Historian Alan McLean turns his attention to Rushworth's legal past

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It sounds like something from the script of Footloose.

But no. According to historian Alan McLean, there was such thing as “unauthorised dancing” when the Rushworth Court House was in its heyday. 

“Law and order in the district was plainly under serious attack from the forces of evil,” he said. 

It has been about 30 years since the doors of the historic building closed for the last time. 

But there was great need for legal services in the town when the court house was constructed, in 1877.

Rushworth and the surrounding area was home to thousands of diggers, lured by the promise of striking it rich. 

Within six months of the discovery of gold in 1853, the Supreme Court convicted two people of crimes at Moora and Rushworth.

They were subsequently hanged at Melbourne Gaol.

“In 1857, three men went down for ‘highway robbery’ near Rushworth’s Criterion Hotel,” Mr McLean said. 

“The Moora hotels, the Wanalta hotel and several hotels at Whroo also had their share of unwanted action”.

He said more than one publican was fined for operating an ‘unlicensed billiard table’.

“In 1898, a well-known and notorious Rushworth woman was accused of ‘pilfering and behaving in a way not conducive to the morality of the township’,” Mr McLean said.

“She went to Bendigo gaol, found guilty of being a ‘disorderly prostitute’.”

Combing through the news of the era, he found records of “brawling Chinamen fighting farmers, horse thieves, aggressive foul-mouthed drunks, passive drunks, cadgers, owners of sly-grog shanties, swagmen carrying more than their own goods (usually in a bottle), owners of destructive wandering goats and pigs, carriers who neglected to put their name on their cart, a man found at night in Wigg’s brewery, and a mother of 14 who failed to send her eldest child to school on the specified number of days”.

On some occasions, it was the wording of the news reports that enchanted the historian.

“The [court house] welcomed ‘an able-bodied specimen of the loafing fraternity’. Another defendant challenged the nasal senses, being ‘as shy of water as he was of work’,” Mr McLean said. 

In other instances, Mr McLean found himself fascinated by the characters about whom the reporters wrote. 

“In 1887, after 18 years as a Justice of the Peace, Wolton Wigg, a local brewer, was called into the dock – not to his preferred seat on the bench,” he said. 

“Found in a boat with a gun and a bag of dead game birds, he strangely pleaded not guilty [of shooting ducks out of season]”.

The court was unconvinced, and the “good J.P” was convicted and fined. 

“His career on the bench continued, but his days hearing poaching charges were over,” Mr McLean said. 

One defendant who never faced court was a well-respected bank manager, Lowson Salmon, who disappeared one night in 1860 with the bank’s cash, “never to be seen again”. 

Mr McLean decided there was a story to be told about the misadventures of the day. 

He has compiled a book, Order in the Court, based on his research. 

The publication is available from the Stanhope newsagent and from Rushworth Gift and Variety.