Melbourne for Kids. The Old Melbourne Gaol.

This story was written six months ago, and for some reason, sat idly in my draft folder. Although these activities took place last winter, the same or similar code breaking scavenger hunts take place every school holiday period in The Old Melbourne Gaol. The current summer holiday activity for kids, A Word from Ned , is similar to the  activity described in the winter programme below.

 It’s school holiday time in Melbourne, bitterly cold outside and the gang of three has arrived for a week. Keeping three youngsters aged 8, 9 and 11 busy AND away from their glowing devices is a challenge. I was warned by their parents that I would probably fail in my attempt to limit their iPad time to 30 minutes per day. ‘Good luck with that’, they laughed. An activity programme was called for, one written in consultation with Oliver, who wrote the timetable and costed the events. We decided to check out the Old Melbourne Gaol, a great spot for some morbid entertainment. During the school holidays, all young visitors receive an activity booklet, Escape the Gaol, which keeps them busy, frantically looking for clues on each floor of the gaol, in order to receive an official stamp and finally ‘escape’. Younger children may need a hand with some of the trickier questions and riddles: the constant walking up and down narrow metal staircases provides some physical exercise for the accompanying adults.

Inside the corridors of Old Melbourne Gaol.

After a mad search for clues on the floors and walls of cells, the children learnt to co-operate with each other and share their answers, a fine learning goal and one I encouraged. The activity took over an hour to complete. Many gruesome spectacles can then be enjoyed on each floor, especially the hanging rope area and trap door drop, the copies of death masks on display throughout many cells, and the Ned Kelly paraphernalia and other stories of woe. ‘Such is Life‘ to quote Ned’s last words.

Hanging platform, Old Melbourne Gaol
Hanging Scaffold

I had a particular interest in visiting the older part of the gaol, originally called the Eastern Gaol. My great- great- grandmother, Catherine, was locked up in this dungeonesque place for a brief time in 1857. She had been found wandering the streets of Melbourne and locked up for vagrancy and madness. I am still trying to piece together her story. As her seven children were eventually admitted to the Melbourne poor house for orphans, the Eastern gaol became her last refuge and place of demise. After a short stay, she managed to find the store containing a bottle of poisonous cleaning fluid and drank the contents. Her consequent death guaranteed an instant escape from gaol, and what must have been a tragic life.

Almost steam punk.

The Old Melbourne Gaol was erected in stages between 1851 and 1864 by the Public Works Department of the Colony of Victoria, the design is attributed to Henry Ginn, Chief Architect of the Department. The oldest remaining section ,the Second Cell Block (1851-1853), consists of a long block with three tiers of cells terminating in the central hall (1860), the site of the hanging scaffold. This is the site you will visit. Included in the total tour cost is a visit to the City Watch house, a more modern building next door, where actors dressed as police yell and intimidate you before you land in a darkened cell with your other fellow inmates. This building, although not as evocative as the older building, is well worth a visit for the 1960s lock up experience. The graffiti on the walls speak of sadness, racism, and poverty.

Graffiti etched walls of City Watch House
The Watch House has been left perfectly intact since it was vacated.

This is a great day out for kids over 8: they eagerly donned replicas of Ned’s armour and after the tour, we chatted about the Ned Kelly Legend, came home on the train and sang this song.

Daisy in Ned Kelly helmet.

Other free activities nearby include a visit to the State Library, an historical landmark and a grand building from the Melbourne Boom era. Kids are keen to climb the stairs to the top level and to see a busy library, full of readers and others playing board games. At present there’s a display of wonderful old manuscripts and books on Level 3.

View from above. Melbourne State Library.

The shot tower inside Melbourne Central is opposite the State library, which rounded out our short historical tour of colonial Melbourne.

Shot tower, Melbourne Central.

We travelled by tram and train to the city. Many kids who live in the outer suburbs spend most of their time being driven about in cars: public transport is a novelty in itself. The cost of $70 for a family of 5 for the tour of the gaol was quite reasonable. I can highly recommend this tour to Melbourne residents as well as tourists looking for something a little different in the centre of the city.

Trams are a novelty for many suburban kids.
Melbourne city views
Melbourne, always changing.
Melbourne central