Gold and the lure of a fast sovereign brought a band of shysters and ruffians to the North-east, and a few months after the first gold strikes in the May Day Hills (Beechworth) a stockade hut was built to house the many and varied prisoners of the constabulary.
A bigger timber structure was erected in 1853, and by 1857 the Beechworth Gaol (Ford Street) was under construction. This imposing structure with its blunt walls and rotund watchtowers was completed in 1860, and witnessed the passage of some interesting names.
Some of the gaol’s inmates were unfortunates, caught up in the rapid social changes that occurred during the gold era. Widespread immigration had now become a feature of Australian life for the first time, and many of the prejudices and machinations of the old world appeared.
One of the first bushrangers in the North-east was Bogong Jack, who began with some localised cattle rustling, and then expanded his activities, to include horses as well.
Eventually he was moving stock between Gippsland and the North-east, as well as between the Omeo, Corryong and Monaro districts. Inevitably he was taken into custody, but was later released for lack of conclusive evidence.
After this close encounter, Jack retired to a hut on the slopes of Mount Fainter, but later disappeared without trace (one of the many mysteries of the High Country).
North of the border, Mad Dan Morgan proved to be an elusive bushranger to catch and was a continuing embarrassment to the New South Wales police.
The police were taunted by their Victorian counterparts who claimed that Morgan would be dead within 48 hours if he dared set foot inside Victoria.
Morgan heard of this claim and headed south to show his best. He held up travellers, burnt farm buildings, and ended his grand tour at Peechelba Station, on the Lower Ovens River.
Morgan broke into one of several homes at Peechelba, taking the residents hostage. However he was careless in his role as captor, and a maid managed to creep over to an adjoining property to give the alarm. By the following morning the house was surrounded and Morgan was shot dead, as he stepped onto the verandah; well before the 48 hour deadline. Morgan was buried, albeit headless, in Wangaratta cemetery.
Another bushranger of note was Harry Power. Power received a 14 year prison sentence in 1855, after a shooting incident, and served most of his time in Pentridge Prison. However, he managed to escape, and continued his career by robbing a mail coach near Porepunkah (1869) and generally harassing people in the Ovens River and Beechworth districts.
Power hid in the upper reaches of the King River, but was eventually sprung by the police, who pursued him to his hideout with the aid of native trackers, and (some say) with the aid of someone who betrayed him. He was taken to Beechworth Gaol, and subsequently sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
Power’s camp (now known as Powers Lookout) has superb views over the King River Valley and has become quite a tourist attraction. From his hiding place Power could be forewarned of approaching police and present day visitors can get a feel for what Power’s patio views were like!
Picnic and barbeque facilities are provided and the drive to and from the lookout makes a pleasant day trip. See the Mansfield - King Valley Tour (link below) for more details.
The Kelly Gang
One of the most noted bushranger gangs was that of the Kellys.
Sean Ceallaigh (John Kelly) was transported to Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) in 1841. John married Ellen Quinn in 1850, and they had six children; having lived in Wallan, Bendigo and Beveridge, they eventually settled at 11 Mile Creek, near Greta, just south-west of Wangaratta.
The Kellys had a few brushes with the law, and in 1871 Ned Kelly was sentenced to three years of imprisonment (at the age of 16) for horse stealing. He served part of his sentence in Beechworth Gaol.
Jim Kelly was also sentenced for horse stealing, and upon release went to New South Wales where he soon received a further 15 year sentence. Dan Kelly, the youngest son, had his brush with the law in 1876, when he was sent to gaol for three months.
After a few incidents and misunderstandings, the police decided to hunt for the Kellys, who by now had been joined by Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. The gang heard news of this and decided to fight fire with fire. The Kellys crept up to the police camp at Stringybark Creek in October 1878, and ordered the officers there to surrender their arms and, in the ensuing shoot-out, three police officers were shot dead.
A memorial at the site of this atrocity, and at Mansfield, commemorates the bravery of these officers.
After this incident, the Kellys rode into Euroa on 11th December and robbed the National Bank. This daring robbery was followed by the hold-up of an entire town, Jerilderie in New South Wales. The Kellys held the town for three days before returning to their hideout at Greta in the King River Valley.
Rewards were now being offered by the respective colonial governments, and various banks, for the capture of the Kelly Gang. However, the ensuing months proved remarkably quiet.
In June 1880 Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne went to the Woolshed Valley (north of Beechworth) to confront Aaron Sherritt, allegedly a police informer.
Whilst Kelly and Byrne were riding to Sherritt’s home, Ned Kelly and Steve Hart travelled to Glenrowan. There they forced a rail maintenance gang to take up the tracks so that the police, alerted and on their way north for a showdown, would be blocked from the town. However the police managed to reach the town’s environs, and a major shoot-out ensued, leaving Dan Kelly and Steve Hart dead and Ned Kelly badly wounded.
Ned was taken initially taken to Benalla, then to Beechworth, and finally to Melbourne, and after a brief trial was sentenced to hang on 11th November.
Despite a petition of 32 000 signatures calling for the death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment, Kelly was hanged, and the bushranging era was mostly over.
Famously, from the dock Kelly said ’I dare say that the day will come when we shall all have to go to a bigger court than this’ and moments before the hanging Kelly said ’such is life’.
Kelly’s prophesy about a ’higher court’ was to ring true; within two weeks, the judge (Redmond Barry) was dead, albeit from natural causes.
Many items of Kelly memorabilia can be found in and around the North-east; see the Beechworth, Benalla, Euroa and Glenrowan township descriptions for details.
MANSFIELD - KING VALLEY (via Lake Nillahcootie, Tatong, Stringybark Creek and Powers Lookout)
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