Daylesford's Lost Boys

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Modern Daylesford is idyllic, welcoming and, though we rarely stop to appreciate it, safe. Now tranquil and a prime holiday destination, residents and visitors in the Daylesford region will find little enough reminders of the town’s tragic past. As a community, Daylesford coalesced slowly in response to the fortuitous discovery of gold in 1851. Like so many at the time, prospectors and miners from all over the world converged, hoping to make their fortune. At the heart, this history lies a tale of three young boys, lost to the unforgiving bushland of colonial Victoria. 

Winter in Victoria is disagreeable at best; the biting wind, the intermittent yet torrential rains, frosty mornings that make your toes freeze on the floorboards. Thankfully, most times it’s a matter of cranking up the heater or throwing on a jacket. A frigid breeze might elicit some discomfort, but it’s unlikely to make one pause and consider that, under less fortunate circumstances, such weather could bring swift death with it over the course of a single night. It sounds extreme, even inconceivable, but it was in 1867, during one of Victoria’s coldest ever winters, that the unrelenting chill would steal a part of Daylesford forever.

The phrase ‘lost boys’ should, by rights, evoke childhood recollections of Peter Pan, of untold adventures and wonder. For Daylesford, the memory of its lost boys is anything but nostalgic. On the crisp morning of June 30th, 1867, brothers William and Thomas Graham and their friend, Arthur Burman, set off from the frontier town to find wild goats. Aged just 7, 4 and 5, respectively, it’s unfathomable to us that such young children would be allowed to roam the Australian wilderness unsupervised, especially in winter. But such was colonial life, unfettered and often reckless. 

As morning turned to midday, the boys had yet to return, and their fathers began a search on their own. We now know that, at some point in the afternoon, the boys encountered a shopkeeper by the name of Mutch in Muskvale, who unsuccessfully advised them to follow the telegraph lines back to Daylesford. The day dragged on, eventually giving way to an excruciatingly glacial night. Still no sign of the boys. Searches quickly escalated, involving hundreds of volunteers, horsemen, hounds and even indigenous trackers. The tumult ravaged the surrounding bush, destroying any trail the small children might have left. 

25 days elapsed before the would-be rescuers surrendered to the unyielding bush. Months later, in September, spring broke. Though its tides were ebbing, the winter had not yet finished tormenting Daylesford, delivering one last hammer blow that brought despair and closure in equal measure. Discovered by a farmer’s dog was the foot of a small child, still in its shoe. Searches began anew, even more solemn than the last. Now unimpeded by freezing conditions, parties quickly discovered the location of the bodies, in the hollow of a tree. It was concluded that the children had passed away on the very first night that they had gone missing. Their funeral drew over 1000 mourners.

A stone monument stands on that spot today, memorialising the boys and their misadventure. The Graham Dux award, a scholarship, was instituted by William and Thomas’ father at the local school and is still awarded to this day. ‘The Lost Children’s Walk’, a 16km bush trail, was also established in their honour and is trekked by visitors regularly.

Story by Anthony Carrubba

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