Phillip Pomroy’s ‘Death of Thunderbolt’ Painting Series
About the Artist
As a young lad in Wingham, Phillip Pomroy was inspired by the works of Tom Roberts. Roberts’ famous “Bailed Up”, depicting Captain Thunderbolt’s hold-up of a stage coach at Paradise Creek near Inverell, made a dramatic and long-lasting impression on young Phillip. A successful painter, Pomroy became fascinated by the legend surrounding the life and death of ‘Thunderbolt’ (Frederick Ward) the bushranger. The ﬁrst six paintings are done in a traditional style. The last three become more contemporary, naïve and surreal in style. The sequence culminates in a ‘tonal crescendo’ of bolder colours and simplicity.
Twenty years elapsed before the artist found time to commit himself to these works. In 1987, he enlisted the help of historians, Dr Lionel Gilbert and Mr Jim Hobdin in his research and visited the site of Thunderbolt’s death, . . . “sat back in the late afternoon and watched the sun go down, trying to visualise what it had been like.” Phillip Pomroy completed this magniﬁcent set in twelve months, using his garage in Taree as a studio. Initially exhibited in the Tamworth Gallery, the set was then bought by a private collector.
In 1995, the paintings were purchased by Uralla Shire Council.
The series of nine paintings capture the events of Fred Ward’s last day. The Museum is building this area of the web site and a virtual tour of this unique collection is scheduled for development. Postcards and prints of these works are available by contacting the Museum. A ‘Dramatic Interpretation’ of this series is available on DVD from The Museum or through our online shop.
It is the afternoon of Wednesday 25th May 1870. Blanche’s Inn was situated at Church Gully, a few hundred metres south of Thunderbolt’s Rock on the Northern Road. In the background, Thunderbolt, who had spent the previous day enjoying the Uralla Races, can be seen engaged in his favourite activity, Highway Robbery!! (His other pre-occupation was horse-stealing). The victims of the robbery are none other than Mr and Mrs John Blanche, innkeepers of “The Royal Oak”, who were out for an “afternoon drive”, and therefore carrying little money. Thunderbolt accompanied them back to the Inn and enjoyed a few drinks with them, then continued “bailing-up” travellers on the main road.
The shadows have moved and so has Thunderbolt. An Italian hawker, Giovanni Capacotti, is about to hand over his pocket watch, money and some jewellery to the bushranger. Although the Rocky River Goldfields, near Uralla, had attracted thousands of Chinese and a lesser number of immigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the arrival of an Italian would have been something of a novelty.
Note….. The spelling “Blanch” (Newspapers of the time used either spelling).
……. everybody is so involved in the robbery of Capacotti that somebody has forgotten to put another log on the fire!
A general view, showing the “highway” heading south from Thunderbolt’s Rock. Capacotti’s wagon can be seen in the distance. Did Thunderbolt say…… “Go back to where you came from!”? We can almost hear the Italian’s curses and protestation in the chill New England air!
The countryside was more heavily timbered with Stringybark forest than it is now and was mostly unfenced.
There are now two significant developments. Capacotti has met a Mr Dorrington (a local settler) on the road, and borrowed a saddle. He has saddled up his own cart-horse and galloped through the bush, giving Blanch’s Inn and Thunderbolt a wide berth! Capacotti is heading “hell for leather” to Uralla to inform the police.
Meanwhile, Thunderbolt has “borrowed” a grey horse from a new arrival at Blanch’s Inn…… to “try it out”. A young man, James Coglan, was returning home from Singleton, riding a grey horse and leading another.
Capacotti arrived in Uralla and poured out his story to Senior Constable Mulhall. (Mulhall had been involved in an exchange of shots with Thunderbolt at Thunderbolt’s Rock in 1863 and Thunderbolt still bore the nasty scar of the bullet wound behind his left knee from that episode). Mulhall set out for Blanch’s Inn. Constable Alexander Binning Walker, who was off-duty, saddled his horse, got his revolver and ammunition and followed. (In his report Walker says that the two went out together and that Mulhall, having the faster horse, raced ahead of him. This seems unlikely. Perhaps Walker was protecting Mulhall’s reputation!).
When Walker came over the hill near the rock, Mulhall, coming back in the opposite direction, met him and said “I have exchanged shots with the bushrangers”. Mulhall claimed later that his horse had bolted. Most other people believe he lacked the courage to confront Thunderbolt. Young Constable Walker certainly didn’t lack courage. He rode on towards Blanch’s Inn and shots were exchanged.
Thunderbolt, on the grey horse he’d been “trying out”, headed west into the bush. The twenty-three year old constable followed gamely, even when Thunderbolt taunted him with “Come on!”.
“All right! ” Walker replied.
The chase is on!
Pomroy has cleverly changed the direction of the paintings. West is now on the viewer’s left. More shots had been fired and Thunderbolt seems far less secure. Even though Pomroy has positioned Constable Walker down in a gully he seems to be a dominating resolute figure.
Is Pomroy’s clever change of direction, (a figure retreating from right to left in our vision) a subtle hint that the “game is up” for Thunderbolt?
Thunderbolt abandons the weary horse, sheds his coat and hat and wades across Kentucky Creek. The constable shoots the outlaw’s horse to hinder the possibility of his escape. The grey horse has the same saddlecloth as Thunderbolt’s horse in Painting Two, so we can assume the bushranger intended to steal the horse and not just “try it out”.
The style of painting undergoes a subtle change. Thunderbolt looks more like a caricature and the blue of the water has a sinister quality.
Thunderbolt wades through the murky blue of Kentucky Creek, while in the background, the gallant Constable Walker looks even more heroic. Lit by the late afternoon sunlight, he continues the pursuit, “riding into the sunset”.
Apart from the two men, the details are less defined, and there is an eerie expectant atmosphere. Red comes into the colour of things.
Thunderbolt, now a pathetic figure, leans against a sapling and seems to be staring in the distance and into oblivion. In the previous three paintings the constable’s shirt-sleeves are down. Now they are rolled up, Pomroy’s subtle way of saying that the trooper was about to “get to work”. The policeman is not threatening Thunderbolt with his revolver, but with “the long arm of the law”.
According to Walker’s evidence, at the inquest, the following conversation then took place:
Walker: You had better surrender before you do any harm.
Ward: Who are you?
Walker: Never mind who I am.
Ward: What’s your name?
Ward: Are you a trooper?
Ward: Are you a married man?
Ward: Keep back. You are a married man…. Think of your family.
Walker: Will you surrender?
Ward: No. I will die first.
Walker: All right. It’s you or I for it.
The final painting is stunning in its dramatic and brutal simplicity.
The men struggled briefly. Walker fired the last round in his revolver and shot Thunderbolt in the chest. The bushranger fell forward into the water, but he re-surfaced and tried to grapple with the trooper who then battered the bushranger’s head with his revolver.
Thunderbolt’s body was dragged onto the bank by Walker who then headed back to the Inn for assistance. When he returned in the dark, the body could not be found immediately. Amazingly, Thunderbolt had managed to crawl some metres into the scrub, where death finally overcame him.
In this painting, the grim colour of Kentucky Creek contrasts with the red …. of sunset, blood and death. The irony is the dominance of the policeman’s horse. Thunderbolt had survived for so long because of his horsemanship. Without his horse he perished.
Thunderbolt’s Tranter revolver was recovered after his death. The last round had misfired, rendering the weapon useless, possibly during the pursuit on horseback. Probably, in that final and fatal encounter, Thunderbolt knew that it was all over. When he said “I’ll die first”, was that an acceptance of his fate?
There was no eye-witness evidence, only the official report submitted by gallant Constable Walker on the 29th May 1870 (four days after the incident), and signed “Alex B. Walker, Sen. Constable”. The young constable had certainly earned his rapid promotion!
Kent Mayo’s dramatic interpretation of Philip Pomroy’s “Death of Thunderbolt” painting series.
- At the time of his death Thunderbolt had a muzzle-loading pistol in his belt. This was recovered from Kentucky Creek and is now in the possession of the Justice and Peace Museum, Sydney. That museum also has a beautifully written testimonial presented to Constable Walker and his beautiful presentation watch which was paid for by public subscription.
- Constable Walker had a meritorious career, rising to the rank of Superintendent, Southern Division, New South Wales Police.
- After Ned Kelly’s raid on Jerilderie, the Victorian Police sent for “Bold Sergeant Walker, The Man Who Shot Thunderbolt”, to help them but Kelly had “disappeared” two days before Walker crossed the Murray River.
This information was written by Kent Mayo, President of the Uralla Historical Society, September 1996.