Things to do in Melbourne #3 — Old Melbourne Gaol by night

ned kelly's death mask at old melbourne gaol

Ned Kelly's death mask

There’s a definite air to the Old Melbourne Gaol that’s enhanced by a night visit.

Dating back to the mid 1800s, the then imposing building was erected as a response to the lawlessness of the gold rush, our guide told us. It was built according to the latest of law enforcement principles, which did not include plumbing — one of the most notable elements of the rather confined cells is the absence of a loo. Just the thought of a game of pass the bucket in an overcrowded cell after lights out was enough to induce a vow of sticking to the true and narrow.

Our guide, affecting an Irish accent, took the character of one of the gaol’s hangmen, and led us through the three storeys of utilitarian cellblock to point out the conditions of the day, the art of a good hanging, and some of the more infamous inmates, of whom 135 ended their lives at the end of a noose.

Death masks and info boards fill in some details; those waxen countenances, eyes and mouths shut inside their glass boxes, radiate a certain mystique with their crimes outlined around them.

The gaol’s star attraction is Ned Kelly. The bushranger, who was executed here, has a strong presence, including biographical details, death mask and replica armour, as well as several artifacts including a pistol taken from his last stand at Glenrowan, complete with bullet damage to the grip.

After the candlelit tour, we were set loose, with the lights on, to take photographs and explore the various dioramas and information displays, though the building was still far from bright and retained its sense of loneliness.

While the gaol’s ‘haunted’ status is mentioned in PR material, the tour managed to avoid the topic, and there were no ghost stories nor scary theatrics (though a few customers did manage to spook each other; those little screams did travel well!). The atmosphere of the stones and bars was more than enough to conjure a sense of dread and despair.

Photographic conditions were rather dim, but there are some pix over at Flickr.

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