Recently we have seen the New South Wales State Government resume whole streets and blocks for projects like the Sydney Metro and Westconnex. Houses, pubs, shops, streets and parks have been reclaimed by the government to make way for the building of new transport infrastructure. But I’m here to tell you, this is not the first time this has occurred in Sydney’s history.
One of the most remarkable government resumptions in Sydney occurred nearly 120 years ago. In January 1901, the state government announced that the Devonshire Street Cemeteries had to make way for the extension of the city railway. The resumption didn’t just affect the cemetery. It involved the whole block bounded by Pitt, Devonshire, Elizabeth Streets and Garden Road.
The burial grounds fronting Devonshire and Elizabeth Streets had progressively opened through the 1820s and together these graveyards functioned as Sydney’s major cemetery until the 1860s.
The cemeteries had been effectively closed since 1867 (when Rookwood Necropolis opened) and had been neglected for decades. Very few Sydneysiders visited the graves in the late 19th century and the pathways and headstones were smothered by vegetation.
Relatives and descendants were invited in January 1901 to claim headstones and remains, and, at government expense, to organise to remove them to other cemeteries. People were given just 2 months to make an application for re-interment. The Public Works Department, who was overseeing the resumption and construction of Central Railway, set up the Devonshire Street Cemetery Board to deal with the transfer of remains.
With the government resumption, the exhumation of Sydney’s major colonial burial grounds became the talk of the town.
On 16 February 1901, the Evening News reported,
‘[E]veryone is proud to have relatives at this cemetery now; it is the subject of daily conversation; and everybody that is anybody must certainly have a friend, if not a relative, buried in thisi historic place. … Everywhere, the first query is: ‘Oh, who have you got in the Devonshire-street Cemetery?’ And the subject, once started, is full of interest, domestic interest.’
The bureaucratic process and progress of the resumption received plenty of coverage in the local newspapers. The cemetery was inspected and surveyed by Public Works in preparation of the removals. Before removal, a number was painted on each monument from which numerical lists were compiled by surveyors. A Re-interment Register was then compiled by the Cemetery Board. All the remains that were not claimed and moved to metropolitan cemeteries were removed by the government to a new cemetery 25 acres in size set apart especially in La Perouse. A special tramway was laid down to transport the remains to their new home.
The total number of burials that originally occurred in the cemeteries may never be known with certainty. Plans and burial registers have not survived. At one stage the government was anticipating nearly 50,000 remains would need to be removed to La Perouse. But in the end, the figures presented by Devonshire Street Cemetery Board in their final report were much lower. Approximately 1,568 applications were received claiming 8,500 remains. These relics along with their monuments were removed to other cemeteries at a cost of £16,856. Those relics left unclaimed – about 5366 known remains and 16,330 unknown remains – were removed to La Perouse, along with about 2800 memorials, and reinterred at a total cost of £30,156. The entire resumption of the cemetery was completed by September 1902.
It was a mammoth effort, but still some remains were missed. Last year with the metro railway works around Central Railway Station, skeletal remains and funerary hardware were once again unearthed. The ghostly relics of Sydney’s colonial cemetery keep rising to remind us of our past and the way Sydney has changed.
If you are fascinated by the history of Sydney’s Devonshire Street Cemeteries, then you can catch me talking all about it with a panel of experts – including Elise Edmonds, Peter Hobbins, Catie Gilchrist and Rachel Franks – at the State Library of NSW this Friday lunchtime at 12.30pm. Book your tickets on the State Library website here: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/dead-central-history
You’ve still got some time to see the fascinating exhibition Dead Central too. It is on at the Library until the end of April (details here), and the fantastic accompanying podcast, the Burial Files (here) is not to be missed.
And of course, there is always more to be found on the Dictionary! Check out the subjects for Death & Dying (here) and Cemeteries (here), as well as looking for specific places like the Devonshire Street Cemetery (here) or Central Railway Station (here).
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and 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