It’s History Week and this year’s theme is ‘Memory and Landscapes’. And there is no better way to think about memory and landscapes than to delve into the history of Sydney’s cemeteries.Listen to the whole conversation with Lisa and Tess on 2SER here
The Devonshire Street Cemetery was the second major cemetery for the town of Sydney. The first burial ground opened in 1820, and several other burial grounds opened over the next 15 years, so that by the end of the 1830s there were seven burial grounds on the site, covering a total of approximately 12 acres.
This is an important point to grasp. Devonshire Street was not a general cemetery as we think of today, but rather seven distinct cemeteries. Each burial ground was enclosed by fencing and had an exclusive entrance. Each denomination managed its own cemetery and had its own scale of fees and charges.
Devonshire Street Cemetery was a cemetery of firsts. Not only was it the first time the General Surveyor grouped a set of burial grounds together; Devonshire Street was also the first time attempts were made to regulate burials and order the cemetery landscape.
The layout and location of Devonshire Street Cemetery placed Sydney at the forefront of cemetery design. It was the colonials’ first clear response to the garden cemetery movement in Britain. It was located on the outskirts of a populous town, on an elevated site, with picturesque views of the city and the harbour. The tombs were handsome and there were some fine pieces of sculpture.
But by the mid-1840s the cemeteries were becoming seriously overcrowded. But it was not until 1866 that the cemeteries were actually closed. In the meantime, the churches kept trying to shove more bodies in. There were poor burial depths, and exposed corpses.
Once the cemetery was closed to burials (except if you had a vault), the cemetery was neglected by church trustees. It became overgrown and a resort for bad characters and nefarious activities.
In 1901 the cemeteries were resumed to make way for the new Central Railway Station. Relatives were given two months to claim remains to be moved to other cemeteries. Consequently, headstones from the Devonshire Street Cemetery can be found all over metropolitan Sydney.
Those unclaimed were to go to Rookwood, but ultimately were exhumed and reburied at a special cemetery established by the government down at Bunnerong.
The exhumation process was difficult, and the recent excavation and construction works from the light rail and the metro railway have both uncovered skeletal remains, coffin furniture, and headstone fragments.
The Devonshire Street Cemeteries are the flavour of history week and the flavour of the month!
If you’re free today (Wed 4 September) I’m giving an illustrated lunchtime talk down at Customs House at 12.30 (details here).
And my article for the Dictionary about the Devonshire Street Cemetery has just been published too, which you can read here.
The State Library of NSW currently has an exhibition called ‘Dead Central’. It’s been curated by Elise Edmonds and is a fabulous overview of the history of the site, from Gadigal land, to burial ground, to Central Railway Station. Head to the Library’s website (here) for further details. It’s on till May 2020 so don’t miss it!
Supporting the exhibition is a wonderful podcast series – which I and many other historians and Dictionary authors feature in through various episodes – called The Burial Files. Again, the State Library’s website (here) can give you further information about the episodes and how best to listen to it.
You can check the History Week program for events around the city and New South Wales here.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio