JUST how wild was Albury when it was a frontier town in the gold rush days?
Very wild indeed, it seems.
If you were looking for drunkenness, immorality, robbery and violence, all came in big doses.
What started as a simple riverside store, a pub and a police post about 1836-38 became a rough, tough town of 600 in 1853, enjoying (or suffering) a boom from cashed-up miners who crossed the Murray by punt.
The diggers wanted drink, they wanted sex and if enough horses were around to race, they wanted to bet on them.
Many husbands rushed off to the goldfields and left their families to the mercy of others.
More than 25 years before the Kelly gang, bushrangers were ready to rob travellers.
Gold escorts heading to Sydney or Melbourne naturally had armed guards.
Drunkenness was rampant among white people, the same happy to sell alcohol to Aborigines camped on the riverbank.
A handful of literate travellers and residents demanded the NSW colonial government clean up Albury, “a refuge of bad characters” and tipsy bullock drivers.
Worried about the safety of the road between Sydney and Melbourne, the government appointed the first resident police magistrate, a Heyward Atkins.
Gold was then being mined in Beechworth and the Ovens goldfield and, to some extent, in the Black Range diggings north of Albury.
Chief Constable Henry Ringwood and a junior constable were supposed to keep law and order not only in Albury pubs but in a vast area of surrounding countryside.
There was a local court under a clerk, John Roper, but it rarely convened as the few justices of the peace were mostly squatters living out of town.
Several Aboriginal men were appointed as police officers in Albury because white police, often ex-convicts, tended to quit suddenly to try their luck on the goldfields.
An early murder was discovered when a man’s body was spotted floating in the river with a spear in his back.
Anglicans and Presbyterian had resident ministers in 1851 — and Catholics a little later — but there was no church building until the late 1850s and drunks didn’t respect Sundays.
Little is known of daily life in Albury before the Border Post newspaper began in 1856, but the National Library of Australia’s TROVE facility is making more and more newspapers available in digitised form.
Combing through reports, we can find alarming letters and reports from Albury in The Sydney Morning Herald between 1851 and 1856.
One cited “a large amount of lawlessness and profligacy, which was formerly utterly unknown”.
Another said Albury was “the nearest resort to which the digger can repair to indulge in a week’s idleness and dissipation”.
“The consequence is the public houses are full, and a great laxity of morals prevails, owing in no small degree to the pernicious system of husbands hurrying off to the gold fields leaving their wives unprotected, and often unprovided for, behind them.
“Bands of bushrangers have been allowed to roam about at pleasure, committing all manner of atrocities, because it was absolutely useless for the available police force to attempt their capture.”
Any traveller had to pay the ferryman to cross the Murray, but quite often he was drinking in a pub.
In contrast, sober German migrants won approval by cultivating a market garden and supplying Albury with fresh vegetables while they began developing vineyards.
But they had a hard time protecting them from dogs, pigs and goats that ran wild around the township.