By Diva Karen Stewart
I detested static history lessons with a passion. Thankfully we have many ways to learn about the people and places that shaped our world, including interactive experiences like the Huron County Museum and Historic Gaol’s Behind the Bars program. This event had been reviewed for the Ontario Travel Divas before (Aug.15/2014 Review), so on this evening I took a different approach and chatted with one dedicated volunteer about her participation.
Colleen Maguire, in character as Mrs. Dickson.
About five years ago, Colleen Maguire, semi-retired from her job as a medical radiation technologist at the local hospital, was looking to volunteer in a meaningful way at the Huron County Museum. Having participated in historical reenactments many years earlier, she enjoyed interpreting history through the costumes. She particularly finds “ah ha!” moments expressed by members of the audience as most rewarding … like when children realize that everyone bathed just once a week, and that they all shared the same bathwater, or like when women recognize postpartum depression in a young “lunatic”.
The Behind the Bars program has taken place each Tuesday and Thursday, all summer long, for approximately 12 years, and Colleen has been involved for five. This year, as for the past two, she plays the role of Mrs. Dickson. It’s 1890 and she’s been the gaol matron for the full 14 years her husband has been the Gaoler. Mr. & Mrs. Dickson were also referred to as the Governor and Governess. 24/7, they lived on the property in the tiny room Colleen performs in on the second floor of the goal and in a detached cottage on the property.
Mr. Dickson was the Turnkey when the prior Governor died of a typhoid at 42. Mrs. Dickson, who had married Mr. Dickson, widower and father of four small boys, automatically became the Governess as it was inappropriate for a male at that time to spend so much time with anyone other than his wife. Her role included caring for the female inmates, sharing skills like cooking and sewing, tending to the ill and infirm, and preparing food for the inmates and for her family. And, together she had another five children with Mr. Dickson – three daughters and two sons.
Tragedy struck the family twice – once when 21-year-old (step)son James, editor of the Huron Signal Star, died in a sailing mishap off Port Albert. The boat came ashore quickly, but it took approximately six weeks for the bodies to drift in. He was said to have had the biggest funeral ever in Goderich at that time (1878). Then, in 1884, another 22-year-old-son died of typhoid. He was a pharmacy student in Toronto.
The Dicksons’ other children were well educated and successful in their careers – youngest son Alex became a lawyer/judge; one son became a doctor; another son was a hugely successful merchant in St. Marys and one daughter married William Proudfoot – a barrister who also became a member of the senate.
Mrs. Dickson was a woman of deep empathy and caring. She was a Social Worker of her time. She championed for a proper House of Refuge to be built, and although she knew the facility was being erected, sadly she died of a stroke at the age of 72, just weeks before it opened. Her husband continued as the Goaler, with his eldest daughter as Goal Matron, for approximately two years more, until he was no longer able.
Find out more about the Huron County Museum and Historic Gaol events here.
When you arrive for this event a gaol staff member will greet you. She invites guests to take photos, to ask the inmates questions and to enjoy the self-guided tour at their own speed. She cautions, “just remember our inmates are stuck in time and may not have all the answers to the questions.” You’ll see by the photos below, the inmates were terrific in their roles and gave us a brief glimpse of times past through their stories. Behind the Bars is appropriate and affordable for children and adults of all ages.
These gals were lunatics of varying degrees. The one on the right was looking for her black horse. The horse had white spots on its rump and she challenged the crowd to watch for him coming “up those stairs any minute to get her”.
Henry stabbed his best friend Thomas. Thomas lived to tell the tale and Henry received two months at the Gaol.
Doctor G.C. Shannon attended to the medical needs of the inmates. Many of the inmates were vagrants, lunatics (mentally ill) … or visiting sailors in the Port who perhaps had a little too much in their cups and set to a brawl. They were brought in to dry out and if necessary patched up. The gaol also responded to the needs of the elderly – much like a nursing home – at that time in our history.
1876: Rebecca, a 12 year old, along with her 20-year-old sister and a brother-in-law were robbing clothes from clotheslines. Rebecca pleaded guilty and got six months’ penalty while the other two weren’t charged. Elizabeth was a 14-year-old vagrant who followed her brother and sister. It was the sister who was arrested for drunkenness that brought them to the Goderich gaol in 1860.
Behind the Bars
Where: Huron County Historic Gaol, 181 Victoria Street North, Goderich, ON N7A 2S9
When: Tuesday & Thursdays till Aug. 27, 7-9 p.m.
Cost: Adults, $10; Children, $5; Families, $25