A little History ......
Gold was first discovered near the present site of the Newtown Bridge, with the assistance of a local shepherd in 1852. By November 1852 , some 1500 miners had descended on the area; by January 1853 that number had multiplied to approximately 8000.
During this time the area was known as Mayday Hills (named by Lieutenant-Governor GJ La Trobe in May 1852). Over four million ounces of gold were found between the years 1852 to 1866, which is worth several billion dollars in today’s currency.
By 1853 a township began to form and the name Beechworth was bestowed by George D. Smythe, the Government Surveyor who planned the first streets and public areas for the town.
Miners of all nationalities flocked to the Ovens Goldfield including over 4,000 Chinese miners. The Chinese encampment had flourishing market gardens, shops, opium dens and a Joss house (temple of worship). Many Chinese miners were buried in their own section of the Beechworth Cemetery, which can still be seen today. The Chinese Burning Towers also remain – these were used to burn incense, paper money and prayers and to leave food offerings.
The realisation that the gold would not last forever made for substantial investments in public services. From this period onwards Beechworth became a scene of rapid development, with many of its principle buildings being established, most of which still stand and continue to be utilised today – a hospital for the aged, Gaol, general hospital, the Mayday Hills Asylum, Court House, Town Hall and Post Office. All were constructed or upgraded during the 1850s and 1860s. Beechworth is now only one of two towns in Victoria classified as “notable” by the National Trust, with over 30 local buildings on the Trust’s register.
Robert O’Hara Burke, from the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition to Northern Australia, was the Police Superintendent in Beechworth form 1854 to 1858. Burke proved a popular and well-respected member of the community. In his honour, the residents changed the name of the Public Library and Athenaeum to the Robert O’Hara Burke Memorial Museum.
Ned Kelly was a prominent figure throughout NorthEast Victoria. Ned, along with other members of the Kelly family and Kelly Gang appeared at the Beechworth Court House and served time within the Beechworth Gaol. After Ned Kelly’s committal at the Courthouse, for the murders of the policemen at Stringybark Creek, the trial was transferred to Melbourne, as it was difficult to find an unbiased jury. He was found guilty of murder and hanged on the 11th November 1880.
Other prominent historical characters associated with Beechworth, in particular the Court House, include: Sir Isaac Isaacs (the first Australian born Governor General), the bushranger Harry Power (a legend in his own right and tutor to a young Ned Kelly), Sir Redmond Barry (notable judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to hang) and Elizabeth Scott (the first of five women to be hanged in Victoria).