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