Sunday, 15 December 2013

Of Pubs, Bushrangers, A Ghost Town, Fire and a Gaol

Aitkens Gap, located at Gap Hill near Sunbury, was a wild place in the gold rush times. During the 1850s diggers traveled a days walk from Melbourne to either Diggers Rest or Aitken's Gap.

It was a tough, dangerous trek where lonely travelers sometimes met ill fate.

Three hotels lined the (Aitken's) Gap. By 1854 the hotels were: the Gap Inn, the Manchester and the Bald Hill - charging exorbitant rates for any thing to drink. There are still some archaeological evidence remains of the Gap and Bald Hill inns. There were also some stores were erected in the vicinity. At that time The Gap's population exceeded Sunbury.

A large police station was needed to keep check of the thieves and drunkards. Visitors to The Gap were dismayed at the rugged, blasphemy of desperate, tough folk. A gaol was erected for a large fee of £200 in 1857 and once stood at the end of Gap Rd near what is now Hamilton St, Diggers Rest. The blue-stone gaol served two purposes at different occasions: housing prisoners or safe keeping gold.

It was reported in the Argus 21 October 1852- "Bushrangers at Aitken's Gap-Five armed and mounted bushrangers "bailed" up and robbed a gentleman riding in the neighbourhood of Aitken's Gap on Tuesday morning last about 11 o'clock"

A transcript of the Supreme Court Criminal Sittings, Thursday, November 18th, 1852, read:

Before His Honor Mr. Justice Williams.

John Flannagan and Thomas Williams pleaded not guilty to the charge of having on the 19th day of October assaulted and robbed one Anthony Waring, near Aitken’s Gap.

The prisoners in this case are two of the bushrangers who have lately put travellers to the diggings in such terror. They are also connected with the Brighton robberies.

Detective Murray took Flanagan [sic] in custody, searched him and found on him £47 10s[,] a pistol heavily loaded and capped, and various other articles.

H. Saunders—On the 19th October was at Aitken’s Gap, going to Melbourne from Bendigo; saw Williams and his mates, where we camped. They came up on horseback, all fully armed; one dismounted and cried "Stand." I said "we are here lying." He replied "I’ll commence with you," and immediately overhauled me, rifling my pockets and taking my purse; when he robbed me he sent me back, and treated my mates similarly. I said to him "Mickey, you have treated me rather hard, give us enough to bring us over the punt." He said "Hold your whist, and you must get it." He then said "will you have a drop?" pulling out a bottle of gin. I said "You have taken my knife; I cannot open it." He replied "Well, I have a corkscrew," and putting his hand in his pocket, he offered me a cigar. I said "You have taken my lucifers." He then gave me the bottle, and I took a drink of gin to keep up my spirits.

A. Waring.—On the 19th October I was at Aitken’s Gap; heard a shot, and turning round saw four men galloping towards me; cried "Halloa, here are the bushrangers." Williams led the troop, and said "Keep still, or I’ll shoot you." Flanagan was also there.

Ed Waring corroborated the testimony of the prosecutor.

The jury found both prisoners guilty.

Sentence—Twelve years on the roads, the first two years in irons.

By the 1860s the Bendigo train line was in operation and The Gap's population declined as Sunbury grew. The police station was abandoned in 1864 and slowly the pubs, stores, shanties and houses grew vacant and crumbled.

On 14 January 1944 a fire that stretched from Woodend to the Gap destroyed 30 houses. It spelled the end of a ghost town and only some blues stone bricks remained.

The old Aitken’s Gap gaol is now outside Sunbury police station.

For gold escorts returning from the central goldfields, Sunbury was a haven overnight due to the Aitken’s Gap solidly built cells.

The gaol's importance was rediscovered more than 100 years later, and in a painstaking four-year project, the bluestones were shifted to the cells’ current site in 1993.
Aitken's Gap Gaol Preserved In Sunbury today
Sunbury Historical and Heritage Society president Peter Free was one of those volunteers who oversaw the reopening of the prison in 1993, albeit not taking prisoners. Some of the volunteers included the local police and the Lions Club of Diggers Rest, who painstakingly numbered every brick to transport it to Sunbury.

There is not much left of The Old Aitken's Gap now but keen fossickers and archeologists would be bound to find interesting artifacts buried in the site of one of the largest roadside towns of the gold rush era.

- Wikipedia Buttlejorrk, Victoria
- Sunbury Leader, Stern Sunbury cells' golden past
- Australian National University, The roads to the diggins

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