Beechworth gold mining town. The interior of the Beechworth Courthouse built in 1858. Australian red cedar used throughout the building.
Hume and Hovell explored near the site of Beechworth in 1824. In 1839 the first white pastoralist took up land here. Mr Reid expanded his Tarrawingee leasehold run along Eldorado Creek but no attempts were made to pasture livestock here. After the discoveries of gold in Central Victoria in late 1851 a shepherd of David Reid named Meldrum set off looking for gold. He found it in February 1852 and began the rush to Beechworth district. Beechworth gold fields were not in the league of Bendigo, Castlemaine or Ballarat but it was one of the more successful gold fields of Victoria. The early gold was alluvial gold found in Reid’s Creek, Woolshed Creek, Spring Creek and Eldorado Creek etc. Riches were discovered by many. Eight thousand were on the Beechworth fields by late 1852. The Chinese came to Beechworth late from around 1857. Gold was safely escorted fortnightly to the assay offices in Melbourne. The North East goldfields, including Rutherglen and Chiltern produced about four million ounces of gold up to 1866.
The town of Beechworth began to emerge overnight in 1852 with several hotels opening in addition to the canvas town. General stores soon followed. Beechworth was surveyed and declared a town in 1853 when the name was changed from May Day Hills or Spring Creek to Beechworth. The temporary Post Office opened as Spring Creek but its name was changed to Beechworth in 1854. The heyday of the alluvial goldfields declined by 1857 but by then Beechworth was well established. The first public buildings erected by the government were a Courthouse (1853) and the gaol (rebuilt 1859) as goldfields always attracted criminals and disturbances of the peace were common. A town cemetery was also established in 1854. In 1855 Captain Robert O’Hara Burke arrived as the first Police Superintendent. By the late 1850s Beechworth had Methodist, Presbyterian (1856) and Anglican churches (1859) -the first church was a temporary wooden Methodist Church erected in 1854. It also had several hotels, its own newspaper, a flourmill, a district hospital (1857), Council Offices (1858), a powder magazine to store the explosives needed by the miners and a permanent Post Office which was completed in 1859 and a Telegraph Station (1858). The 1859 Post Office was rebuilt as a grand Victorian structure in 1867. Across the street from the Post Office is another fine Victorian era building – the Bank of Victoria completed in 1867 with a solid classical appearance to inspire confidence in the bank. It still retains its original vault for storing gold.
The town library or Athenaeum, which is now the Burke Museum, was built in 1857. After the tragic loss of Burke and his party trying to cross to the Gulf of Carpentaria the Burke Museum was added to the Athenaeum in 1863. The Victorian hero was to be the cause of one of the first provincial museums in Victoria and it is still a museum honouring Burke and his expedition. The first government school or National School in Beechworth opened in 1858. It was to operate in competition with the Methodist, Anglican and Catholic schools of the town. A new stone school was erected in 1865 in Loch Street and it is now a gallery. The most famous student off this school was Sir Isaacs Isaacs who became the first Australian born Governor General of Australia. Yet another new school was built in 1875 near the Botanical Gardens. But perhaps the finest and most fascinating old building in Beechworth is the Ovens Goldfields Hospital built in amazing Palladian classical style in 1857. It took several years to complete and was finally finished in 1864. Injured diggers from the entire region came to this hospital and in the first five years it treated 3,600 patients in its 100 beds. Sadly the hospital closed in 1940 and it was dismantled except for the façade. Local service clubs made it safe and it still stands today as the façade is built in granite and will last for centuries.
In 1862 the citizens of Beechworth petitioned the government for the first time for a railway. Nothing came of this. But in 1874 tenders were called for the construction of a railway from Wangaratta to Beechworth. The line opened in 1876. No wonder the government was reluctant to do this as the relatively short line required 33 bridges and 45 culverts. Alas the last train left Beechworth in 1977 and track were removed a year later. Apart from Robert Burke the other notables of Beechworth include:
Sir Isaac Isaacs the first Australian born Governor General. He was educated in the Beechworth School that was erected in 1865. Sir Isaac Isaacs became a teacher at the school before he went to Melbourne to university.
George Kerferd who arrived in Beechworth in 1853 as a store keeper. He was on the original hospital board, he ran a brewery in the town, and was Mayor for four terms. He eventual became Premier of Victoria in 1874 to 1875 and justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.
The Chinese miners at Beechworth and the North East of Victoria.
There were only 33 Chinese people recorded on censuses in the North East in 1854 but by 1861 there were 4,568 in the region around the goldfields of Beechworth but also Chiltern and Rutherglen fields. Most of the Chinese diggers (and traders) came from the Canton Province of Southern China. In the first years they were often in debt to wealthy Chinese who sponsored their voyage to Victoria but they were “free” men and not indentured in any way. Those who did find gold often transported it back, with themselves, to China. In Beechworth the Chinese were restricted to living in the Canton or encampment near Lake Sambell and a Chinese Protector was employed to maintain good relations with the 4,000 Chinese diggers at Beechworth. A few Chinese men found wives among European women and a few brought Chinese wives to Victoria but most remained single and returned to their homeland as soon as they could. Most Chinese diggers had left Beechworth by the mid-1860s but today there are some 2,000 buried in the Chinese section of the Beechworth cemetery. At the front of the Chinese section are two distinctive Chinese funeral chambers where paper offerings were burnt to sustain the spirits of the departed. By 1881 as the gold petered out less than 3,000 Chinese still lived in the North East and even fewer in Beechworth which was just one gold mining town of the region. By 1901 with Australian Federation and the introduction of the White Australia policy less than 1,000 Chinese remained in the North East of Vict. Most who remained then were market gardeners or traders and within a couple of decades of the enforcement of the White Australia policy only a handful remained.