Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Bushrangers and cattle duffers

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 6 May 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

According to Victor Crittenden’s entry on him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Frederick Ward was born at Windsor in 1835.

He adopted the name Captain Thunderbolt in 1865. From then until his death at Kentucky Creek on 25 May 1870, he robbed across a wide area of Northern New South Wales.

In the years since his death, Thunderbolt has acquired a mythic presence.

The first feature film about him was made in 1910 and was simply called Thunderbolt.

The film opens with Frederick Ward, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and leading a horse, bidding a loving farewell to his sweetheart, Jess Anson, in front of her farm. In the words of the Australian film historian William D. Routt:

“The lane is dusty and crowded with riders. Something is urging them to leave the farmland and their true loves behind. The situation is one which might occur in a Western from 1910, or indeed from any year. Familiar trappings of the genre seem to be there: an awkward cowboy, a faithful heroine, hats, horses, partners waiting, trail dust. An instant later, however, and all that was familiar is made strange in an intertitle: “Ward Joins the Cattle Duffers”. As we read it, vistas blur. We sense that we aren't in Kansas anymore, nor in the Wild West either.”

Ward is arrested for duffing – an arrest which he indignantly protests and violently resists. His sweetheart goes insane and dies when she hears the news. Ward escapes heroically from prison to take vengeance on the authorities who have so mistreated them both. As the dashing and gallant bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, he dies a hero's death, shot by the police. It is not the thieving of cattle that is marked as wrong in this story, but the law that condemns the cattle thief.

This is all good stuff, even if some of it is only loosely connected to the truth.

Very similar themes appear in Cecile Holmes’ first feature film, the 1953 production Captain Thunderbolt. Made in Armidale and district, the film presents Thunderbolt as a heroic figure.

I remember this film well even though I was quite young. This film was a big thing, the first and so far only major feature film made in Armidale. Locals appeared in dozens of bit roles. The premier in Armidale’s Capitol Theatre was a major local event.

Thunderbolt is not New England’s only connection to bushranging or, for that matter, stock theft.

In 1838 and 1839, for example, Gentleman Dick and his gang ranged the Tablelands and Slopes before being captured in true wild west style in a shoot-out at Bundarra.

One of Australia’s most famous books, Robbery under Arms, was based in part on events that took place early in 1874 in the Inverell District. These became known to Rolf Boldrewood (Thomas Browne) when he was police magistrate at Armidale.

Heroes or villains regardless, we have people and events captured in folk-lore, books and films that have become larger than life.

The Tablelands have a special claim to Thunderbolt, yet it seems to me that we are bad at selling the story. I stand to be corrected here; it is some time since I have read the local tourism material. Still, I make the assertion so that you can correct me if I am wrong.

The problem as I see it is that we localise instead of telling a story.

More than a dozen towns or districts across the broader New England can and do lay some claim to Thunderbolt. Uralla has a particular place because Thunderbolt was shot nearby and buried there, but it is still only one place.

This means that the visitor just sees bits. The Uralla tourism web site has some interesting material on it, but again has a very local focus.

In writing this column I did a web search on Captain Thunderbolt. The first New England Tableland's site - Thunderbolts Way - was on page two.

Think how much more interesting it would be for the visitor if the bushranging story was told in a linked fashion across space and time.

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