefacts” for more insight into this colourful colonial identity. And maybe, just maybe, they might inscribe the Visitors’ Book with a “Thank you” to all the generous donors and the selfless volunteers who spent so much time, effort and money to present Thunderbolt’s uniquely Australian story.

by KENT MAYO

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