For a Victorian tour with a spooky difference, there are plenty of places where locals insist ghosts walk among them. Marianne Betts reports
IT IS the darkest and most silent hour of the night, just before dawn. Illuminated numbers on the bedside clock read 4.45am.
I'm suddenly wide awake, and a feeling of uneasiness grows as a chilling story told the previous night is recalled.
A local had described the experience that two of his "rough, tough, Aussie bloke" mates and their wives had in this very cottage, in the grounds of what was once Beechworth's lunatic asylum.
At 3am the group was woken by a piercing scream. Terrified, they got up to find the front door, which had been shut, wide open.
They locked it and returned to bed.
Soon after, the scream pierced the night again, and again the front door was found wide open. They never discovered how it happened.
The former May Day Hills Hospital, one of Victoria's three main lunatic asylums, closed in 1995 and its buildings are now owned by La Trobe University. Some of the buildings have been renovated and turned into luxury accommodation and a day spa.
But the past still lingers, it seems. The place is said to be haunted. After all, 9000 people, many needlessly incarcerated, lived and died in the asylum during its 128 years.
Historian Adam Wynne-Jenkins last year began running ghost tours on the site. He says it's common to have doors -- often locked ones -- swing open.
The guest cottage is close to the site of a particularly nasty ward of the old asylum. Mysterious screams have been heard here before, Wynne-Jenkins says.
But the cottage, the director of nursing's former residence, is not known to be haunted, he says. Though a glance out the window at dusk may reveal an old man in a green jacket wandering around what used to be a vegetable garden.
"Arthur was one of the gardeners . . . he was paid 10 shillings a week," Wynne-Jenkins says.
"One day he became very ill and died. When staff removed his clothes to clean his body, in the jacket he wore every day they found pound stg. 140. So we don't know if his ghost is looking for his vegie garden or his money."
Wynne-Jenkins, once a sceptic, says he has had four close encounters with ghosts at the site. One, in the cellar, was particularly frightening.
The historian was down there with a small group, all of whom say they saw a man standing in front of them.
"It was so clear, we thought there was someone down there who was going to jump out and grab us . . . then he completely vanished. The darkness sort of took him away."
The man was unshaven, had very short hair and wore a green, hessian-like jacket, all of which makes Wynne-Jenkins think he was a prisoner at Beechworth Jail. Prisoners built the hospital and were locked in the cellar overnight.
"It freaked me out. For a week after seeing him I'd wake up every night out of breath. I felt I was being choked, I couldn't breathe. And before I realised where I was, I felt as if I was in the cellar with that person," Wynne-Jenkins says.
Stories of the site's other-worldly inhabitants are many. One common sighting is of Matron Sharpe, who spent her life at the hospital.
"She's remembered for always having flowers, lace curtains and doilies -- she tried to make the place nicer," Wynne-Jenkins says.
SHE is believed to still be there because she loved the place and was a caring person.
"Before the hospital closed, the night before a patient went in for electric shock therapy . . . she'd be seen sitting on the end of their bed, almost comforting them."
But not all ghosts hark back to Victorian times. Some are said to be the staff and patients who died as late as the 1980s, Wynne-Jenkins says.
In 1961 a woman was thrown to her death from the third floor after a fight over a packet of cigarettes. She is still seen -- and has been photographed -- standing at the window from which she was thrown.
But Victoria's -- and perhaps Australia's -- most famous ghost has haunted a Melbourne theatre for more than 100 years.
At the end of a production of Faust at the Princess Theatre in 1888, as English baritone Francesco Federici's character was dropped through a stage trapdoor, he had a heart attack. He died soon afterwards.
The legend of Federici's ghost was formed that night. The cast claimed he was there to take his curtain call -- and came again on succeeding nights.
Since then there have been nearly 30 sightings of the theatre's resident ghost, often in evening dress.
But Melbourne's most haunted building may well be the State Library, where, according to Drew Sinton , owner of The Haunted Bookshop, 20 different ghosts have been sighted.
Curiously, not one death has been recorded there, but it is opposite the emergency rooms of the old Queen Victoria Hospital.
"The theory is that the ghosts are the souls of the departed who may have drifted across the road and started hanging out at the library," Sinton says.
The more prominent ghosts are associated with the library's beautiful old front section, Queen's Hall. One often seen, sometimes playing the piano, is former librarian Robert Boys, who died in 1942, Sinton says.
Security guards have seen the chandeliers moving by themselves and a strange light like a puff of smoke "riding the chandelier", he says.
Most of Queen Victoria Hospital was demolished in 1993 to make way for shops, offices and apartments, but the ghosts remain, Sinton says.
The ghost of a nurse has been seen in the Harvey Norman store, where the children's ward once was, and there were reported sightings of her in the 1970s and '90s. Her grey uniform dates her to pre-1920s.
A stone's throw away from the old Queen Victoria site is the Old Melbourne Jail, where David Barker, co-founder of Ghostseekers, has seen a ghost.
Looking down from the second floor, Barker saw a man walking towards the gallows on the ground floor. At the time he assumed it was a staff member he knew.
"As it walked towards me I said `Hey, Steve, what are you doing in here?' It looked absolutely real," Barker says.
As he came closer he realised it was a figure in an old prison uniform, wearing a "silence mask" (facial hood).
"It just kept walking towards me as I was standing on the landing above. I just stood there and went, `Oh God'," Barker says. "Then it walked into the last cell below the gallows and just disappeared in front of my eyes."
He says the 20-second encounter was as clear as looking at a flesh-and-blood man. He still cannot explain it.
Another ghost is Lucy, a prisoner who was found dead in her cell. Ghost hunters say they have recorded her saying, "Get out of here" and "Help me!"
The ghost of one-time prisoner and later hangman Michael Gately is believed to be "the growler" in another cell. Here, Barker says, women visitors say they have been touched or had their hair pulled.
Not to be outdone, the ghosts of Geelong do their haunting at the Old Geelong Jail, particularly in the east wing, which was once a school for girls.
Gary Sullivan, a ghost investigator, says in the 1860s parents went to the goldfields with their sons, leaving their daughters behind.
They were taken by the church to be housed at the jail, Sullivan says. People say they have heard weeping, and a woman has been seen in period costume at the bottom of the stairs.
Cell 45 may be the jail's most haunted. Visitors often refuse to enter.
"Some say they don't like the feeling of the cell, and others say there's so much evil energy coming out of it, it makes them feel physically sick," Sullivan says.
NOBODY has ever seen a ghost in there, but plenty of visitors have been pinched and pushed into the cell, Sullivan says.
Ballarat, where thousands died during the harsh conditions and violence of the gold rush, is often called Australia's most haunted town.
Historian Nathaniel Buchanan says the city's most famous ghost is Gloria, a young woman, who haunts Her Majesty's Theatre. A budding performer, she apparently killed herself after being panned by critics.
And across Lydiard St is Craig's Royal Hotel, believed to be haunted by the ghost of former owner Walter Craig, among others.
"People have seen the figure of a man in old Victorian garb coming down the corridors. He'll either walk straight through a door or just stand there," Buchanan says.
Lake Gardens housing estate, formerly the site of Lakeside Mental Hospital, is said to be haunted, as is the old Ballarat Jail, Bailey's Mansion and the Town Hall.
"Thirteen people were hanged at the jail. Seven are buried in the courtyard, standing up facing east so their souls won't rest," Buchanan says.
At the Coach and Horses Inn at Clarkefield, south of Romsey, the presence of a child's ghost is said to be part of the reason it has changed hands at least nine times in 30 years. Licensee Paul Levey says it's of a child who was killed by her father and thrown down a well.
"Children think they can hear a girl crying in the toilets or report seeing her in `funny clothes' playing on the stairs," Levey says.
The ghosts of two men murdered at the hotel for their gold are also said to inhabit the pub. Though Levey has seen none of the ghosts, he says strange things happen in the dining room.
"After dinner we set the tables for the next day. We come in the next morning to find the cutlery's been pushed across the table and criss-crossed," he says.
"At first I thought someone was playing a game, but I know I've been the last one there at night."
Walhalla, an old mining town 180km east of Melbourne, is said to have almost as many ghosts as permanent residents: nine residents and at least half a dozen ghosts, post office and museum manager Lynda George says.
Nestled in a narrow valley, the town is steeped in tragedy: horrific deaths from mine accidents, falling rocks and women dying in childbirth, George says.
Walhalla's best-known ghost is Emily, a nurse who hanged herself in the hospital after her fiance was killed in World War I.
Another ghost, a bride jilted at the altar, still walks around in a white wedding dress.
A ghostly figure of a big man walks into walls in the mine, and on a ghost tour, a woman once became very fidgety, George says.
"The guide asked what she was doing. She replied, 'Can't you see all the children? They're all around me, they're all touching me'.
"The mine is just up above the old state school, and she had a group of ghostly children around her, playing with her," she says.
And there are coastal ghosts. At a windswept old lighthouse on the Great Ocean Rd, a woman named "the grey lady" can be seen walking the grounds almost weekly.
Her name was Mrs Richens and she was the wife of an assistant lighthouse keeper, Gary Sullivan says.
She lived an isolated life at Cape Otway lighthouse and had several children, but became depressed and spent a long time in a Sunbury mental hospital, where she died in the 1930s.
"She walks around and just blends in with people, even though she looks odd . . . she's all grey, like you're looking at a sepia photo."
Tall stories for some, but for believers, all very spooky stuff.
If ghosts are souls of the departed, they may have drifted across the road and started hanging out at the library
We thought there was someone down there who was going to jump out and grab us, then he completely vanished. The darkness sort of took him away