I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published March 6th 2020
Goldrush Living History
In 1851, the Mayday Hills district in Victoria's far north-east was a remote grazing run nestled in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. But all that changed in February 1852 with the discovery of gold at Spring Creek, at nearby Yackandandah and in the Chiltern-Rutherglen area.
Historic Ford Street is the commercial centre of Beechworth. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
By the year's end, 1500 diggers had descended on the region and over the next 12 months, the local population swelled to 8000. Campsites and shanty-towns sprang up overnight, the forerunner of permanent settlements which saw the arrival of miner's families, businesses and services necessary to support the expanding communities. The largest of these was Mayday Hills, renamed Beechworth in 1853 by the Government Surveyor George Smythe.
You'll find Beechworth at the heart of Victoria's High Country. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The Beechworth district proved a bonanza, returning massive amounts of gold and attracting more and more diggers. The town grew with business & industry combining with schools, a courthouse and Police barracks to make Beechworth the centre of the Ovens Gold Rush and the regional economy. In the period 1852 to 1866, the district returned more than 4 million ounces, about 115 tonnes of gold with an estimated 18,000 ounces being transported from Beechworth to Melbourne every fortnight.
The Beechworth diggings were unique among Victorian goldfields by virtue of the huge amounts of water flushed along deep-water races blasted through solid rock and used to wash the pay-dirt. By 1880 it's been estimated that 900 miles or 1500 kilometres of water races crisscrossed the area, including an 800-meter tunnel dug directly beneath the town.
As with most Australian goldfields, the Beechworth diggings attracted a large number of Chinese, estimated at just under 7000, approximately 20% of the population.
The Chinese were hard workers, meticulous at extracting every skerrick of gold from claims abandoned by the European diggers. Not permitted to live in Beechworth itself they established an encampment of their own which included shops, opium dens, a Joss House and large-scale market gardens.
The former Treasury Building and Ned Kelly vault in Beechworth's historic gold precinct. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Beechworth continued to flourish through the golden years of the mid to late 19th Century. In 1856 the Beechworth District was declared, council elections held and a Shire Hall built. Formal plans for the town's layout were passed and the erection of shops or dwellings built of canvas was banned.
The town became the administrative centre for all of northeastern Victoria. Both the County and Supreme courts sat in Beeechworth and the railway from Melbourne via Wangaratta arrived in 1876.
Throughout those golden years though the districts Councillors and others were smart enough to realise that the gold would not last forever. They set about cementing Beechworth's position in the region by investing soundly in public infrastructure, building or upgrading facilities including an aged-care hospital, a general hospital, mental asylum and gaol.
Lake Sambell is an idyllic spot on the edge of town .....
..... with caravan sites right down to the waters edge. Photos: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Beechworth's first prison was a modest affair consisting of a couple of buildings surrounded by a stockade built-in 1853 in response to the extent of crime on the goldfields.
Construction of the present, very substantial granite structure formerly known as HM Prison Beechworth commenced in 1859 on the site of the earlier stockade and using stone quarried on-site.
When it opened in 1860 there was provision for thirty-six one-man cells but that figure doubled when construction was completed in 1864. Beechworth was initially used to hold both male and female prisoners and was the scene of 8 executions between 1865 and 1881. Closed between 1881 and 1925 due to a shortage of inmates, it was reopened in 1925 before closing for the final time in 2004.
This mural in the exercise yard is a graphic reminder of time spent in Beechworth Gaol by its most infamous inmate - Ned Kelly. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Ned Kelly was a frequent visitor to Beechworth and he, members of his family and the infamous Kelly Gang all did time in Beechworth Prison. In 1870 a 16 year-old Ned served 6 months here. Some say he was convicted of assault others for horse stealing. Ned's mother was sentenced to 3 years hard labour at Beechworth for attacking a Policeman, Constable Fitzpatrick and when the Kelly gang went into hiding for more than a year twenty-two suspected sympathisers were rounded up and held in Beechworth Prison for about 4 months.
Following his 'last stand' at Glenrowan Ned was taken firstly to Benalla and then the Melbourne Gaol Hospital before returning to Beechworth to stand trial for the murder of Constable Lonigan. He was remanded, returned to Melbourne and the rest is history.
Visitors to Old Beechworth Gaol touring one of the cell blocks. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Outside school holiday periods tours run at 11 AM on weekdays and 11 AM and 1 PM on weekends. During school holidays they run at 11 AM and 1 PM daily. Cost is Adults $15, Concession & Children $10 and a Family of four $40. Children under 6-years are FREE.
You'll find the old Powder Magazine in Beechworth Historic Park. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Not far from the gaol Beechworth was home to another place of incarceration, this one for the insane.
At the end of Albert Road, just on the edge of town and surrounded by magnificent 19th Century gardens you'll find the imposing and somewhat foreboding remains of the Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum. Opened in 1867 and finally closed in 1998, Beechworth's Mayday Hills Asylum was once one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in Victoria housing as many as 1200 patients in 67 buildings overseen by up to 600 staff.
Sadly you didn't have to be mad to be admitted to the asylum and it was a whole lot harder to get out than it was to get in. Patients were often strapped to chairs or locked in isolation cages and the use of electric shock therapy was apparently quite common.
There are all sorts of stories about what is alleged to have gone on here as well as tales of more recent hauntings, so to walk the grounds today even with just a little knowledge of the facilities history makes for a very sobering experience.
Getting out of the Mayday Hills Asylum was far more difficult than getting in. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Beechworth is considered by many to be the best-preserved of any of Australia's gold-rush era towns. Its broad streets are lined with a host of historically significant buildings 32 of which are classified by the National Trust.
From the pioneer graves and Chinese Burning Towers in its cemetery to the National Trust classified Powder Magazine and Carriage Museum, the Courthouse and Gaol, Beechworth provides a fascinating insight into life on the Australian goldfields.
It's also a very tourism-oriented town and a cycling & bushwalking mecca with the Murray To Mountains Rail Trail snaking its way from Wangaratta to Bright and a branch trail to Beechworth.
The town boasts several great eateries, a couple of older style country pubs, a very famous bakery and is home to Bridge Road Brewers. If that's not enough surrounding vineyards produce excellent wines and there's a plethora of great accommodation in and around town.
Newtown Bridge circa 1875 and Newtown Falls. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Options include two excellent caravan parks, Beechworth Holiday Park and Lake Sambell Caravan Park. Both provide self-contained cabins, powered and unpowered sites and both are pet-friendly. On this occasion, we stayed at Lake Sambell and thoroughly enjoyed it. An excellent powered site, good and well–maintained facilities right on the lake and within easy walking distance to town meant it was ideal for us.
There are plenty of great reasons to visit Beechworth including a variety of local festivals. Beechworth could well be described as the Festival capital of Victoria hosting events including the Beechworth Music Festival staged over the Australia Day Long Weekend, the Golden Horseshoes Festival each Easter, the annual Celtic Festival held in November, Drive Back In Time each May, the Kelly Country Pick in August and Oktoberfest, when else but October.
Even modern day services have an old world feel about them in Beechworth. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Anytime is a good time to visit Beechworth, considered by many to be Victoria's best-preserved goldfields town, but it almost defies description in autumn when the township and its surrounds explode in a brilliant blaze of colour.
Getting There …..
Beechworth is 286-Kilometres northeast of Melbourne a comfortable 3-hour drive via the Hume Freeway and Wangaratta.
Why? From the pioneer graves and Chinese Burning Towers in its cemetery to the National Trust classified Powder Magazine and Carriage Museum, the Courthouse and Gaol, Beechworth provides a fascinating insight into life on the Australian goldfields.
When:Beechworth gets very cold in winter and hot in summer. For my money March to May in Beechworth is just about perfect - mild weather combined with the annual explosion of brilliant autumn colour.
Phone:Beechworth Visitor Information Centre 1300 366 321 or (03) 5728 8064