Andrew Cunningham’s 1870 Captain Thunderbolt Photographs

Woodcut engraving of Frederick Ward published in June 1870
Figure 1: Frederick Ward, alias Thunderbolt. Source: Illustrated Sydney News, 8 June 1870, p. 1.

On 25 May 1870 the bush­ranger Frederick Ward (also known as Thunder­bolt or Captain Thunder­bolt) was shot and killed by a police trooper named Alexander Walker at Kentucky Creek, near Uralla, in northern New South Wales. In the following days an Armidale photo­grapher named Andrew Cun­ningham captured at least ten photo­graphs pertaining to Ward’s death. These included three relatively well known images of Ward’s corpse and two portraits of Alexander Walker (see Figure 2 below). Five much lesser known outdoor scenes were also taken by Cun­ningham at Kentucky Creek, including three photographs of the site where Ward was ‘captured’. Two of these were photog­raphic re-enactments, in which Alexander Walker participated, of the verbal exchange between the men just before their final struggle in the creek. Quite surprisingly, virtually no attention has been paid to the re-enactment photographs in the literature upon Ward. While a reported third photo­graph of the capture site does not appear extant, a woodcut engraving explicitly made after a Cun­ningham photo­graph was published in the Illustrated Sydney News in July 1870. Other representations of the final struggle between Ward and Walker were also published in the colonial illustrated press and this essay examines its visual representation in both photog­raphy and engraved forms.

Figure 2: Andrew Cun­ningham portrait of Alexander Walker, 1870. Source: State Library of New South Wales.
Frederick Ward/Captain Thunderbolt

Following his escape from the Cockatoo Island penal establishment in Sydney Harbour in 1863,1Empire, 16 September 1863, p. 4. Frederick Ward was at large for more than six and a half years and much of his time on the run was spent in northern New South Wales.2For Ward generally see R.B. Walker, ‘Captain Thunderbolt, bush­ranger’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 47, No. 5, 1957, pp. 223–51; Stephan Williams, A ghost called Thunderbolt, Woden, 1987. Despite his habitual reliance upon horse theft and armed robberies, Ward was perceived as a compar­atively non-violent and largely independent bush­ranger and he and his folklore are now central to Uralla’s heritage identity. Like the later Kelly Gang, Ward was the subject of one of the earlier com­mer­cial motion films made in Australia (Thunderbolt, 1910; another film, Captain Thunderbolt, was first released in 1953). And, like other famous bushrangers, a romanticised and counterfactual folklore has arisen around Ward (including the evergreen assertion that he was not the man Walker killed at Kentucky Creek).3See David A. Roberts and Carol Baxter, ‘Exposing an exposé: fact versus fiction in the resurrection of Captain Thunderbolt’, Journal of Australian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2012, pp. 1-15. More generally, see Graham Seal, The outlaw legend: a cultural tradition in Britain, America and Australia, Melbourne, 1996.For his part, Alexander Walker received a very substantial reward, medal and other recompense for ‘capturing’ Thunderbolt; he also was promoted and transferred to Glen Innes (another New England town about 120 kilometres to the north).

On the day he died Ward had been drinking at the Royal Oak, an inn located on the main Northern Road at Church Gully, about six kilometres south of Uralla (near the landmark now known as Thunderbolts Rock).4Ward had been shot by police at Thunderbolts Rock (formerly known as Split Rock) in late 1863, soon after he escaped custody in Sydney, but he and an accomplice avoided capture. See Armidale Express, 31 October 1863, p. 2; 7 November 1863, p. 3. Note that, by convention, possessive apostrophes aren’t used in Australian place names. During the day Ward held up the licensee of the Royal Oak, John Blanch and his wife as well as a hawker, Giovanni Cappasotti; upon being allowed to leave the inn, Cappasotti disobeyed Ward’s admonitions to steer clear of Uralla as he promptly informed police there of a bush­ranger’s presence at the Royal Oak. Walker and another trooper set out for the inn, Walker coming upon Ward nearby, riding a horse he had just stolen. Walker acci­dent­ally discharged his pistol, Ward returned fire, and a chase to the west between the two men ensued until Ward dismounted at a waterhole in Kentucky Creek, near its junction with Chilcotts Creek, and swam to the opposite bank. Walker shot the stolen horse dead and rode around the waterhole to the opposite bank where he came face to face with Ward at a narrow channel in the creek (Ward had re-crossed to the eastern side). In their final verbal exchange Ward refused to surrender and Walker urged his horse into the creek; during the ensuing struggle he shot Ward at close range and struck him on the head with his spent revolver, apparently killing him. Walker then dragged Ward from the creek and returned to the Royal Oak for assistance. Following a fruitless search during the night, Ward’s body was located early the following morning and taken to the inn where a post mortem examination and Magisterial Inquiry were held and Ward’s identity confirmed.5Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1870, p. 5.

Andrew Cun­ningham

Thunderbolt’s death was sensational news in the New England region and Andrew Cun­ningham, who appears to have been Armidale’s sole resident photo­grapher in 1870, gathered his equip­ment and set out for nearby Uralla to record events. Born in Montrose, Scotland in 1831, Cun­ningham arrived in New South Wales in 1848 as a young assisted migrant.6Assisted Immigrant Passenger Lists, NSW State Archives, [Ship Fairlie], 1848, 4/4786, p. 121; Ken McCarron, A tale of two Scots, Rockdale, 2016, chs. 9–10. When he married Isabella Bowers at Armidale in 1856 Andrew stated his occupation as sawyer although over the next couple of years he advertised his services as a painter, glazier and decorator.7Lionel Gilbert, ‘Andrew Cun­ningham’, Design and Art Australian Online; NSW Marriage Registration 1009/1856, Andrew Cun­ningham and Isabella Bowers; Armidale Express, 23 May 1857, p. 5; 31 July 1858, p. 4. The fledgling local pastoral economy having been transformed by a substantial gold rush to the Rocky River near Uralla, Cun­ning­ham expanded into the still compar­atively exotic photog­raphy business in 1859.8Armidale Express, 2 April 1859, p. 2. By 1870 he was well established locally and made every exertion to capitalise upon the substantial demand for information about Fred Ward’s death.

Like most com­mer­cial photographers at this time, Cun­ning­ham utilised the collodion process. Generally speaking, collodion glass plate negatives needed to be processed quite quickly—and hence the portable dark rooms associated with the period.9See J.M. Edar, History of photog­raphy, trans. Edward Epstean [1945], New York, 1975 ed., ch. 44. Presumably, Cun­ning­ham made use of a portable dark room as well (likely a specially designed small tent), particu­larly for the photo­graphs he took in the bush at Kentucky Creek. One of the advantages of the collodion process was that it enabled photog­raphers to make positive paper prints (in the popular carte de visite or larger formats). adver­tising copy published in June 1870 suggests that Cun­ning­ham hoped to sell Thun­der­bolt prints from his Armidale studio for two shillings each; the same source makes it clear that Cun­ning­ham was well aware that he was in a virtually unique position as far as recor­ding Ward’s demise was concerned.10Armidale Express, 11 June 1870, p. 1. For a relatively obscure rural photo­grapher, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The Thunderbolt Re-enactment photo­graphs

As noted above, at least ten photo­graphs relating to Fred Ward were taken by Andrew Cun­ning­ham in late May 1870. Fortuitously, the images were described in the Armidale Express within days of being executed:

Mr. A. Cun­ning­ham has taken several excellent photo­graphs to illus­trate the end of Thun­der­bolt, and other matters connected with it. Of Ward’s dead horse there are two views. There are three different views of the spot on which the final struggle took place, Mr. Walker being shown in the same dress and on the same horse as he had when he came up to the W. side of the creek; the reality of the scene being added to by Mr. Smoker, of Uralla, repre­senting, on the E. side, Ward—each with weapon levelled at his opponent. To secure a good view, Mr. Cun­ning­ham took the trouble to cut down several trees. Then there are two portraits of Mr. Walker, one being full length; while there are three of Thun­der­bolt, when he was lying dead, after the post-mortem exami­nation. One represents him with his hat off, another with his hat on, and the third is his profile.11Armidale Express, 4 June 1870 reprinted 3 June 1921, p. 6. Uralla did not then have its own news­paper but Armidale had two, the Armidale Express and Armidale Telegraph. Although neither paper has survived in original form for the couple of weeks following Ward’s death, some of the missing content (such as this excerpt) can be reconstructed from copy reprinted in the Express and other news­papers.

The Mr Smoker referred to in this excerpt likely was James Smoker, then licensee of the Uralla Hotel.12New South Wales Government Gazette, 24 August 1869, p. 2131; 9 September 1870, p. 1923.

Not all these photo­graphs appear to have survived; however, at least seven are extant, including two of the site of the final struggle.

Carte de visite print of re-enactment of capture of Frederick Ward
Figure 3: Andrew Cun­ning­ham, ‘The Spot Where Thun­der­bolt Was Captured’. Source: State Library of New South Wales.

Figure 3 above is an Andrew Cun­ning­ham carte de visite albumen print held in the State Library of New South Wales.13Call Number SPF/3295.Now somewhat faded and partly captioned in pencil at rear ‘The spot where Thun­der­bolt was captured’, this is plainly one of the re-enactment photo­graphs referred to in the June 1870 Express article. I say ‘one’ as Figure 4 below, held in monochrome (modern) printed form at the University of New England and Regional Archives (UNERA) in Armidale, is almost certainly another Cun­ning­ham photo­graph of the same scene.14‘Capture of Thun­der­bolt’, Accession No. HRCP3682, UNERA. I thank Dr Philip Ward and Mr Mick Reed of UNERA for their extended assistance with matters raised in this paper. Unfortunately, UNERA does not have any records relating to the provenance, acquisition or original format of this compara­tively detailed image; that said, its ‘HRCP’ accession number suggests it was acquired as part of the Armidale College of Advanced Education Heritage Resources Collection prior to 1990.

Reenactment of the Capture of Frederick Ward held at UNERA, Armidale
Figure 4: ‘Capture of Thun­der­bolt’. Source: University of New England and Regional Archives, Armidale.

At first sight, the photo­graphs look virtually identical in composition (note the symmetry in the grass tussocks in the creek channel and nearby water­lines, in addition to more permanent landscape features). However, in Figure 4 a different (bearded) man took the role of Ward. It’s not clear which of the two men ‘playing’ the bush­ranger was Mr Smoker (or who the second man participating in the re-enactment actually was). In any case, both the 1870 re-enactment images depict the actual location where the final struggle between Walker and Ward had taken place a few days earlier, as well as the nature of the vicinity at that time.

As mentioned earlier, another Cun­ning­ham photo­graph of the Kentucky Creek site was the basis of a woodcut engraving published in the July 1870 issue of the Illustrated Sydney News (Figure 5 below). Not portraying Walker, his horse or a proxy for Ward, the photo­graph used for the news­paper engraving was likely the third image of the death struggle site mentioned in the 1870 Armidale Express report.

Woodcut engraving of site of Frederick Ward's capture at Kentucky Creek in 1870
Figure 5: ‘The Scene of “Thun­der­bolt’s Death”, Illustrated Sydney News, 6 July 1870, p. 1.

Figure 5 certainly contains scenery clearly identifiable in the other views: in particular, note the narrow channel in the centre fore­ground, the fallen tree at left, and the distinctive obelisk-like large rock near the water’s edge in the middle distance. In sum, we have a surprisingly detailed photo­graphic (and near-photo­graphic) record of the bush location where Fred Ward was killed in 1870.

The Illustrated Press and Thun­der­bolt’s Death

Andrew Cun­ning­ham very likely set about making a detailed photog­raphy record of Ward’s demise with sales to illustrated news­papers at least partly in mind. Of course, the technology to directly print photo­graphs in news­papers did not exist in 1870 (the half tone photog­raphic reproductive process appears to have been first utilised in an Australian paper in early 1888).15Peter Dowling, ‘1861–62: seminal years in the publishing history of illustrated news­papers in Australia’, La Trobe Journal, No. 88, 2011, p. 26. Rather, wood engravings cut by artists working in the tradition of the English master engraver Thomas Bewick were deployed until the very late nineteenth century (and beyond). While compar­atively expensive to produce, these hardwood engravings could be integrated beside type with compar­ative ease and reused many times.

Australian illustrated papers began to be published during the first gold rushes of the 1850s.16Dowling, ‘Seminal years in the publishing history of illustrated news­papers in Australia’, pp. 18–19. The earliest publications were often short-lived although by mid 1870 two illustrated journals were published in Sydney as well as others in Melbourne and Adelaide. This meant that Cun­ning­ham could look beyond the predominantly local (or perhaps regional) market for the carte de visite prints he made and sold from his isolated Armidale studio. Thus, in addition to the death struggle site engraving (Figure 5 above), a Cun­ning­ham photo­graph of Alexander Walker expressly was utilised as the basis of a engraved portrait published in the Australian Town and Country Journal in June 1870.17Australian Town and Country Journal, 18 June 1870, p. 24.While not explicitly attributed, the engraved portraits of Walker and Ward that appeared in the Illustrated Sydney News a week or so earlier (Figure 1 above for Ward) also appear to follow Cun­ning­ham photo­graphs of Walker and Ward’s cadaver.18Illustrated Sydney News, 8 June 1870, p. 1. We don’t know what fees Cun­ning­ham received for this work but the ultimate value of the photo­graphs to the illustrated news­papers lay in their perceived authenticity (albeit published in a compar­atively low resolution engraved form).

In fact, both of Sydney’s illustrated news­papers published engravings purporting to repre­sent the final moments of Ward’s life as soon as they possibly could. However, unlike Cun­ning­ham’s carefully constructed photog­raphy record, the earliest published engravings were created with little regard for factual veracity.

Woodcut engraving of capture of Frederick Ward.
Figure 6: Australian Town and Country Journal, 4 June 1870.

Consider the very first published engraving (Figure 6 above) of the struggle at Kentucky Creek, which appeared in the newly-established Australian Town and Country Journal on 4 June 1870. Alexander Walker was the only surviving witness to events at Kentucky Creek (and he was hardly a disin­terested observer); however, Figure 6 departs from Walker’s accounts of events in a number of ways. Firstly, Ward’s (stolen) horse was killed by Walker some distance away from the narrow creek channel where he subsequently shot Ward. Secondly, Walker was not in his police uniform that day (and had no sabre). Third, Walker was mounted throughout the final struggle. These embellishments can be contrasted with Cun­ning­ham’s re-enactments, where Walker was in the same clothes and on the same horse as the day he killed Ward (and where, for practical reasons, Ward’s dead horse was recorded as a separate photog­raphy subject altogether).19See Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1870, p. 5 for Walker’s evidence to the Magisterial Inquiry held at Uralla on 26 May.

Despite Ward’s reputa­tion as a relatively non-violent bush­ranger, the Town and Country Journal’s engraver also equipped him with three revolvers (he was only armed with one at the time he died, and it was jammed).20Ward earlier had dropped another revolver, later found, near the Northern Road. This point, among other criticisms, was made by the bemused editor of the Armidale Express upon receiving the Sydney paper by post. ‘We have never heard more hearty laughing in Armidale’, he said of the illustration’s local reception.21Armidale Express, 11 June 1870, p. 2. ‘Really, a copy of it should be sent to the Sydney Museum’, he continued in a sarcastic vein.22Armidale Express, 11 June 1870, p. 2. Other engravings with similar content also appeared in June 1870 (Figures 7 and 8 below).

Engraving of the capture of Frederick Ward at Kentucky Creek.
Figure 7: ‘Capture of “Thun­der­bolt”‘, Illustrated Sydney News, 8 June 1870.
Engraving of the capture of Frederick Ward (Captain Thun­der­bolt) at Kentucky Creek.
Figure 8: ‘Death of Thun­der­bolt, the bush­ranger’, Illustrated News for Home Readers, 18 June 1870, p. 116.

Again, dramatic license played a significant part in the creative process. In addition to compressing and embellishing events, the engravers depicted Walker in a more heroic manner. For example, in both illustrations Ward seems to be trying to escape rather than struggling with Walker (as Walker himself deposed). To be fair, it’s possible that the first engraving published in Sydney ten days after Ward died was executed (at least partly) from initial summary intelligence sent from New England by telegraph. On the whole, however, com­mer­cial prerogatives seem to have guided the compo­sition of the Captain Thun­der­bolt capture engravings published in June 1870.

Cun­ning­ham’s photo­graphs in Thun­der­bolt Literature

Until quite recently the Cun­ning­ham re-enactment photos have not been utilised as evidence (or even for illustration purposes) within the diverse body of published literature that now exists upon Ward. They can thus be contrasted with Cun­ning­ham’s photo­graphs of the dead bush­ranger—at least one of which tends to be reproduced whenever Ward is discussed in any detail.23See, for example, Williams, A ghost called Thun­der­bolt, pp. 148–49; Robert Cummins, Thun­der­bolt: a biography of the last of New South Wales’ notorious bushrangers, Moree, n.d., pp. 114, 121. It would appear that most writers simply have not been aware of the survival of the 1870 Kentucky Creek photos. While the re-enactment scene held at UNERA (Figure 4) has been utilised recently, I’ve not come across any reference to Figure 3. However, the survival of this authentic Cun­ning­ham print is valuable not only for its own sake—but also because it very strongly suggests that the poorly documented re-enactment image held at UNERA (Figure 4) was taken by the same photo­grapher at the same time and place.

Kentucky Creek Today

The 1870 re-enactment photos are partic­ularly valuable for the detail they provide of the locale where Walker shot Ward as the Kentucky Creek land­scape has changed in this vicinity due to the construction downstream of Uralla’s town water supply dam (completed in 1945).24Armidale Express, 10 October 1945, p. 8. The general site of Ward’s death recently was re-identified due to the discovery of the obelisk-shaped rock pictured in a re-enactment photo­graph (presumably Figure 4 held at UNERA; the rock is also evident in Figures 3 and 5).25Armidale Express, 11 December 2015. Curiously, Andrew Cun­ning­ham was not mentioned by name in the press report just cited—despite his work being central to these modern investigative efforts.

Andrew Cun­ning­ham’s Later Career

Cun­ning­ham continued to work in Armidale for many years, opening a new studio in 1887.26Armidale Express, 12 August 1887, p. 4. Notwithstanding his pioneering and long career in a rural Australian context, he remains an obscure figure from a scholarly point of view—partic­ularly given the compar­atively large body of historical research that has been published upon the Armidale district.27In addition to scholarly work by academics at the University of New England, the local historical society journal has been regularly published for almost sixty years. In 1902, after almost 50 years’ residence, Cun­ning­ham moved to the Newcastle harbour suburb of Carrington, citing the compar­ative severity of the New England winters.28Armidale Express, 24 January 1902, p. 5.

It seems likely, however, that the move partly was spurred by humiliating events which unfolded in 1900 when Cun­ning­ham’s son Andrew was convicted of perjury at the Armidale Quarter Sessions and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Andrew Cun­ning­ham senior, his daughter-in-law and grandchildren were all caught up in proceedings as defence witnesses and Judge Heydon criticised their evidence in the strongest terms. ‘It has been one of the most shocking exhibitions I have ever witnessed’, he said of the family’s dubious testimony (apparently cobbled together in an ill-fated attempt to save Andrew junior from prison).29Armidale Chronicle, 12 December 1900, p. 4. Heydon blamed Andrew junior for the apparent false testimony given by his family and this would appear to have contributed to the relatively harsh sentence that was imposed. Andrew Cun­ning­ham senior died at Newcastle in 1910 and was buried at Sandgate Cemetery.30New South Wales Death Registration 7638/1910, Andrew Cun­ning­ham; Newcastle Morning Herald,24 May 1910, p. 6. While he may have left Armidale with his reputa­tion under a cloud, Cun­ning­ham’s Captain Thun­der­bolt photo­graphs remain significant visual sources for the early history of the New England region.

© 2018–2021, Andrew Messner. All rights reserved.