Escape from Cockatoo Island

Thought to be inescapable, shark-infested waters surrounded Cockatoo Island. But that didn’t stop famous Australian bushranger Frederick Wordsworth Ward, also known as Captain Thunderbolt, and his accomplice. They were the only two men in history to ever escape from the island. Born on May 16, 1833, to Michael and Sophia Ward, he was the youngest of 10 children. By age 11 he was already employed as a hand at Aberbaldie Station. He was skilled with horses and continued working with them for the next decade. However, he soon followed in his father’s footsteps. Michael Ward spent time locked up as a convict too.

The Escape

Originally charged with stealing and receiving 75 horses in 1856, Ward’s sentence was ten years at Cockatoo Island. He was released after serving only four years with conditions to stay law-abiding and to come in for roll-call every three months. Naturally, he went back to working with horses for a time. He was late for a muster meeting while his first daughter was born and soon came in riding on a borrowed horse. This mistake resulted in second charges, and back to Cockatoo he went, with an extra three years added on to his original sentence.

Between 1861 and 1863, while doing his second stint at the island prison, he tried to escape, unsuccessfully. The punishment was 21 days in solitary confinement. His cell for those three weeks was an underground hole dug out of limestone and covered with a massive stone.

The cell was fashioned so that convicts lowered into it were unable to sit or move freely. An ordinary man would have gone mad. But not Ward, he had plenty of time to mentally plan another escape. His next attempt to leave convict life behind was in September 1863. This time, he had an accomplice, Fred Britton. After slipping away during a workday, at first the men hid on the island. The next day, officials found some clothing and a shackle on the beach.

They waited several days until search activities slowed down before swimming across the waters at night. Ending up in Woolwich, they headed for the New England district. Once at Gostwyck, they robbed a shepherd’s hut. Troopers spotted the men three days later while they waited to ambush a mail carrier. During the gunfight, Ward got shot in the back of his left knee but got away. Ward and Britton separated a few weeks later.

The Bushranger Life

A bushranger in Australia lived the life of a thief on the run. They made their living by armed robbery and hid in the “bush” to evade getting caught. Ward’s specialty was robbing inns, travelers, and mail coaches in the Liverpool Plains area. It’s said that Ward never shot anyone during his robberies and, in fact, was a gentleman.

He evaded getting captured for six years, longer than any other bushranger in Australian history. He had help navigating the bush country and avoiding the law from his half-native wife. She was called Yellilong in her native tongue, and Mary Ann Bugg by everyone else.

Her native Aboriginal skills came in handy for finding food and shelter up in the mountains. Dressed up as a man, she also assisted in scoping out the towns and buying supplies. Without her, Ward wouldn’t have made it as long as he did. Ward often had juvenile accomplices that traveled with him too, some as young as 13 years old. They were orphans and runaways. Many of them ended up shot and captured by police during robberies.

Gone but Not Forgotten

Captain Thunderbolts life came to an abrupt end in 1870. Shot and killed by Alexander Walker, an off-duty constable in Uralla, the renowned outlaw was only 35 years old. He lived a hard and fast life.

Today, there’s a statue standing in his honor at Thunderbolts Way, Uralla in New South Wales and a road named after him. That’s quite an honor for a common thief. Fans still write letters to him, addressed to his gravestone at Uralla Pioneer Cemetery. He is forever remembered as the gentlemen bushranger who escaped from Cockatoo Island and evaded troopers longer than any other.

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