Somewhere to send the kids this school holidays? Try Victoria’s hardest prison
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Liam Lees was fascinated by the locks on the heavy metal doors of the cells in what was once Victoria’s most notorious prison block.
H Division at the former Pentridge Prison in Coburg was once so brutal it was known as Hell Division. For 9-year-old Liam, who wants to be a policeman, it’s “old and cool”.
Liam Lees looks for clues in a rock breaking yard during a tour in the former Pentridge Prison.Credit: Darrian Traynor
Liam was part of a new tour aimed at children, focusing on the block that once housed Victoria’s “baddest and maddest” criminals, according to crime reporter John Silvester.
Its former residents include multiple murderers Julian Knight, Paul Steven Haigh, Gregory John Brazel and standover man Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read.
But H Division closed in 1994 and the prison in 1997. It’s now a tourist destination.
While it’s not your average school holiday activity, the new PrisonBreak Explorers tour – run by the National Trust – is tailored towards kids from six years old to those in their teens.
The tour group starts outside the former Pentridge Prison in Coburg.Credit: Darrian Traynor
The visitors were intrigued to enter the outdoor yards attached to H Division, where prisoners had to break down huge rocks into pebbles.
Most of the tour is taken up with a game. Tour guide Michelle Wright acts as “senior detective” and children – the junior detectives – are directed to cells where they gathered coded clues to help foil a prison break.
Liam’s grandmother, Kerrie Dunstan of Pakenham, said she had been looking for new activities to do with Liam on the school holidays – and he liked it.
“I thought, this is something different, that we haven’t done before,” she said.
James Cameron and daughter Ella, 7, check out a H Division cell.Credit: Darrian Traynor
Dunstan said she wasn’t worried Liam would be scared. “He’s not the type of kid that gets frightened easy.”
Silvester wrote in 2015 that when it was a prison, “many [inmates] who ended up there were beyond redemption or the barbaric conditions made them so”.
But the kids’ tours are not meant to shock. The cells with explicit graffiti are closed off and the stories that Wright tells are toned down.
After briefly outlining the jail’s origins, tour guide Wright tells stories about prisoner escapes.
Tour guide Michelle Wright tailors her talks for kids.Credit: Darrian Traynor
Wright herself was close to a 1982 escape when she was 18. She wasn’t a prisoner, but acting with male inmates in a play performance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in an A Division hall.
Armed robber Peter Patrick Clune, who had been working on the play’s lighting, donned a woman’s clothes and a wig that a friend had smuggled in – and walked out of the jail. He was recaptured in Sydney seven months later.
Pentridge tours operations co-ordinator Christopher Hasdo said that among questions kids had asked is whether there were ghosts.
He tells them he hasn’t seen any, but that some people believe in them.
Ella Cameron, 7, was curious and a little nervous when she entered a cell.
Gazing at the thick-walled rooms with toilets in the corner and single bunk beds, the Brunswick girl said it wouldn’t be nice to sleep there overnight.
But it wasn’t too scary, she said.
“It’s not a prison any more, which means there are no prisoners,” said Ella, who was with her father, James.
Working it out: Liam and other children on the new tour of the former Pentridge Prison H Division.Credit: Darrian Traynor
Tickets are now available for the program, which will run twice daily until October 1.
Hasdo said in future it could run on every school holiday and expand to weekends year-round.
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