Rogues, Ratbags and Mongrel Dogs – On tour at the Old Beechworth Gaol
52 Weekends North East Victoria
Sharing stories spanning North East Victoria’s early white settlement, the gold rush, Kelly Gang, gaolers, hangmen and prisoners, Old Beechworth Gaol tour guide Darren Sutton loves bringing history to life.
Running tours five days a week, Darren leads the Rogues, Ratbags and Mongrel Dogs tours on behalf of the Old Beechworth Gaol owners, a consortium of locals who purchased the premises in November 2016.
Former program manager under its previous owners, Darren moved with his family to Beechworth over 25 years ago. It was an area to which he’d been coming his whole life – the place his mother’s family first settled in the 1850s – and he couldn’t imagine raising his family anywhere else in the world. When Darren’s investigations into early mining became more focussed, they expanded into other crossover areas and he became involved with doing reenactments at the Courthouse.
“To be a successful gold miner, you have to do lots of historical research,” he says. “I had to review old documents from the 1800s and it’s just evolved into my love of history from there.”
Of the stand-out stories from Beechworth Gaol, Ned Kelly’s third – and last – time in August 1880 remains one of its most controversial. Having been shot and wounded at Glenrowan, Kelly was taken to Melbourne where they thought he was going to die. Two weeks later, he was brought back to Beechworth to face charges relating to the murder of three policemen at Stringybark Creek, then sent back to Melbourne where he was committed to stand trial.
“They tried him, convicted him and hanged him down there when in fact under the law of the day, it should have happened here in Beechworth,” Darren says.
In what he describes as a complex situation, Darren sits on the fence with Kelly’s history. “Ned was certainly no angel and even before the major events of the last couple of years of his life, he was a well-known horse and cattle thief. By his own admission, he’d stolen over 200 horses so it was a pretty big crime for any era.”
The major turning point for Kelly, according to Darren, was after his mother Ellen’s incarceration in Beechworth Gaol.
“I think the wheels really fell off then. There was a whole series of events under always arguable circumstances,” he says. “However the execution of Ned Kelly was justified under the law of the day for the crimes that were committed. The one I believe was the villain in the gang – and this is my personal opinion – was Joe Byrne. He killed Aaron Sheritt and murdered him in cold blood just 11 kilometres from here.”
Byrne was reported to have been a well-known opium user and known for his erratic behaviour. While Darren doesn’t think Byrne necessarily led Kelly along, he didn’t do anything to help his partner’s cause – and at the heart of Kelly’s cause, was his family.
“After his mum was imprisoned here in 1878, he was outraged. He didn’t go out and break the law straight away. He actually went out and was running a legitimate gold mining operation not far from Stringybark Creek,” Darren says, noting that Kelly’s efforts were intended to pay for an appeal to get his mum out of prison. “Even at that time, he still had a fairly kind heart and he was very, very protective of his family. But then once the three policemen were killed at Stringybark Creek, it was game on and it was only going to end up with the gang being killed one way or another.”
Imprisoned for the attempted murder of Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, Ellen Kelly’s time in Beechworth Gaol is the most significant event in the whole Kelly story, says Darren. “If she hadn’t been here, I don’t believe we would have had a Kelly gang. In fact Ned would have gone down in history as just being another common horse and cattle thief.”
Of equal billing with the Kelly’s links to Beechworth Gaol are the hangings of the eight prisoners on the gallows there, including a double execution in 1873. The men in question had entered the Wooragee Store with the intention to rob its owner. One shot was fired and the storekeeper was killed. The two men were captured shortly afterwards and taken to the Courthouse the following day.
“They were put in front of a police magistrate who simply asked them both, ‘Which one of you fired the fatal shot?’ They both said, ‘He did it.’ ” Darren says they were then tried together, as was normal in the day, then convicted and hanged together as one.
As with Ellen Kelly, the stories of Beechworth Gaol’s female prisoners viewed under today’s circumstances can be heart wrenching. “Elizabeth Scott was a young bride married to a man many times older than her and she was treated pretty badly,” Darren says.
When two of her friends – Julian Cross and David Gedge – went to their house to “sort him out”, things got out of hand.
“They went too far and they killed him,” Darren says. Even though Elizabeth was said to have not been in the room, she was implicated and the trio were tried and convicted together as one. “They should have hanged them all together on the gallows of Beechworth Gaol, but because it was such a groundbreaking event with the hanging of the first woman in Victoria, they were taken down to Melbourne and hanged together side by side down there.”
Right up to the very end, Elizabeth was said to have pleaded, “Davey won’t you speak for me?” In other words, she was asking for him to speak up and proclaim her innocence, but Gedge remained silent.
Darren says that of today’s visitors to the Gaol, the young and old are equally enthralled by its history.
“The reviews we’ve had have been smashing. People love history. They love Australian history and it’s not all about crime and punishment. It’s about learning how they lived in those early days,” he says. “My enjoyment is seeing the enjoyment on other people’s faces as they’re learning things they had no idea about before.”
Old Beechworth Gaol Essentials:
Old Beechworth Gaol
Cnr William Street and Sydney Road
Victoria Australia 3747
Rogues, Ratbags and Mongrel Dogs tours run from 11.45 am on Thursday-Monday, with additional tours available on Long Weekends and throughout the Victorian School Holidays, with private tours available on request. Tickets cost from $15 for an adult ($10 concession, family $40) – available from the Old Beechworth Gaol 15 minutes to tour departure, online via this link, or from the Beechworth Visitor Information Centre, 103 Ford Street Beechworth.
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