Thursday, 13 February 2014

Jewell of the North-East


 My photo of the day is of a younger, slimmer version of myself, standing in the cemetery at Beechworth, Victoria, next to the grave of a man named James Ingram, a scion of Beechworth society during his life and a man who was tangled lightly in one of the most important threads in Australian history.

 The photo was taken in late 2007 when I stayed in Beechworth overnight on the way to a birthday party in Wangaratta.

 I had of course been to Beechworth before but only, as far as I can remember, as a toddler but the town had always loomed large in conversation whenever North-East Victoria was discussed in my family circles. As a person who is proud of his heritage and of his birthplace and it's surrounds I always felt I was doing myself a disservice by not visiting Beechworth. It was after-all, for a short time in the 1860's and 1870's, the Jewell of the North-East. The unofficial capital of the region.


 Beechworth is notable for it's growth during the Goldrush era, it's high levels of Chinese immigration during the same period and, of course, as the domain of probably the most famous Australian of all, Ned Kelly.

 The town itself hasn't changed all that much since Ned and the "Greta Mob" made their regular visits in the 1870's. To walk around the town you are almost certainly walking in the footsteps of the great Bushranger at some point. Historic stuff for a young nation like ours.

 Ned of course spent quite a bit of time in the local jail, a huge sandstone building which as far as I know is still standing. He was also arraigned here, in the courthouse on charges relating to the Siege of Glenrowan and in fact his murder trial should have been held in Beechworth but the authorities, fearing a local uprising, transferred the proceedings to the safer environs of Melbourne.

The photo of myself to the right is of me standing in the dock of the old Beechworth Courthouse, recreating the famous image provided by Ned himself as he listened sullenly to the charges against him, an image recreated on the wall behind me in the photo which you can just see over my right shoulder.

 The cell in which Ned was housed during this time is through the door next to my left shoulder and it's wooden floor is still stained with the excrement of thousands of men and women who have had to face the music from the dock at Beechworth.

 There is an open patch of land behind the Courthouse, clear and green but in colonial times this space had a more sinister purpose. Gallows were raised there for the purpose of meating out justice to men like Ned Kelly and his ilk and as a reminder to other young larrikins who chose his path of just what awaited them if they crossed the line that the upper-echelons of society laid down.

 There is an anecdote which says that Ned Kelly upon glimpsing the gallows of Beechworth Courthouse remarked with a hint of ironic humour that it was a pity "that a jolly good fellow like Ned Kelly is to be hung from there!".

 Ned of course eventually met his maker at Old Melbourne Gaol but he has left his fingerprints all over Beechworth and there are plenty more stories which can be told of Ned Kelly and his frequent appearances in the town if one is of a mind to study him.

 Which brings me back to James Ingram.

 James Ingram was a Scotsman who had settled in Beechworth and become a Justice of the Peace. He also owned a bookshop in town which was frequently patronised by one Edward Kelly and his mate Joe Byrne. Ned Kelly's favourite book, so legend allows, was the classic tale of "Lorna Doone" and some historians feel the genesis of the idea for creating armour came from the pages of this book. Who knows if James Ingram had a role in steering Ned Kelly to such a novel but it seems clear that the two Irish Catholic boys were fond of reading and from all accounts, James Ingram, Justice of the Peace and scion of Beechworth society was fond of them!

 James Ingram was called as a witness at Ned Kelly's trial for the murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan. He didn't prove to be of much value to the prosecution.

 Under questioning he testified that he knew Ned Kelly well, was not afraid of him and would not be fearful of encountering him in the bush! Hmmm. Thank you for your evidence Mr Ingram, you can leave the dock!

 Ned Kelly of course would have needed divine help to escape conviction and the gallows but James Ingram played a small role in the life and times of Australia's legendary outlaw hero and it was intriguing to find his grave in Beechworth cemetery.

 Beechworth lost much of it's local significance when the gold ran out and the railway line from Melbourne was routed through Wangaratta but it is still a fascinating place to visit.

 And don't lent my rambling about a certain criminal put you off. There is plenty more to see and do in Beechworth than merely following in the footsteps of a bushranger. It remains a "Jewell of the North East" and I would heartily recommend it as a destination if you are ever off the beaten track in that part of the world.

 Have a nice day. 

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