Following on from the last Trove Tuesday we continue reading an account of Wangaratta published in the Ovens & Murray Advertiser (O&MA) in January 1863.

Having reviewed the temples of Bacchus, we naturally turn to the temple of Themis. This is represented by a building of brick, which, if Colonial bricks and mortar, and Colonial contractors, had done their work as well as had been hoped, or intended, would be an ornament to the town, and a convenient and comfortable establishment for its frequenters, whether J.P.s, inebriates, clerks, reporters, or policemen. As it is, the building is tumbling down.

The Temples of Bacchus mentioned in the last Trove Tuesday post referred to the Roman god of wine. Again the writer of this piece shows off his classical education by referring to the temple of Themis. Themis was a Greek Titaness who was “the personification of divine order, law, natural law and custom”. The reference is rather amusing as in 1863 Wangaratta was far from the epitome of law and order. Perhaps fittingly, the building that was supposed to represent, and be the seat of law and order, was derelict.

Unfortunately Whittaker’s book on Wangaratta does not mention the court house at all, nor does Bill O’Callaghan. Graham Jones’ On This Day in the North East has no mention of the court house and his bicentary volume There Was a Time has no index. At around 270 pages I have been daunted by the task of indexing the book. You can see a combined index of other books relating to Wangaratta that I have indexed here. It is not even clear where this first court house stood. It was most likely on the block set aside for police use on the south west corner of Murphy and Faithfull streets but it is not clear if it faced Faithfull Street where the third Court House was eventually located, or Murphy Street. The blocks  number 7, 8, 9, and 10 in section 11 notated “Police” in the map below were shown on an earlier map as being reserved for a church, school and parsonage.

£2,000 was set aside in early 1858 for a substantial court house at Wangaratta. It seems implausible that a building costing so much would be falling apart less than 5 years later. It seems more likely that the money was not used for a new building until after early 1863. A newspaper report in May 1866 supports this hypothesis.

O&MA 29th May 1866

Ovens &Murray Advertiser 29th May 1866

Another report mentions the “old Court House” in August 1864, suggesting that the new building was erected between January 1863 and August 1864, and the old “tumbling down” court house continued to serve as a type of community center for at least a few years. The new Court House looked like this.

Wangaratta Court House (II)

Wangaratta Court House (II) – postcard from private collection

Facing Murphy Street on the corner of Faithfull Street, on allotment 9 shown in the map above, it must have been an imposing landmark. The tower is an unusual addition to a Court House. Reminiscent of a lighthouse it is taller than the Court House itself and would have provided unimpeded views of the country side. That the tower was positioned on the Ovens River side of the block is perhaps no accident. This was an era where ideas were at work everywhere. One of the ideas for transportation to close the gap on the “tyranny of distance” was to use paddle steamers on major river systems, an idea that worked well on the Murray River. The story of the navigation of the Ovens River is so interesting, I will not go off on a tangent with that story now, but will keep it for another time.

In September 1872 the Illustrated Australian News featured Wangaratta, stating:

There is, perhaps, no country town in Victoria that shows more signs of immediate progress than Wangaratta. Many new buildings have been recently erected. The old courthouse has been renewed and coated with cement, and a new white railing substituted for the old broken fence. 

This does perhaps throw my theory of Court Houses up in the air. Is the Court House in the above image the one that had been renewed and coated with cement? If so, it would actually be the first court house, and the second (new) building was probably in Faithfull Street where the Art Deco building stood for many years. I think this is probably not the correct interpretation of the Court House story as it seems unlikely that a rather cheaply built 1850s brick building could have been turned into something so substantial and attractive as the building with the tower – but I’ll keep an open mind. Unfortunately only images of this towered Court House in Murphy Street and the Art Deco Court House in Faithfull Street are publicly available. A map drawn up in the late 1860s or 1870s may be needed to solve the puzzle. Until something else is brought to my attention I’ll stick with my theory of the towered building being the second Court House.

Whatever the building it was housed in, a Court House was sorely needed in the growing community. Lawlessness wasn’t usual but it wasn’t unheard of either. Wangaratta’s problems were common throughout the colonies and in the late 1850s, so few police represented the district as to make it virtually un-policed.

Some sensational events did occur in the town but by the 1860s these had reduced in number. The Hobart based Colonial Times reported the following incident in 1853.

The usual accounts of “bailing up” and robberies occupy the papers. A desperate attack was made on Meldrum Hotel, at Wangaratta, by a mob of some twenty men, who attempted, in the middle of the day, to take forcible possession of the house. The inmates, however, with the assistance of some of the residents of Wangaratta, overpowered them, after a sanguinary battle, and gave them so sound a thrashing that they will probably never make a similar attempt again. The police, though their station was near, did not take any part in the matter.

The Wangaratta courthouse was the scene of many important events, perhaps the earliest and most important occurring in July 1863 when votes were counted in the first election for the Wangaratta Municipal Council. An account of the election which gives a nice insight into the personalities and factions of the contenders can be read here.  Michael Cusack, along with his friend and my ancestor William Henry Clark and William Murdoch topped the poll. It is interesting that all three of the top pollers were publicans and all had businesses linked to each other. Announced by police magistrate R. W. Shadforth the results were:

Michael Cusack  89
William Clark  88
Wm. Murdoch  88
James Dixon  78
Edward Lucas  72
John Burrows  66
Alex. Tone  62
William Willis  58
D. H. Evans  47
W. A. Dobbyn  44
Andrew Swan 39
A. C. Bayly  37
Andrew Stark  31
Wm. Thomson  27
Samuel Norton  25
Edward Batchelor 16


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