Search rekin­dles for­got­ten lives

Ovens & Murray Advertiser - - NEWS -

BEECH­WORTH’S Nanette Collins for three years spent much of her spare time in a near­foren­sic search of digi­tised con­vict records.

She be­came in­trigued when work­ing for Sam Law­son’s former Beech­worth Gaol Un­locked by the lives, sto­ries and some of the deaths of the 2601 peo­ple who be­tween 1860 and 1940 were in­car­cer­ated in Her Majesty’s Prison Beech­worth.

It be­came a fas­ci­nat­ing project into the small hours and has led to her recog­ni­tion by the Pub­lic Record Of­fice Vic­to­ria and the Royal Vic­to­rian His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety with a 2017 com­mu­nity his­tory award com­men­da­tion.

“It will never be fin­ished,” Ms Collins said this week.

“But we wouldn’t have come this far with­out the help of my brother, James.

“He de­signed the data­base so all of the in­for­ma­tion I was un­cov­er­ing could be digi­tised and be­come search­able.”

Ms Collins said she set out with only one goal in mind – to record the con­victs’ names.

Yet to find them she had to search 65,000 pris­oner records on­line.

“(That num­ber of) names stood in front of me, daunt­ing be­yond words,” she said.

“Day by day, hour by hour, l kept chip­ping away un­til one day l found my­self near­ing the half­way mark.

“By this time six months had past and the light at the end of the tun­nel was clearly in sight.

“The sheer ex­cite­ment and re­lief of com­ple­tion was build­ing.

“Late one Tues­day evening…it was com­plete.

“l had un­cov­ered more than 2500 names of men and women who, over the time of the gaol’s ex­is­tence, spent days, months, even years be­hind the 18-foot (six-me­tre) high gran­ite walls, obliv­i­ous to what was go­ing on in the out­side world.”

Ms Collins said the project was driven by her passion for the for­bid­ding old prison and the sto­ries it held, but it was also to un­cover the for­got­ten his­tory of name­less peo­ple.

“They were for­got­ten and locked away for years and months,” she said.

“Once some­one went to goal back then they were dis­owned by their fam­ily – the worst of the worst out­comes.

“Those who dis­ap­peared from hu­man view were the peo­ple whose iden­ti­ties I wanted re­stored.

“I thought they had as much right to be recog­nised as those who spent time in Beech­worth prison and be­came in­fa­mous.”

Fresh op­por­tu­ni­ties as a re­sult of Ms Collins’ de­mand­ing vol­un­tary re­search project are now pre­sent­ing them­selves in the wake of the com­men­da­tion.

“What I did, I counted, adds up to 13,650 lines on a spread­sheet,” she said.

“But there is so much more that can be done.”

PHOTO: Jamie Kron­borg

IN­TRIGU­ING: Nanette Collins with the Pub­lic Record Of­fice Vic­to­ria and Royal His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety cer­tifi­cate of com­men­da­tion for her con­vict record project.

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