Crime and punishment in Beechworth

18 to 20 January 2020

Bonnie Doon to Beechworth, 147km

Something at Port Arthur must have fuelled a desire in us to learn more about Australia’s criminal justice system because, without knowing much about the place, from Bonnie Doon we headed to Beechworth in the north of Victoria’s alpine region.

This took us as close as we wanted to get to the still burning fires in the area but there were no emergency warnings and the weather was cooler with rain forecast. Evidence of the fires was still clear from the skies though. It was like someone was rubbing out the distant horizon and the air hung with the smell of smoke. Checking in at the caravan park we were glad we had come though. The woman told us that they had been due to have 400 people in the park but, due to the fires, most had cancelled and they were expecting only 40 that night. We were starting to see just how local economies are being affected.

Beechworth went straight up there with our favourite old country towns, heritage buildings at every turn, a famous bakery with pavement tables ideal for drinking coffee and people watching

and pretty cottages and gardens in the back streets. Our lakeside caravan park even promised koalas and before you ask, no we didn’t!

Beechworth was another town built on the riches of Victoria’s gold rush but wandering around there was a stronger whiff of justice in the air, a high walled prison, a prominent court house, even a barristers and solicitors office opposite the bakery. This was definitely a town with criminal justice stories to be told so we went in search.

Beechworth courthouse opened in 1858 and only closed as a working court in 1989. In 131 years it saw some of the most high profile cases in Australia’s criminal justice history but none more famous than that of Ned Kelly. To some legendary folk hero, to others ruthless bushranger and murderer, Ned Kelly is notorious not just in Australia and he made many appearances here, alongside his brothers and mother, Ellen Kelly.

Tourist numbers down, we were the only people visiting so got to try out the courtroom for size. I, on account of my qualifications of course, got to sit in the judge’s chair. Stefan, on account of, well, being Stefan, got to try out the dock, standing right where the legendary Ned Kelly stood to be committed to stand trial for murder. The authorities knew too well that no locals would convict Ned in Beechworth so he was tried instead in Melbourne and ultimately sentenced to hang.

Round the corner from the court, the tour of the old gaol was one of the best things we’ve done, a brilliant guide bringing alive stories from inside the prison from the 1860s to its closure in 2004. Under one roof it was a lesson in how the penal system has developed from a regime of isolation and hard labour, floggings and capital punishment towards education and rehabilitation.

But this place had one prisoner stamped all over it. It might as well have had Ned was here graffitied on the walls. He was painted on the walls of the exercise yard and stood tall with the rest of his gang inside. In 1870 Ned Kelly served a six month sentence for assault in the gaol and later in 1880 was held for two weeks in cell number 30 awaiting his committal hearing from the murder of three police officers.

In the early days women, sometimes with their infant children, were held in the prison too, separated from the men by a curtain and allowed to exercise separately in a yard accessed from their own cells. Ned’s mother, Ellen Kelly, was held here with her 3 day old baby having been convicted of hitting a police officer over the head with a frying pan.

Beechworth gaol was also a place of execution. 8 men were hanged here between 1865 and 1881. We stayed behind after the main tour to hear their stories, each in its own way an argument against capital punishment although the death penalty was only abolished in Australia in 1985.

In more modern times the gaol housed Melbourne gangland murderer Carl Williams and only closed its doors as a minimum security prison in 2004. Evidence of its more recent use was everywhere. Conditions in the prison might have improved but those cells remained the same size with so little light and air and the toilets were only installed in 1994.

The most surprising modern feature of the gaol was a swimming pool built in 1957 and used as a reward for good behaviour. But remember those 8 men hanged? They had been buried in unconsecrated ground where the pool now is. The condemned men never got to leave prison, not even in death. In 2011, long after the prison shut, the burial ground was consecrated.

And on that morbid note we headed to Beechworth cemetery where we had heard there was an unusual feature built by the Chinese community that came to the goldfields. In a typically Australian cemetery divided into sections by different denominations and faiths, at the front of the Chinese section stand two burning towers. These towers are unique to the goldfields of Australia, allowing the Chinese mourners to make offerings of burnt paper without setting fire to the tinder dry grass. Bushfires were a thing even back then.

After all that incarceration and death we returned to the caravan park and, having looked at the weather forecast, checked ourselves into a caravan and listened to the rain come down in the roof and the thunder and lightening crash all around. Australia’s weather is nothing if not extreme…

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