Bleak Scenes

Abandoned places, lesser-known attractions, and assorted oddities

St. John's Orphanage 2015

St. John's Orphanage was an imposing two storey structure standing on a small hill in the town of Goulburn, New South Wales. It was built in 1912, and closed in 1978. According to Wikipedia, after the orphanage closed, it was rented to the Youth With A Mission Base until 1994. It has been abandoned since then. If wish to learn more about the history of St. John's, there's a website dedicated to the boys who passed through the orphanage, and Google finds plenty of additional information.

I found out about St. John's in 2015, while searching the Internet for places to explore. It looked like an interesting old building, and was said to be completely unsecured, so naturally I decided to check it out at the earliest opportunity. In October I made the long drive to Goulburn and photographed the orphanage over two days.

I didn't arrive at the orphanage until about 3:00 PM, but I wasn't in a hurry because I would have another full day to explore it. I spent some time photographing the building from a distance before I attempted to enter. As I had hoped, absolutely no effort had been made to keep people out of the property. There was nothing but a wire fence around most of the perimeter, which was sagging in places and low enough for an adult to step over. The front gate wasn't even closed, and I didn't see a single No Trespassing sign. Most of the doors to the building were missing or wide open.

I first approached the orphanage from the rear. A small boiler room and toilet block extended from the side of the building, and another single storey extension had evidently served as a garage.

There was a fair sized hall a short distance behind main building, connected by a covered walkway. The interior was a jumbled mess of old furniture, appliances, and assorted rubbish. Some of the items were obviously made after 1978, so either they date from the Youth With A Mission days, or were left there after it was abandoned.

I entered the main building via a rear door next to the boiler room. I noticed a laundry to my left. I was startled by a high-pitched whining noise, and for a moment I worried that I might have set off an alarm. Fortunately I soon discovered that it was just an extractor fan, spinning in the breeze on squeaky bearings.

I later met a number of fellow explorers during my time there, and concluded that the place had become a veritable tourist attraction. I later read that some people had even been conducting "ghost tours" inside the orphanage at night. Nobody ever showed up to stop our exploration. There were some houses near one side of the property, so I tried to keep my distance from them to avoid attracting attention.

St. John's had inevitably fallen victim to vandals. Most of the windows were broken, there were some holes in the walls, and a lot of rubbish was scattered about. However, for such a long-abandoned and unsecured property I thought the damage wasn't too bad. Most places in Australia would have been thoroughly trashed.

Nature was also taking its toll on the building. A lot of pigeons had been roosting inside, and their dung was piled high in places. It was just as well that the broken windows provided plenty of ventilation.

As far as I could tell, the basic structure was still in sound condition. There were a few holes in the roof, but judging by the generally good condition of the ceilings most of it was still watertight. I didn't see any signs of serious decay, and the floors felt firm underfoot.

The floor of the dining room was littered with hundreds, possibly thousands, of unlabeled plastic bottles, many of them broken. I have no idea what the bottles were for or why they were dumped there.

St John's was run by the Sisters of Mercy and the Catholic Church. In recent years many cases of child abuse in Catholic institutions have come to light, so as I explored the orphanage, I wondered what horrors might have been inflicted within its walls. However, according to most of the articles that I've read online, the former residents spoke highly of the care that they received from the Sisters of Mercy.

There were two bathrooms located next to each other on the second storey. They were especially thick with pigeon dung. I noticed that a few of the baths were elevated, with steps leading up to them. Presumably these were used to bathe small children. They were a poignant sight.

The inevitable graffiti artists had been at work inside the orphanage. Most of the graffiti was the usual juvenile nonsense, but some of it was surprisingly poetic, if not always spelled and punctuated correctly. I think that this was almost certainly the work of one or more visitors exercising their creative writing skills rather than former residents who had returned to air their grievances:

Lost Sons Killer nuns

St Johns St Johns
with its dirty rotten nuns
Terrible horrible substitute mums
Holly Molli
Its our house
with not enough food for a mouse
Our house
They'l starve us out
Enjoy the Journey on no 5
A bus ride to Canberra for
heaps of fun
Then back to Goulburn
to where you belong
From Bethmolli I have
asked that you be free
To play which way with
the community
It was worse when it snowed. The wind would blow cold
and the ground would go white
And the cold would come inevitable
and it would bite
The weak would sniffle and cough
Until their bodies had had enough
Then they would go
Winter was tough
A habit of

Sofogla's new patronage
All the children
freed from the orphanage.
neglected and
starved to death.
Let then show
you why.
Let then show
you how the
nuns would
Help her Free her
She wants to change and be free
from her old responsibility.
So take some dirt, dust glass
and poo.
And spread it around a favourite
It will make a little magic for you.
And the owner of Bethmolli
So give her her due
And have a little luck for free.
With love from Bethmolli

There were three staircases inside the building, and another on the veranda. The largest staircase, near the centre of the building, led to a small attic room. There was also a small room half way between the second storey and the attic. For some reason this room had a window that opened into the adjacent roof cavity. There was a mattress lying on the floor, which conjured up images of unfortunate orphans being locked inside as punishment. Quite probably the mattress was put there by a visitor, however.

It was fortunate that I didn't delay my visit to St. John's, because only a month later the building was heavily damaged by fire. I must have been one of the last people to photograph it in its intact condition. I learned about the fire months later, and decided to make another visit to St. John's to photograph the damage.