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Notorious Felons

The Death of Captain Thunderbolt, Bushranger

Detail from Town and Country Journal
"The Death of Thunderbolt, the bushranger"
4 June 1870 Newspaper TN83

With its convict beginnings, it is not surprising that New South Wales has produced a number of colourful and notorious villains whose exploits received widespread press coverage and who became household names at least in their own time.

John Dunn

John Dunn was born on 14 December 1846 near Yass, NSW, the eldest of nine children, to convict parents Michael and Margaret Dunn. In 1864 he joined Ben Hall's gang of bushrangers and embarked on a short but infamous career, raiding stations, inns, stores and mail coaches. In January 1865, Dunn shot dead Constable Samuel Nelson in the bungled robbery of Kimberley's Inn at Collector, near Goulburn. This was the crime for which he was hung at Darlinghurst Gaol on 19 March 1866. He was just 19 years of age.

Henry Louis Bertrand

Bertrand, known as the 'Mad Dentist of Wynyard Square', was convicted of the murder of Henry Kinder, who died on 2 October 1865, in one of Sydney's most notorious homicide cases of the time. Kinder was the husband of Bertrand's mistress, Ellen, and after several botched murder attempts Bertrand shot him. The bullet failed to kill him. Desperate to finish the job Bertrand persuaded his mistress to poison Kinder with a mixture of belladonna and milk. This attempt was successful but the coroner found that the death was by suicide. Eventually the case was reopened and Bertrand and Ellen Kinder were both charged with murder. Ellen was discharged for lack of evidence but Bertrand was convicted and served 28 years imprisonment.

Margaret Catchpole

Margaret Catchpole was born in Suffolk in 1762. She worked as a servant for various families until she became the under-nurse and under-cook for Mrs John Cobbold, wife of an Ipswich brewer. In May 1797, she stole John Cobbold's horse and rode it to London with the intention of selling it. She was arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to 7 years transportation.

For three years she was kept in the custody of John Ripshaw, Keeper of New Gaol in Ipswich. In March 1800, she made a spectacular midnight escape over the 22-foot gaol wall, but was quickly recaptured. Again, she was sentenced to death but this was commuted to transportation for life. Margaret reached Sydney on 14 December 1801 and initially worked as cook for the commissary, John Palmer. She was determined to keep good company and worked for well-known families such as the Faithfulls, Rouses, Dights, Woods and Skinners. Her decent and industrious way of life led to her pardon on 31 January 1814 by Governor Macquarie. The rest of her life was spent keeping a small store at Richmond, acting as midwife and nurse, and helping others. She died of influenza on 13 May 1819.

Bushrangers of Caergwrle

Bushranging in Australia has its origins with the arrival of the First Fleet. Convict bolters such as John 'Black' Caesar vanished into the bush around the Sydney settlement. For more than a century bushrangers struck fear and fascination into the Australian population. The peak of bushranging came during the the gold rushes. Gold escorts and diggers returning from the goldfields were vulnerable to attack. Outlawed bushrangers could be shot on sight; a notorious example is the Kelly Gang and the stand-off at Glenrowan in 1880.

The popularity of bushrangers and their ethos of 'fight before surrender' was commemorated in bush songs and folklore. The Gresford region witnessed bushrangers at close range. Frederick Ward, (known as Captain Thunderbolt) and the Governor Brothers all travelled through the area.

Frederick Ward was the last of the professional bushrangers in New South Wales and one of the most successful. The Governor Brothers, Joe and Jimmy, were the last proclaimed outlaws in New South Wales and were responsible for the largest manhunt in Australian history. Their story is a tragic one of race, discrimination and violence on the eve of Australian Federation

Captain Thunderbolt

Frederick Ward generated much support and sympathy due to his gentlemanly behaviour and his tendency to avoid violence in his bushranging escapades. A highly skilled horseman, his strong self-reliance and physical endurance meant that he could survive in the bush for long stretches of time.

As a young man, Frederick Ward worked as a horsebreaker and drover on the Tocal Run on the lower Paterson River and acquired extensive knowledge of horses. He was first arrested in April 1856 for attempting to drove seventy-five stolen horses to the Windsor sale yards. Found guilty, he served four years imprisonment at Cockatoo Island before being released on a ticket-of-leave. He married Mary Ann Bugg in Mudgee and they settled in the Stroud district. However, Ward was soon imprisoned again at Cockatoo Island for horse stealing.

Ward made a dramatic escape in September 1863 with the assistance of Mary Ann, who swam out to the island from Balmain with files to cut his chains. Moving north toward Maitland, Ward began committing a series of robberies. His bushranger name of Captain Thunderbolt seems to have been established when he entered the tollbar house on the road between Rutherford and Maitland and startled the customs officer from his sleep by banging loudly on the door. The startled officer, Delaney, is purported to remark, 'By God, I though it must have been a thunderbolt'.

Roaming across a vast area of NSW, from the Hunter Valley to the Queensland border, Ward was often accompanied by Mary Ann and their two children. A spree in Dungog, Stroud and Singleton during November 1863 to January 1864 involved the entire bushranging family. They were pursued in the rugged hill country near Dungog by police and volunteers; however, Thunderbolt, Mary Ann and the children escaped. Thunderbolt fled from his pursuers (on horseback) by leaping down a cliff face above the Allyn River. Fortunately for the horse, they landed in a sand bed.

The Governor Brothers

The Governor family lived in the Gresford, Paterson and Vacy areas but were moved onto the reserve system along with other Aboriginal families in the early 1890s. Tommy Governor and his sons, Joe and Jimmy worked on several stations along the Paterson River and Allynbrook, including that belonging to the Boydell family. The Governors worked as cattlemen and as horse-breakers.

In 1896, Jimmy enlisted as a tracker with the New South Wales mounted police. He was stationed at Cassilis Police station for a year before he left, apparently frustrated by the lack of advancement and dissatisfaction with his colleagues.

In December 1898, he married 16-year-old Ethel Page at a time when marriage between an Aboriginal man and a white woman was seen as very controversial. The couple moved to Breelong in the Gilgandra region and Jimmy worked as a fencing contractor for John Mawbey. Ethel worked as a housemaid for the Mawbey family, though she was never paid for this work. Instead, they relied on rations from the Mawbeys. Dissatisfaction regarding rations, payments and slurs on their interracial marriage created tensions which came to a head on the night of 20 July, 1900.

Jimmy decided to face John Mawbey and try to settle his grievances, taking along his wife Ethel, his brother Joe and his friend, Jack Underwood. Negotiation with John Mawbey over rations was resolved peacefully, however Jimmy then decided to confront Mrs Mawbey and the family’s teacher, Ellen Kerz over their treatment of Ethel. Jimmy’s evidence given at his trial regarding that night stated that the women had insulted him, saying, 'You want shooting for marrying a white woman…' adding that 'With that I hit her with my hand in the jaw and knocked her down. Then I got annoyed and I did not know nothing after that.'

Mrs Mawbey was struck violently, dying three days later. While son Percy was also struck down, the teacher, Ellen, along with girls Grace and Hilda escaped out of a window. They were not fast enough and Jimmy caught up to them and fatally assaulted them with a weapon described as a nullah or boondi. The Breelong massacre, as the event came to be known, was swift and violent, five people were killed and one seriously wounded.

A number of stories and ballads were composed about the event, which reflect some of the social attitudes held at the time about Aboriginal people. 

Jimmy Governor set about taking revenge on his enemies and travelled along the Goulburn River in the area of Wollar to settle old scores, mainly with men he had worked for, and who he believed had treated him badly. Settlers in the region deserted their homesteads and schools were closed. Business was at a standstill and no one travelled through the region.

Over the next two months, the brothers managed to keep one step in front of the police, relying on Jimmy's tracking skills and knowledge of police tactics. Jimmy challenged the police by keeping fairly visible, wanting them to look incompetent.

The Governor brothers committed over 80 crimes in a short period, including the rape of a 15-year-old girl at a farm at Cobark Creek. In early October, 1900, the NSW legislature declared them outlaws and increased the reward for capture from two hundred pounds to one thousand pounds.

The community around Gresford was on guard, watching for the bushranger brothers and arming themselves for a possible confrontation. The Governors raided properties in the Paterson Valley and camped along the Paterson River. They moved east through Allynbrook and also robbed huts in the Gresford district.

Moving north up to the Forbes River, a shoot-out occurred and Jimmy was shot in the mouth. The brothers yet again escaped and the search intensified as Jimmy was losing blood, which the trackers followed. With the pursuers closing in, the brothers were separated as they were crossing a river. With Jimmy severely wounded and now alone, capture was inevitable.

At dawn on Saturday 27 October, Jimmy was surrounded by armed locals, including three generations of the Moore family from the Allyn district, including 73-year-old Thomas Moore senior. After a chase that lasted around three minutes, Jimmy was captured. Given food and tea, he was then handcuffed and announced he was glad he hadn’t been captured by the police stating, 'they couldn’t run down a bloody poddy calf!'

Joe Governor survived until the morning of the 31 October. Asleep at his camp hidden away in a deep gorge at Glen Rock near St Clair, Fallbrook Creek, a local grazier, John Wilkinson, and his brother noticed smoke from a camp fire and investigated. They came upon a sleeping Joe Governor. Guns were fired, Joe tried to escape, but was too slow and was shot in the head at close range.

Jimmy was transferred to Sydney and on the 19 November, 1900 he was arraigned before Justice Owen at the Central Criminal Court on the charge of 'feloniously and maliciously murdering Ellen Josephine Kertz' (the teacher employed by the Mawbey family).

A detailed account of the trial and the evidence of witnesses, including Ethel Governor and thirteen-year-old George Mawbey (the only witness to the Mawbey murders at Breelong) were widely reported in the newspapers. Jimmy provided an extended statement and told many details of his story of what happened at Breelong and during his three months on the run.


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