O'Keeffe House in Katherine.

O’Keeffe House - A Hidden Gem And A Legendary Territorian

O’Keeffe House on Riverbank Drive, Katherine is a wonderful little historic residence managed by the National Trust that is open to the public from May to September each year. It’s a hidden gem and named after its final residents, John and Olive O’Keeffe.  

O'Keeffe House
O'Keeffe House, Katherine

 

Sister Olive O’Keeffe (nee Harvey) was a nurse at the Katherine Hospital and in Alice Springs, becoming Matron of the “Bungalow” at the Old Telegraph Station, Alice Springs. She was honoured with an MBE for her contributions to nursing and her work with Aboriginal peoples suffering from tuberculosis in the Territory. She had a very affectionate personality, was very well known across much of the Territory, and was warmly known as Keffie.

O’Keeffe House was intended as a recreation hut, built by the army in World War II, but became the officer’s mess. It was a simple structure with the walls and ceilings made from bark, cypress pine, flywire and the roof from corrugated iron. The floor was local aggregate and concrete. When the war ended the shortage of housing was immense and most people in Katherine scraped together homes from whatever materials were left behind by the army. The officer’s mess was sold to Ted Man for a mere 40 pounds in April 1946. It is one of the few structures from the war to have survived in the Katherine region.

The building had many owners. Ted Man soon sold it to Alan and Edna Wynn, who made structural changes to accommodate their family.  Alan Wynn worked for the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). In 1955, the Wynn’s sold it to Charlie and Joyce Fuller. Charlie was a drover and, later, a senior farmhand with the CSIRO and owner of the butcher shop at the end of Warburton Street. He was also the first Municipal Officer for the Northern Territory administration in Katherine.

Mother, Father and Baby sitting outside a house.
Alan and Edna Wynn outside what would become O'Keeffe House with their son, Alan.

 

Following the Fuller’s departure, the house was occupied by the DeVries family and the Drysdale family. Bill Forrester, a linesman with the Post Master General, bought the house and it was he who sold it in 1963 to the family who gave the house its current name – John and Olive O’Keeffe.

Born on 14 May 1907 in Montville, near Brisbane, Olive trained at the Brisbane General Hospital, where she completed a 4-year nursing degree. She went on to study midwifery and then moved to Darwin in 1936, then to Katherine in 1937.

During her early days, Olive was Dr Clyde Fenton’s assistant, often flying with him to see patients across the region, making her quite well known throughout the Territory. Dr Clyde Fenton started the Territory Air Medical Service and flew his De Havilland Gipsy Moth to remote areas to aid the sick. His Gipsy Moth is now on display at the Katherine Museum.

Olive married Irishman John O’Keeffe (Johnno) in 1938. He was the cousin of Tim O’Shea, a local Katherine publican.  John was a pastry cook by trade.  While visiting his cousin in Katherine in 1929, he commenced working for the railway.  He later took a government contract to supply meat to the local butcher.  He also worked at the Sportsman’s Arms Hotel and Store.

Olive and Johnno O'Keeffe disembarking a small aircraft.
Johnno and Olive O'Keeffe returning home after their honeymoon.

 

After the bombing of Darwin, Johnno and Olive travelled to Alice Springs with a convoy of Catholic nuns and about 35 small children. The couple remained in Alice Springs for quite some time and Olive oversaw the Native Ward, which she ran with great pride. She was known to cook for the community and set up a sewing room to show Aboriginal girls how to make clothes. The Indigenous community came to have great respect for her.

Reg Harris talks about Keffie in his book Legendary Territorians:

“She had a great rapport with Aboriginal people and was placed in control of what was known in the 1950s as "the Native Ward."  Many of her Aboriginal patients had very little contact with Europeans but Keefy had their confidence.

“Aboriginal women in their last stages of pregnancy would admit themselves to her ward but when the baby was on the way they would wander off into the bush which was then quite thick south of the hospital.  There they would have the baby with help from their own people, and then roll the baby in the sand to dry it off.  Keefy would locate the women after it was all over and provide any further help as required.”

Returning to Katherine, the couple decided to buy a home. In 1963, Johnno and Olive purchased a what would become known as O’Keeffe House. Johnno turned out to be an excellent handyman, making furniture from all sorts of scrap and territory timbers.  Olive loved her garden, so between them they made their own little paradise between the trees on the banks of the Katherine River.  Olive returned to the Katherine hospital and ran the outpatients ward, while Win Snodgrass was the Matron. She died in her beloved Katherine on 10 November 1988.

Sister O’Keeffe relaxing with Johnno, her husband, and animals at her home “Stray Leaves”, now known as O’Keeffe house.
Sister O’Keeffe relaxing with Johnno, her husband, and animals at her home “Stray Leaves”, now known as O’Keeffe house.

In 1985, the Katherine Branch of the National Trust first expressed interest in the O’Keeffe House and acquired the residence, restoring it in 1988. It is now open to the public from May to September and managed by volunteers. It's a great place to visit if you're looking for something to do around Katherine.

 

References:

Harris, Reg. (2007).  Legendary Territorians.  Alice Springs:  Harris Nominees Pty Ltd., pages 28-29.

Family History verbally shared with The Katherine Museum.

O'Keeffe, Olive. National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame Alice Springs. Viewed on 5/06/2019 at https://pioneerwomen.com.au/collection/herstory-archive/harvey-o-039-keefe

The Museum

Located only 3km from the Katherine Post Office on the way to Katherine Gorge is the fascinating Katherine Outback Heritage Museum - a 'must see' tourist stop to visitors of this region. Share our yesterday’s today!

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Katherine NT 0850

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