Beechworth sprung up in the 1800’s with the discovery of gold, luring people in from all over the world, and by 1852 around 8,000 miners lived in the at Beechworth. Like at Ballarat and Ararat, the goldfields had a large chinese influx.. in Beechworth’s case there were around 5,000 living in the area. The Chinese formed their own community establishing market gardens, shops, joss house and temple.
By 1854 over 100,000 ounces of gold had been mined from the diggings. With the gold bringing in an influx of workers the tents were slowly replaced by more permanent structures and Beechworth became the central town of the Ovens Goldfields. With the population swelling to 30,000 courthouses, jails, telegraph stations and many other public buildings were constructed from beautiful sandstone. This area is now known as the Historic and Cultural Precinct and the over 30 buildings are protected by Heritage Victoria and the National Trust.
North East Victoria is ‘Kelly Country’ and Ned figures large in the history and lore at Beechworth. Ned Kelly won a bare knuckle prize-fight there that lasted twenty rounds, and spent time in Beechworth Gaol as did his mother Ellen Kelly. Ellen was sentenced to three years with hard labour for attempted murder. His Uncle James was a patient at the Beechworth Lunatic Asylum after shooting dead his sister in law and trying to burn the house down with seventeen family members in it. The Hyperion Hotel hosted hosted the wedding reception of another family member.
Ned was also brought to Beechworth after his capture at the seige of Glenrowan where he received care for his 27 bullet wounds before being shipped to Melbourne for trial and subsequent excecution.
The old sub-treasury houses a display of Ned memorabilia including armour, guns and a table from the Glenrowan Hotel.
Just up the hill and overlooking Beechworth is Mayday Hills, one of Victoria’s early Lunatic Asylums. Mayday Hills opened in 1867 and was one of the largest with 1200 ‘beds’ at its peak. Situated on 106 hectares of farmland the asylum was self sufficient with orchards, kitchen gardens, stables, piggery and barn. With medicine being typically grim in victorian times there was little in the way of treatment, and it was very easy to commit someone. It took two signatures to be committed (usually a relative and a doctor) but eight to be discharged. Consequently most who came through the doors never left again.
Signs that you were a lunatic were : hanging out washing on a sunday, burning the dinner, being an alcoholic or homeless, suffering a nervous breakdown or depression and in womens cases being ‘hysterical’. Children were institutionalised for cerebral palsy, down syndrome, ‘imbecility’, blindness, deafness and answering back to a parent or employer. Men committed their wives as it was simpler to commit them than to divorce them.
I must admit, the sight of childrens play equipment, in a place like Mayday Hills was quite creepy. Closing in 1995 it remains intact but mostly abandoned save for the tours run by Beechworth Ghost Tours. A lot of the buildings are for sale, but sales are slow. It seems not a lot of people want to buy houses that are reputedly haunted and on grounds where 3000 patients are buried.