Bringing the past to life: Mrs Muldoon reminisces about life inside the old Alice Springs Gaol

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

‘Muldoon’s Guest House’, aka the old Alice Springs Gaol in Stuart Terrace, was a friendly place, for its female guests in particular. This is according to Mrs Phillip Muldoon, otherwise known as Bertie, short for Bertilla, or “Matron” to the ‘guests’, wife of the superintendent, Phillip Muldoon.

Mrs Muldoon, behind whose cloche hat and pearls readers may recognise local historian Megg Kelham, will conduct a guided tour of the facility next week (Tuesday, April 17, 4pm), as part of Heritage Week’s calendar of activities.

During a similar tour in March, as part of Women’s History Month, Mrs Muldoon spoke of segregation at the gaol. Women and men were housed within its walls, although in separate buildings and were never together: there were “no scandals”!

But it was also the case that the “whites and natives”, in the parlance of the day, were separated. If a ‘guest’ was “coloured”, and about a third of them were, he could choose which group he wanted to be housed with.

Her husband, appointed to the role in 1938, was a kind man, and wanted his guests to be happy, according to Mrs Muldoon. When it was hot, the prisoners were allowed to sleep outside their suffocating cells. He had the buildings painted in bright colours – red, yellow and green – and moved the prisoners around every few months to provide some variety to their surrounds.

To keep boredom at bay, he had them work on a garden, growing vegetables, fruit and flowers. It was all so neat and well-developed it gained the nickname “Vatican City” from the townsfolk (also responding to the Muldoons’ Catholicism), while the prisoners called it “Greenbush”, a name that lives on for the art group active in the present-day gaol.

Inmates ate the produce and were often better nourished than their relatives on the outside.

Mr Muldoon also allowed “corroborees”, though he “didn’t  tell Darwin”.

If he bent the rules, it was fair enough as much was expected from him, well beyond the normal call of duty. He furnished the gaol himself, including all utensils and was on call without a break for 10 years.

“His only friends were his guests,” according to Mrs Muldoon.

She concerned herself with looking after the “lubras” in the women’s wing. Most of them were regulars, locked up for short periods for drinking alcohol. One long-term prisoner, who had killed her partner, would help Mrs Muldoon look after her children and the others assisted with her housework. Otherwise they just had to look after themselves. The men did the cooking and all the other work around the gaol: “The lubras loved that. They loved it so much they called the gaol home,” according to Mrs Muldoon.

Ms Kelham has corroborated this statement with research in the archives, an interview with a former inmate, Janey Whistler, and with former matron at the gaol over three decades, Telka Williams.

She is committed to bringing history alive by presenting its untold stories in an entertaining way but she’s also a professionally trained historian who cross-checks her sources. She is involved in another presentation next week (Monday April 16, 5.15, Stuart Town Gaol, Parsons Street) asking the question, “Madness: Crime or Disease?”

 

Pictured: Megg Kelham as Mrs Muldoon. The cells with their small high windows were suffocatingly hot in summer and freezing in winter.

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