We took the kids to Old Melbourne Gaol on Saturday. They hadn’t been there before and when we stretched our memories we concluded that our last visits were probably with a school excursion. We arrived in time to find a seat for the 12.30 show performed by Ned Kelly’s mum. Just as well we weren’t any later as there was quite a crowd and the usher had to find extra seats for last-minute arrivals. The seats in the main galley were full and we sat to the right between the staircases. Once the show started I realised we had a great spot as if you sit in the main galley you get a good view of the replica of the famous amour but if you sit in the smaller space to the side you miss nothing and the entire show is performed against the background of the gallows where Ned ended his life.
The entry fee was $52 for a family and I would have felt a little ripped off if the only thing that fee covered was entry as inside it is completely self guided and they haven’t had to spend too much money on the decor. Once the show started I felt that we had not wasted any money as the young woman who did the show was absolutely fantastic. She strode through the door dressed in a long black period frock with a white shawl draped over her shoulders and in an Irish accent told us the story of her family, Ned and the troubles that the Irish had to endure at those times. I thought the language she used was a perfect balance of old-fashioned terms and clear English. The kids in the audience could understand what she was talking about without it seeming as though it was some modern-day person telling the story. She got a few members of the audience up to help her act out the story of the time a policeman came to the house to arrest her young son Dan. The young boy that was playing Dan was quite happy to get to call the policeman ‘you bugger’ in front of the crowd and they got an enthusiastic round of applause at the end. The show then continued and even though it was quite long at no time did I look at my watch and, even more tellingly, none of the kids in the audience acted up which is always the signal that the show had better be winding up soon.
The story she was told was sympathetic to Ned and his family, as expected, and not told with any sympathy to the police (the word buggers is used most of the time when referring to them). If you think Ned and co. were the bad guys you will probably be annoyed with the bias but if you are like most people who just see Ned as a hero and conveniently forget the police being killed in the making of the story you will really enjoy it. The story was told with real emotion and all four of us raved about the performance all the way back to the car. The Irish accent she used through the whole show had me convinced of her heritage so when she ended the show with the offer of having your photo taken with her and getting to try on the famous helmet speaking in perfect Aussie I was further impressed. There was an instant queue of kids for the chance to wear or hold the helmet. Of course the armour was a replica made of fiberglass (heavy enough to make me think that a metal one would have crushed the kids who were lined up to have a turn!) and we were told that the real thing was in a museum in Geelong and was now worth six million dollars(!).
Although a prison is never constructed with the intent of making it attractive it really is a beautiful building. If you love Australian history, go and see it. If you love the Ned Kelly story, go and see it and if you love old stone buildings just go to soak it up.