Safe As Houses: 9 Middleton Street, Petersham and 288 Bondi Road, Bondi

Adam Smith 24 August 2017

Police tape in front of house

A grieving husband turns out not to be the tragic figure he seems.

  • WARNING: The following article contains descriptions of violent crimes that some may find disturbing.

Alister Clark was every bit the doting husband as he clung to his sick wife’s side while she lay languishing in hospital from an unknown illness. The 24-year-old would visit his 21-year-old wife Ella every day, bringing her chocolates, fruit and other treats as she became sicker and sicker, the doctors unable to figure out why she was wasting away.

When Ella finally died, it must have seemed such a tragedy to befall a young, devoted husband.

But Alister Clark was nothing if not resilient. He bounced back from his grief at lightning speed. Alister found love again and remarried.

This would be a heartwarming, romantic story if not for a few details. First, when Alister Clark remarried, it was all of eight days after he buried his wife. Second, when he dotingly visited his ill wife in hospital, the woman who would become his second wife, with whom he was already cohabiting, was waiting just outside the room.

Finally, and most importantly, those treats Alister was bringing to lift his poor wife’s spirits? They were laced with arsenic.

If news reports from the time are to be believed, Alister Clark was something of a Lothario. Tabloid paper Truth put it in rather poetic terms.

“His wooing of Ella Alchin was not his only adventure along the primrose path of dalliance where girls were involved.”

Tabloid article on the murder from 1928

Source: Trove

Indeed, before meeting Ella on a train in 1925, Alister had already gotten himself on the hook for child support. Truth says his wedding to Ella shortly after they met “struck grief into the heart of another girl who had listened to his soft speeches unwisely”.

Staying true to form, Alister had soon gotten Ella pregnant as well. The two were married a fortnight after the birth of their first child, a situation which would have been scandalous in those days.

Alister and Ella set up their home at 9 Middleton Street in Petersham, and seemed happy in their domestic life. While the child they had conceived before their wedding tragically died, the couple had two more children.

Ella, too, had a past when it came to romantic involvement. Alister would eventually tell detectives that he “contracted a disease from [his] wife” about six months before her death. It was one that she had been afflicted with before the two had been married, but the couple had thought her cured as she’d never passed it on to Alister before.

One has to question Alister’s motives in dredging up his wife’s past when he was being questioned about her death. Just as one could easily question his motives behind marrying Bryda Marks within days of Ella’s death. Always the smooth talker, Alister had an answer ready.

According to him, he and Bryda were merely friends. He had moved in with her at 288 Bondi Road as a boarder, and nothing else. The two had married after his wife’s death to provide stability to his now-motherless children. The whole affair was simply a random tragedy, and Alister was just trying to make the best of a terrible situation.

The house where the murderer Alister Clark lived with his wife

Source: Google Maps

Unfortunately for Alister, the exhumation of his wife’s body began to untangle his web of lies. An autopsy confirmed that Ella had died of arsenic poisoning, and a search of Alister’s belongings revealed traces of the poison in the pockets of the very suits he had worn to visit her in hospital.

Despite his protestations, a jury didn’t find Alister to be the sympathetic widower he’d painted himself as. He was found guilty of Ella’s murder and sentenced to death, later to have his sentence commuted to life in prison.

The house where Alister and Ella lived at 9 Middleton Street in what is now Petersham has been divided into units. One of the units was last offered for rent in 2015 at a price of $400 a week. Meanwhile, the house at 288 Bondi Road where Alister and Bryda began their ill-fated marriage is now a trendy bar.

Alister Clark may have had a habit, as Truth suggests, of leading women “along the primrose path of dalliance”. In the end, the only place it led him was to a life spent behind bars.

Each week, Safe as Houses looks at some of Australia's most notorious murders and the effect those killings have had on real estate values.

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