Last night Lisa gave the Annual History Lecture for History Week 2018, and in keeping with the theme of Life and Death, spoke about ‘Warnings from the grave: Death, glory and memory in Australian cemeteries’ in which she discussed cemeteries as storehouses of history that form part of our national heritage. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we can all hear it thanks to the recording made by the ABC, but in the meantime, you can hear Lisa talking about Devonshire Street Cemetery this morning on 2SER Breakfast with Tess.
Sydney’s earliest cemeteries have all but disappeared from the urban landscape. One of the most notorious of these was the Devonshire Street cemeteries, a group of burial grounds that stood where Central Railway Station is now.
The Devonshire Street cemeteries served the Sydney populace from 1820 until the 1860s, when it was replaced by the beautiful Rookwood Necropolis.
For much of its life, the Devonshire Street cemeteries were anything but beautiful. In 1820 the site was on the outskirts of the new colonial town. Areas were doled out to the different religious communities over the first 12 years or so, but as the main cemetery in the growing colony, the burial grounds rapidly became overcrowded. Sydney really needed a bigger cemetery by the 1840s, but religious squabbles meant that no one wanted to use the ecumenical cemetery set aside on Moore Park.
Sick of waiting for the government, the Church of England established their own private cemetery at Camperdown in 1849 but the rest of the church groups kept putting more corpses into the Devonshire Street cemeteries. There were allegations of shallow burials, and poorly kept records. The City Council Health Officer, Henry Graham, claimed to have seen bodies in the Sydney cemeteries “so near the surface that you could just touch them with a walking-stick or umbrella”. Meanwhile, the urban life of Sydney was pressing in.
When Rookwood Necropolis opened in 1867, the Devonshire Street cemeteries were closed to new burials, and you could only be buried in the heart of town if you had a family vault.
In 1901 the government resumed the Devonshire Street cemeteries to make way for Central Railway Station. Relatives and friends had just a few short months to apply to the government for remains to be moved elsewhere. About 8500 remains were claimed by descendants and removed with their associated monuments to other cemeteries. So there are fragments of the Devonshire Street cemeteries scattered all around metropolitan Sydney. Unclaimed remains – somewhere around 30,000 – were exhumed and removed by tram to Bunnerong Cemetery, along with about 2800 memorials. A small number of these headstones survive at the Botany Pioneer Memorial Park in the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park.
One of the challenges for family historians has always been to track down where their ancestor’s headstone may have gone. That has been made a whole lot easier as the State Archives have published a new online index listing all the names from the Devonshire Street Cemetery Reinterment Register. It’s a special gift for all family history researchers for History Week! Thanks State Archives – you’re the best!! You can find the index here: https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/search_form?id=89
There’s so much more to learn about the history of death and dying in Sydney. I’ve written a couple of essays covering death in Sydney in the 19th and 20th centuries. So check them out!!
Death and dying in nineteenth Century Sydney: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/death_and_dying_in_nineteenth_century_sydney
Death and dying in twentieth Century Sydney: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/death_and_dying_in_twentieth_century_sydney
You can also browse through the other cemeteries and crematoriums on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/role/cemetery_or_crematorium
There are still so many other great History Week events around Sydney (and the rest of NSW) coming up, and you can check out the program online on the History Council of NSW website here: https://historycouncilnsw.org.au/history-week/ Remember to check Facebook and Twitter for updates and events too!
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including the fabulous book Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide published by NewSouth Books She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa!
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