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Thursday, March 18, 2010

19. Autobiography (7) Sketch: A Bit of Mischief

In the Coburg of my childhood, Pentridge dominated the landscape. Pentridge was Melbourne's jail. It housed convicted criminals - murderers, robbers, the riff raff of society. I went to school at Coburg State School; Pentridge was opposite. Its entrance was just off the main road - Sydney Road. One side ran along Gaffney Street for about a kilometre. Beside its back wall ran the Merri Creek. Its other side wall was set about one hundred metres back from Bell Street.

The wall was very high - maybe twenty feet - and it was built of huge blocks of bluestone, basalt clinkers excavated from the nearby area of the Coburg Lake. Pieces of jagged broken glass and barbed wire had been embedded in concrete along the top of the wall to deter escape.

When I was at Primary School, the back fence of our playground was just twenty yards from the forbidding grey Pentridge wall. I was in grade 4 or 5 when the notorious criminal, John O'Malley, made his escape from Pentridge.

The front half of Pentridge housed the prisoners; it was made up of cell blocks - large buildings full of small cells. The back half of Pentridge was not built on; rumour had it that it was farm land, used by the prisoners to grow vegetables.

We often went yabbying in the Merri Creek at the back of Pentridge. When I was in Secondary school, the school cross country run involved circling Pentridge. Its prominence was inescapable, and the myths that grew up about it were undeniable. It always held a fascination for the young boys of Coburg; and people from elsewhere wold often throw jibes at us: "Where do you go to school - Bluestone College?"

There was a large drain running under Pentridge. Outside the walls of Pentridge it was an open storm water drain, but it went underground just outside the walls of the jail near Bell Street and re-emerged at the back, its contents draining away into the Merri Creek.

One of the initiation ceremonies popular among the many gangs of boys that formed and reformed at Coburg State School 484 was the requirement to traverse this underground drain, from its entrance near Bell Street to its Merri Creek exit. The drain was maybe two metres wide - three or four boys could easily walk along it side by side. But it was quite low, so that you had to duck down to enter.

It was foul smelling, but its real danger lay in the fact that it took you under the jail.

"My dad reckons a few years back some prisoners dug down and broke into the drain and escaped. They hid in the farm at the back and got into the drain at night," one boy said. Romantic myths about the drain were legion, and those of us with vivid imaginations could picture scenes of unspeakable violence: desperate and ruthless prisoners, hiding in the drain, waiting for night to fall so they could make their escape, who would have no compunction in slitting the throat of anyone who came along in the pitch black darkness of the drain …

I had suffered from Rheumatic fever as a boy, and spent a month in bed as a result. I was an only child. And my parents lived in fear of the polio epidemic which claimed the lives and the good health of so many youngsters in the thirties. Polio, they assured me, was caught in gutters. Those three factors, along with an overactive imagination, meant that I was very wary of places such as the Pentridge drain. So when it was my turn to prove my manhood by entering into that dark, dark place, I reneged.


  1. I was always scared staying with Aunty Linda & Uncle Garrie & having to go to the outside toilet. I always thought there would be a prisoner who had escaped from Pentridge hiding out there. Poor country bumpkin that I was.

  2. It wasn't just country bumkins who were frightened, Leanne. I can remember quite vividly the day O'Malley escaped, and the level of fear around the school. I think he got over the fence not far from the school.
    My other strong memory was participating in the all night vigil outside the front gates of Pentridge the night they hung Ronald Ryan. I think it must have been 1965 or 1966, because I'm pretty sure I was already teaching, and coming under the influence of strongly Left wing thinkers.