We’re very excited here at Dictionary HQ this week as Dr Lisa Murray (our former chair, Dictionary contributor, City of Sydney Historian, renowned taphophile and absolute all-round legend) has just launched her book Sydney Cemeteries: A Field Guide (published by NewSouth Books and available online here).
This week on 2SER Breakfast she talked to Nic about two of Sydney’s earliest cemeteries which have now disappeared. Listen now
People think of cemeteries as a permanent address, and that they’ll be there forever, but in fact Sydney, being the rampantly developing city that it is, has from its early days been moving its cemeteries.
Two of our earliest cemeteries no longer exist.
The first of these, the Old Sydney Burial Ground opened in 1792, where Sydney Town Hall stands today, and was the town’s first official European Christian burial ground. Little is known about burials prior to the opening of the cemetery but there were a number of informal burial grounds around the township. The colony’s earliest official Christian cemetery, St John’s Anglican cemetery opened further west in the township of Parramatta in 1790, and you can still visit it today.
The Old Burial Ground was extended in 1812, but by 1820 it was full, and had to be closed.
When the City of Sydney Council formed in the 1840s, they thought the site would be a prime location for a Town Hall. The government of the time turned down their request, offering them land in Bridge Street instead, but the councillors rejected this and kept meeting in other places like pubs and meeting rooms, until finally in the 1860s the land was granted to the Council and plans were made to build.
The Council exhumed the remains of people buried there and transferred them to the Rookwood Necropolis, which had opened in 1867. Some were missed unfortunately, so archaeological remains underneath the Sydney Town Hall are still found from time to time.
After the Burial Ground was closed, a new official cemetery was established further down George Street in what was then considered the outskirts of the City. The Devonshire Street Cemetery opened in 1820 and was particularly interesting in that it had separate denominational burial grounds (the Old Burial Ground had only allowed for Church of England burials).
It too was full to overflowing by 1845 but wasn’t closed until the 1860s when Rookwood was opened. In Lisa’s essay on Death and Dying in Sydney in the Nineteenth Century she describes the public recoiling at “images of jam-packed cemeteries, with coffins breaking the surface and emanating effluvia. Complaints centred around ‘unpleasant’, ‘offensive’ and ‘noxious’ smells that were said to be at their worst in Sydney’s hot humid summer weather and after rain. Pauper graves which were left open for several days to receive numerous bodies attracted ‘nasty greenish-blue’ blowflies. The disgorging of maggots after heavy rain was a stark reminder of the underworld of corruption – an image which contrasted dramatically with the idealisation of the cemetery as ‘God’s acre’ and religious beliefs in a physical resurrection.”
By the 1890s then, the cemetery was no longer in use. There was also increasing demand to extend the railway from Redfern further into the city and after considering various sites, once again an old closed cemetery was resumed and Central Railway Station was built where the Devonshire Street Cemetery had been.
This time however, the Government exhumed the remains. People could claim headstones and the government would pay for their loved ones to be removed to another cemetery, meaning that Devonshire Street headstones are still dotted all around other Sydney cemeteries and beyond, while most of the other exhumed remains were reinterred at Botany Cemetery
When you’re walking through Devonshire Street Tunnel you’re right in the heart of the old cemetery!
Sydney Cemeteries: A Field Guide is designed to take you on self guided tours through 101 cemeteries in the greater Sydney area. With gorgeous contemporary photographs from another Dictionary author, Dr Mark Dunn, beautifully indexed by our very own Dr Neil Radford, and launched by Associate Professor Grace Karkens, this is a project close to the Dictionary’s heart and we strongly recommend you race to your nearest bookstore and buy multiple copies for yourself and Christmas presents for all!