Burke Museum, Beechworth

The next day we were back in Beechworth to see the Burke museum. The museum was set up after the town heard about the deaths of explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills in 1861. Burke had been superintendent of police for the district for 4 years.

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Outside the museum the blossom were snowing from the trees. I though it was lovely but when we went into the museum the lady who greeted us was not impressed. It added a lot of extra cleaning for them. I can understand that but for me who comes from a state that doesn’t really have snow, I loved it.

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The Burke Museum is one of the oldest museums in Australia. As we walked in the door a large Terrestrial Globe greeted us. The globe was a must have item for the time, so a fundraiser was arranged to purchase one. It was said to have been “One of the best entertainments ever held in Beechworth” and raised a massive £24, a further £10 was added later so that the town could purchase their globe.

As Beechworth was part of the gold rush there was a section on the gold fields surrounding the town. At the height of the rush Beechworth supported 30,000 miners of all different nationalities. In the first 10 years of the goldfields, over 4,121,900 ounces of gold was produced that is 153.35 tons. On the floor in one corner was a golden sphere representing a ton of gold, I put my foot on it so I could make a comparison. I was impressed when I imagined what 153 of them would have looked like.

There is another area of the museum dedicated to a wager. It all started with a discussion between two friends, Tom Parkinson and Sydney Evans who had travelled to Mt Buffalo for a picnic on Anzac Day in 1935. Evans started a conversation about how he wouldn’t want to walk up the mountain. The conversation ended with a joking bet that Parkinson could wheel Evans from Beechworth and up the hill in a barrow in less than 8 days. Later that evening the pair were talking to friends and the conversation was retold. The friends declared it couldn’t be done. Paterson stood his ground that it could. He laid £20 in notes on the table and asked Evans to cover the bet and it was on. The local paper ran a small article and the city papers picked up the story and soon it was spreading around Australia. Neither man could back out now.

Parkinson took up training for the event by using a barrow laden with 95 kilos  He also top-dressed Beechworth’s sporting ground to help with speed. The wheelbarrow that was to be used was specially made for the event. The base was built to give enough room for someone to sit in it (the information didn’t say but I would think a pillow would have been added as well for comfort.) Straps were added to the handles to help distribute the weight over Parkinson’s shoulders. The wheels were fitted with rolling bearings and Dunlop supplied the “Latest pneumatic tyres’” to give Evans a more comfortable ride.

Evans did his own training by sitting for long periods in a barrow.

The pair had hoped to leave quietly first thing in the morning but it was not to be. Heavy rain held them back. By 10.00 am a crowd of over 2000 had gathered. The crowd including 3 special news reporters sent from Melbourne to accompany the barrowthon. To make the event special the President of the Shire Cr. Humphries broke a bottle of champagne over the barrow and by 1 pm the men were finally on their way.

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To start with, the progress was slow due to the muddy conditions. Then it was almost smooth sailing until they reached the mountain. The weather had set in and it started to snow making the last leg of the journey hard going. The conditions were so bad that Parkinson often slipped in the snow tipping Evens out, but they finally made it to the top of Mt Buffalo. By then Parkinson was feeling faint and Evans was developing cramps. Over 1,000 people made the journey by car to greet them and they formed a guard of honour to welcome the two men to the top. The men had travelled almost 50 miles (86 km) and climbed up 4500 feet to reach the top. Parkinson reached the finishing line with 42 minutes to spare.

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As for the wager, a cheque was drawn up but it was never cashed. Parkinson declared he would never attempt another such performance even for £500.   Parkinson may never have participated in the run again but it is now a yearly event, the teams’ raise money for their own causes.  I love this; a simple conversation between two men has turned into helping out a lot of different charities.

The museum has a collection of Chinese items as a tribute to the many Chinese miners.

And a lot of small items like pigeon clips, Pom-Pom bullets and an old cup and spoon.

All that is interesting, but one of the best areas of the museum is the 19th Century Streetscape. You get to promenade along an old-fashioned street and window shop back in time with some of the businesses of Beechworth in 1800s.   Everything is still under glass but it just seemed to be more real as if the past could come alive at any moment.

I didn’t think it would take us long to walk down the street as it wasn’t long but it did. The shops were filled with some wonderful Things. It was hard to move on to the next shop, as there was always something more that caught my eye. I did have a laugh when I looked into the ladies dress shop. There was information on mourning, (written by a man in 1887.) It seemed that a wife, on the death of her husband had a long list of instruction. They were required by “Good Society” to mourn for two years and seven months. Going from heavy black to grey or lavender with jewellery and ribbons only being added to their wardrobe after the first two years. Now a man on the death of his wife only had to morn for 3 months. Seemed a little unfair to me but it did reflect on the time. Queen Victoria after the death of her husband Price Albert in 1861 wore “widows weaves” for the rest of her life. This influenced the fashion and the behaviour of society. I still think it was a bit unfair though.

As we were in the Burke museum there was a section on Burke and Wills. Well mainly on Burke.

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Some of the unusual items on display were Burke’s bible and some Hoadley’s Chocolate Cards depicting the departure of the men, Burke and Wills exploring and the death of Burke.

Also on display is Burke’s gun, presented to him by the Beechworth Police in 1885 in recognition of his four years services. The gun was put up for auction in 2013 in Dublin. The town people along with business as well as the town council and the museum itself pulled money together to make a bid.

How did they know the gun was authentic? The gun carries an inscription reading “Presented to R O’Hara Burke Esq. Supt. Of Police by the Officers of the district on his transfer from Beechworth.”

The value of the gun was unknown, in 2005 a water bottle from The Burke and Wills expedition of 1861 sold for $200,000. The auction house had placed a value of just $1,500 on the gun. Such a low price suggested it was though to be just an old gun. As you can imagine the excitement was thick in Beechworth as the auction drew near.   After it was all over the Burke museum had made the winning bid of $18,000. It took a further 6 months of paperwork before the gun was finally added to the museum in pride of place to the Burke collection sometime in 2014.

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The Burke museum is small but very impressive. We spent the morning there and the rest of the day we had a look around the town.

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Then on to the old Ovens district Hospital. For a time the hospital was the only one between Melbourne and Goulburn (in NSW). There is only the facade of the building left now as the rest was demolished in 1940. Most of the building materials were reused for public works within Beechworth.

From the old hospital it was out to some small waterfalls along a scenic drive. Nice way to finish off the day.

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