Rookwood Necropolis – history and curious tales
As a young lad there was a popular saying ‘As dead as Rookwood’. I never gave the expression much thought until I started investigating the cemetery’s fascinating history. Here you will find some of the history and curious tales that have enthralled me.
WATCH THE FILM: Leaves from the Tree – a history of Rookwood.
A film by Warren Fahey & Mic Gruchy.
Sydney, born of convict blood and sweat, had a brash upbringing but opportunity and adventure encouraged emigration to the ‘new world’ and the colony grew rapidly and, in 1842, just 44 years after the arrival of the First Fleet, Sydney was officially declared – Australia’s first city.
Birth and death are part of a city’s lifecycle. The Old Burial Ground, situated where Sydney Town Hall now stands, served the colony up until 1820 when it was replaced by the Devonshire Street cemetery, also known as Sandhills or Brickfield Cemetery – because of its position at Brickfield Hill – where Central Railway now stands. It was a rambling and disorganised burial ground and, because of the population explosion following the 1851 discovery of gold, by 1860, it had reached capacity.
Bishop Broughton, writing to the Colonial Secretary in 1843, described the Church of England burial ground as “So completely occupied that decency and propriety were outraged, and it was impossible to find room for more bodies.”
In 1860 the Colonial Secretary for Lands, John Robertson announced the search for a new cemetery. “Persons who may be willing to dispose of not less than 100 acres of land which may be suitable for a General Cemetery on or near the Great Southern Railway, between Sydney and Parramatta are requested to communicate with this department describing the position of the land, and stating the area and price.”
The following year the government purchased 200 acres of the Liberty Plains Estate, Haslem’s Creek, near Homebush, on the Sydney to Parramatta railway line. The owners, Messrs. Cohen and Benjamin esquire, receiving the sum of ten pounds per acre.
The Acting Surveyor General stressed, “The spot chosen should be capable of being cultured and beautiful as is frequently the case with other cemeteries”.
Areas were set aside for Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Independent (Congregational), Jewish, Lutheran, Primitive Methodists and a general section. Each had its own management trust. Sectarianism did not stop at the cemetery gates!
The new cemetery at Haslem’s Creek was consecrated in 1867 to coincide with the closure of Devonshire Street cemetery. It soon became known as The Necropolis – the ancient Greek name for the city of the dead – the sleeping city.
The first burial in 1867 was a pauper. John Whalan, aged 18 years, a native of Ireland. He had been in the colony for nine months.
Eight years later the Sydney Morning Herald reported: ‘The Necropolis grounds are tastefully laid out with scrubs and parterres, divided by neatly-kept paths. Chapels have been erected for each denomination in which to read the burial service over the last remains of those who profess to be its tenants, the style of architecture being generally modern Gothic.’
Western Sydney was also growing and before long the locals called for a new name for the cemetery and their railway station.
In 1876 local resident Richard Slee wrote to the Cumberland Mercury suggesting, “Rookwood is a pleasant name, and a very appropriate one, for there are many crows in the neighbourhood.”
The new name found favour and by 1878 Rookwood was in common use for both the cemetery and railway station.
The Victorian Christian expression of death was one of solemn funerals, horse-drawn processions, ornate sandstone carved headstones, often with poetic inscriptions, family vaults. ornate statuary depicting angels, floral tributes and expansive parklands where the dead resided in pleasant memorial gardens.
Sydney’s undertakers led the funeral procession. Flowers on the coffin, in the hearse and on the grave play a symbolic role in the transition of the departed. Rookwood’s wild heritage roses, mostly hybrid plants of great beauty, are world famous.
The railway has been intrinsically linked to the story of the Rookwood Necropolis. It was a deciding factor in the cemetery’s establishment and the Mortuary train operated for over 80 years, until 1948.
In 1867 The Sydney Morning Herald announced a twice daily service from Sydney’s Central Station No. 1 and stopped at stations along the way to collect mourners. Return tickets were one shilling each way. Corpses travelled free.
The government wanted a separate funeral terminal from the main Central Station and built an imposing sandstone Receiving House at Regent Street, Redfern. A similar imposing building was also constructed in 1869 in the very centre of the cemetery.
Colonial architect, James Barnet – “The two receiving houses show the application of Gothic architecture to a novel purpose. Central has a wide platform, a ticket office opening into two vestibules, with retiring rooms and a carriage port surmounted by a Bell Cote” “Both buildings are of sandstone, and appropriately decorated with sculpture, representing angels, cherubs, pears, apples and pomegranate”
The bell was tolled a half hour before the train departed as a warning to mourners and visitors”.
Another darker side of Rookwood was its neighbour the Rookwood Asylum. In 1879 the government purchased 1300 acres and, although originally planned for a boy’s training institution, in 1893 it opened as Rookwood Asylum, which, because of the severe economic depression of the 1890s, became a home for infirm and destitute men and boys. In 1913 it became a State Hospital, and later an aged-care home and even later again, in 1966, it became Lidcombe Hospital.
During its darkest years many paupers from the Asylum and Sydney’s hospitals and benevolent institutions were buried in unmarked graves.
Over 30,000 children, including many babies from Sydney hospitals were buried in unmarked communal graves. Today those children are remembered by an expansive garden – the Rookwood Circle of Love.
Death comes to all be they young or old, rich or poor and over one million souls now reside in Rookwood’s 700 acres of parklands. The notorious including convicts, gangsters and the bushranger Captain Moonlight, share with the notable including suffragette Louisa Lawson, comedian ‘Roy Rene’, fiery politician ‘Big’ Jack Lang, Sydney Morning Herald founder, John Fairfax, and the nineteenth century celebrated Chinese businessman Quang Tart.
There are war graves where the patriotic, gallant and brave now rest in peace far from the battleground. A Martyr’s Memorial commemorates the six million Jews of the Holocaust.
Our multicultural society has many ways of marking the transition from life to death – from simple to ornate, with silence or with noise. Some customs call for intricate burial ceremonies, others call for simplicity.
Rookwood Cemeteries – represents 89 different religions and cultural groups of multicultural Sydney. Muslim, Anglican, Jewish, General and Independent
Like any city, Rookwood has stakeholders – funeral directors, stonemasons, florists, tour guides, clergy, counsellors, cemetery maintenance staff … all play a role … as do genealogists and historians who use the cemetery to record Sydney’s history.
Rookwood is Sydney’s Sleeping City – breaking down the silence between life and death.
DIGGING UP THE PAST
Sydney had two cemeteries prior to Rookwood. The first, situated where St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Sydney Town Hall now stand, was simply known as ‘The Old Burial Ground’. It proved to be totally inadequate and certainly not a good advertisement for sensible town planning. For one thing, it was too close to the centre of town, which, in the early days of the colony, was around The Rocks and Circular Quay areas. As the town rapidly spread its obvious path was straight up George street where the cemetery stood. It was woefully neglected and reports of rat infestation and badly buried bodies reads more like a horror film script that a final resting place for the dearly beloved.
In 1820 a new burial ground was consecrated as the Devonshire Street or Sandhills Cemetery. It accommodated the various religions of the colony with separate grounds, but it also became neglected and overcrowded. The Colonial government, well aware of the pressing demand and need for future planning, chose well in selecting an extremely large parcel of land at Haslam’s Creek, in Western Sydney. Central Railway now sits on a large part of the original Devonshire Street Cemetery. As the Devonshire site reached its last days the Sydney Mail & New South Wales Advertiser (30th October 1897) wrote, ‘There is something singularly pathetic about an abandoned cemetery.’
The remains from the Old Burial Grounds were reburied at Devonshire street and, when Rookwood opened, many of the identifiable graves were reburied at Rookwood. This really would prove to be the ‘last resting place’.
NEWS OF A NEW CEMETERY FOR SYDNEY 1862
The news of action on a new cemetery for Sydney was received with both enthusiasm and warnings against secular self-interest, a subject that had plagued the previous Devonshire Sandhill Cemetery.
The Sydney Morning Herald of April 1, 1862, reported that, ‘After much perhaps unavoidable delay, the Government have, it appears, agreed for the purchase of a cemetery between Homebush and Haslam Creek stations, on the Parramatta Railway. The subject has been long before the public. The Executive Council adopted in 1858, and confirmed on the 14th June, a plan for the cemetery, which it was then proposed to establish at Randwick.This will be substantially followed in the arrangement and distribution of the ground. The external fence is to be provided by the Government. It is proposed that a grant be made from the public treasury for laying it out and planting the avenues. Of this land, one-third will remain as a general cemetery in the hands of lay trustees and the remainder will be divided among the religious denominations according to the religious denominations according to the census will not be subject to any other payment than a scale of fees approved by the Governor in Council. Unless used within two years, denominational grants will be forfeited a condition rather unintelligible, or else somewhat deadly. Surely they will not be rigorous as today!
Two hundred acres of ground will provide a vast home for the dead of this city for generations, although the accumulation is rapid, and soon the city of the dead becomes more populous than the city of the living. Perhaps the Government do wisely in recognising so far the religious predilections of different denominations, although there is something revolting in the idea that even in the last dwelling-place there should survive the marks of that schism which it is the belief and hope of all men will not reveal itself in the world to come. Numerous minor denominations can have, however, no difficulty in meeting the wishes of each other lay permitting funeral rites according to their separate confessions in their several burial grounds. We believe that among most Protestant communities of English origin a portion of the ritual of the Anglican Church is commonly employed, and certainly in the elevation of its sentiments and the beauty of its diction it can never be surpassed. An arrangement will, of course, be made through the medium of the Railway Commissioners to facilitate the performance of funerals. By having a particular hour, or employing a special engine, the conveyance of each cortege may be reduced to a very small charge, and the cost of the customary fees of clergymen will be fixed’ by their own denominations. These things are worthy of our care. The natural reverence for the dead which nothing but the grossest barbarism, or the vainest philosophy, can ever extinguish in the human heart, deserves to be cherished by every social arrangement. No state of society is sound where funeral rites are regarded with contempt or performed with indifference. Especially is it impossible to reconcile ourselves to such neglect under the inspiration of Christianity, which makes the grave but a resting place-the vestibule of immortality. “While, however, this is true, it is most desirable to reduce to reasonable limits the cost of funerals. At the early stages of colonisation a funeral draws universal attendance, and long the habit of extensive attendance continues. We remember when it was expected that the symbols of mourning should be furnished by the family to all volunteers who might come, and the cases were too numerous where the scanty resources of the widow and orphans were seriously compromised by the homage paid to the deceased father and husband. It requires only to be pointed out to be perceived that such sympathy is really unkindness that such wide attendance involving cost, must be injurious and distracting to those whom it is intended to console. It is very different when respect is paid at the expense of the parties who tender it, and where they are drawn together by respect or veneration for the dead. No time, we understand, will be lost in taking the necessary steps for the enclosure and planting of this cemetery. It will be highly gratifying to the public “if the house appointee for all living” shall be adorned with some care and in good taste. If the depth of graves are properly regulated, and everything noxious be obviated, there is no reason why the intended burial ground should not be a place of festive or pensive resort as in many other countries whither the inhabitants of the city should ofter betake themselves to visit some sacred spot and revive the tender impressions which time does it efface, though happily it abates all unavailing sorrow. There is an aggravation of the gloom attendant upon the inevitable lot and the sombre associations of a neglected churchyard, but where space like that described is afforded, and access is easy, an occasional stroll through the avenues of the well-kept cemetery will afford instruction without depression.
SYDNEY’S PIONEERING FUNERAL UNDERTAKERS
As soon as the First Fleet arrived there was concern about burials. Those who died during the long voyage were buried at sea however the colonialists, governed by christianity and hygiene, needed to see to the burial of its residents, high and low. Funerary customs from the mother country were readily incorporated into the daily lives of the colonists. Francois Peron, visiting Sydney in 1802 as part of the French expedition under Nicolas Baudin, recorded in his notebook that the public burial ground (the Old Sydney Burial Ground) was remarkable for a number of striking monuments, ‘the execution of which is much better than could reasonably have been expected from the state of the arts in so young a colony’.
Cabinet makers doubled as undertakers, preparing coffins made out of cedar and other local timbers. Thomas Shaughnessy was amongst the early undertakers to advertise the two branches of his business. Alongside the ‘various assortment’ of wardrobes, chests of drawers, and ‘elegant side boards’, he offered ‘Funerals Furnished and conducted with greatest attention, from the plainest to the most sumptuous exhibition of mourning grandeur, and with a consistent regard to economy, without diminishing the necessary respectability’.
It has been said that nothing is as inevitable as death and as the colony grew so did the funeral business. Many set up shop in the main streets of the township to advertise their services. Some aligned themselves with churches however most remained independent. The colonial undertakers modelled their businesses on the British tradition and, in the Victorian era, marked death with elaborate services, black clothing, draped coffins and solemn music.
The names of pioneering undertakers are recorded in funeral notices of the metropolitan newspapers. All the attached notices appeared in the 1840s, just as Sydney changed status from town to city.
Jewish memorial stones – a unique cultural expression.
Visitors to Rookwood Cemetery often observe members of Sydney’s Jewish community placing small stones on graves, instead of leaving flowers. Many cultures mark death differently and whilst the Jewish tradition of mourning stones is ancient its origins are unclear. One plausible explanation is that flowers, though beautiful, will eventually die. A stone will not disintegrate and therefore can symbolise the permanence of memory and legacy. The stone is a natural product of the earth, yet a symbol of eternity.
Another points to the Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror – and it happens that this word also means ‘bond.
Many Jewish people take special care in choosing a stone to put on the grave of a loved one. It may be a stone from a place that was significant to the deceased, a stone that was chosen at an event during which the deceased was especially missed, or simply an interesting or attractive rock. Because there is no commandment to fulfil, placing a stone on a grave is an opportunity to create an individual ritual.
It is customary to wash the hands after leaving the graveside. This washing is an affirmation of life after death.
Rookwood Cemetery has a large Jewish section.
From Wild Bushland To Burial Ground.
In 1860, shortly after the NSW Colonial Government purchased 200 acres of the Liberty Plains estate, Haslem’s Creek, near Homebush, for Sydney’s new necropolis, the landscape gardeners commenced work to plan and implement an ambitious program to convert the wild bushland to a visionary garden landscape. Such a transformation, from harsh bush to Victorian garden cemetery, was indeed a challenge and, to many, inconceivable that tough Australian native trees and scrubs should sit comfortably alongside rolling lawns, carefully planned shrubberies, and avenues of trees, ponds and fountains.
In the purchase agreement the NSW Acting Surveyor General had stressed ‘The spot chosen should be capable of being cultured and beautiful as is frequently the case with other cemeteries’ and, a short eight years later, the Sydney Morning Herald was able to report: ‘The Necropolis grounds are tastefully laid out with scrubs and parterres, divided by neatly-kept paths.’
Caroline Burke and Chris Bettering, writing in ‘The Sleeping City’, explain: ‘Contrary to popular opinion, the Necropolis is far more than ‘a city of the dead’. For botanists and horticulturalists, Rookwood Necropolis is the home for many living things., including almost 400 species of plants ad trees, of which 205 are Australian natives. Along with the remaining exotic tree species introduced in the first decade after the establishment of the cemetery, the indigenous flora proves a natural habitat for a whole variety of native birds and animals.
Today’s Rookwood garden landscape is much-admired and a featured part of the popular Friends of Rookwood cemetery tours.
`Learning History From Graveyard Headstones
The history of Rookwood Cemetery is also the history of Sydney and many of the inscribed headstones in just a few words tell stories about the lives of the people who forged the city’s culture, architecture, commerce, industry and politics. For example, John Thomas (Jack) Lang’s headstone reads Premier of New South Wales; Charles Ledger: He Gave Quinine To The World. James Edward Bint: The first to introduce electric light to Oxford Street, Sydney. John Snowden Calvert: A member of Leichhardt’s first exploring expedition. William Vial: Who saved the life of H.R.H. Duke of Edinburgh at Clontarf. Rachel Lavington: First Australian descendant of Captain J. Cook. Others point to the emigrants who died on the long voyage to Australia: Edward Ramsay Thompson: died of rheumatic fever on board S.S. ‘Alameda’ and was buried at sea. Other stones tell of premature death- John Moore, aged 16: Whose premature death was caused by the bite of a snake. Stanley Herbert Sawyer, aged 8: Who was killed by a tram on his way to school.
Some headstones see friends or the departed getting the last laugh. William Patterson Gray: Too quick and sudden was the call, His sudden death surprised us all.. Archibald Stuart Peterson, a cartoonist for the Sun newspaper from 1939-1952 left a very tantalising message” I’ll be back.
Chinese burial customs at Rookwood.
There are numerous rituals associated with Chinese burials, particularly Buddhist funerals. To a certain degree, Chinese funeral rites and burial customs are determined by the age of the deceased, cause of death, status and position in society, and marital status. Feng Shui is a consideration with graves as is the adherence to the importance of various colours. White, corresponding with metal, represents gold and symbolises brightness, purity, and fulfilment. White is also the colour of mourning. It is associated with death and is used predominantly in funerals in Chinese culture. Ancient Chinese people wore white clothes and hats only when they mourned for the dead. Yellow also represents freedom from worldly cares and is thus esteemed in Buddhism. Monks’ garments are yellow, as are elements of Buddhist temples. Yellow is also used as a mourning colour for Chinese Buddhists. Red is generally avoided at funerals as it is traditionally the colour symbol of happiness. Part of the Chinese tradition is to leave food for the spirits of the departed to help them in their afterlife journey. This custom is a welcome change of diet for Rookwood’s many birds and animals.
Headstones and Memorials Great and Small.
Monumental or Memorial stonemasons use a wide variety of tools to handle and shape stone blocks and slabs into finished articles. The basic tools for shaping the stone are a mallet, chisels, and a metal straight edge. With these one can make a flat surface – the basis of all stonemasonry. Many cultures choose to mark the site of a burial with a gravestone detailing the family name, date of birth and death, kin and, sometimes, especially in the case of accidental or unusual circumstance, the cause of death. Christian headstones often carry a verse from the Bible or a short poem, generally on a theme relating to love, death, grief, or heaven.
Unlike the work of most stonemasons, the work of the monumental mason is of small size, often just a small slab of stone, but generally with a highly detailed finish. Generally gravestones are highly polished with detailed engraving of text and symbols. Some memorials are more elaborate and may involve the sculpture of symbols associated with death, such as angels, hands joined in prayer, and vases of flowers. Some specially-made stones feature artistic lettering by letter cutters. Rookwood Cemetery, being the largest necropolis in the world, offers a huge diversity of stonemasonry from the simple to most elaborate.
Jews and Muslims at Peace at Rookwood
2013 saw Sydney’s Jewish and Muslim communities join together in sharing the last remaining large tract of possible burial ground at Rookwood Cemetery. Although Rookwood has ample room to contain many more burials for decades to come, there was an obvious need to accommodate two more sections for the Jewish and Muslim communities, both having increased considerably over recent years, and both having a requirement for perpetual burial. The State Government, responding to community concern, allocated the 3.3 hectare site, the last major portion of land left inside Rookwood, splitting it equally between the Muslim and Jewish communities. The site, the equivalent of eight football fields, was created by closing a road within the cemetery. The Islamic section will accommodate 4000 double graves, reflecting the community’s decision to allow twin occupancy in the one grave. The two faiths will be divided by a small roadway however each has a clearly identifiable look to their gravesite and memorial headstones. Having the two gravesite side-by-side is seen as an expression of Australia’s continuing acceptance of multiculturalism at work.
Ratbags, Eccentrics, Bohemians
Rookwood, apart from having religious and ethnic burial areas, also exists as a general cemetery. It services everyone including ratbags, eccentrics and bohemians. Bea Miles, one of Sydney’s most famous eccentric bohemians was buried there in 1973. Although she lived many years of her later life on the street and was known for her outrageous behaviour, It was said that she always carried a ₤10 note in her bag, so that the police could not arrest her for vagrancy. She was arrested many times and claimed to have been ‘falsely convicted 195 times, fairly 100 times’. Her most notorious escapades involved taxi drivers. It was her custom to jump in and instruct the driver to take her across town, with full intention not to pay. In 1955, she took a taxi to Perth, Western Australia and back. This time she did pay the fare, ₤600.
She was well-educated and widely read. Folklore has it she read two books every day. She certainly knew Shakespearean sonnets and lengthy passages of his plays – and would recite them charging sixpence for a sonnet and up to three shillings for a play segment. Failure to pay sent Bea into a foul-mouthed spin that every citizen of Sydney feared and avoided. Fiercely patriotic Bea Miles would have been pleased with her funeral – Australian wildflowers were placed on her coffin to the accompaniment of a jazz band playing and singing Waltzing Matilda and Advance Australia Fair. Bea Miles is buried in the Old General Grave 208
How did Rookwood get Its name?
The most important initiative in establishing Sydney’s main cemetery in the then bushland of western Sydney, was to connect it with a railway, and in 1867 the Haslem’s Creek Railway Station was opened with a mortuary line connecting the then named Haslem’s Creek Cemetery with Sydney’s Mortuary Station at Regent’s Street, Central Railway. It didn’t take local Haslem’s Creek residents long, about a decade, to commence agitating to have the cemetery’s name changed so that their suburb had a separate and more palatable entity. There are several thoughts regarding Rookwood’s origin. The name Rookwood is most likely an accidental or deliberate corruption of the name Brookwood Cemetery and its associated railway station. At the time of Rookwood’s opening, Brookwood Cemetery, located in Brookwood, Surrey, England, was one of the largest cemeteries in the world. It is less likely, however far more romantic, that, as claimed by some sources, Rookwood was named after William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Rookwood, written in 1834. Another suggestion relates to local resident, Richard Slee, writing in 1876 to the Cumberland Mercury suggesting ‘Rookwood is a pleasant name, and a very appropriate one, for there are many crows in the neighbourhood.’ The idea of calling the cemetery after black crows, not dissimilar to English rooks, must have tickled public imagination and the new name found favour and by 1878 Rookwood was in common use for both the cemetery and railway station. The settlement of Rookwood, once again keen to disassociate themselves from the burial ground, changed its name to Lidcombe (a combination of two mayors names, Lidbury and LarcombeIt). Rookwood even entered the humorous colloquial slanguage with ‘Crook as Rookwood’ implying someone was extremely ill, if not already knocking on death’s door.
The Victorian funeral was often an elaborate affair.
Death was a very complicated affair for our 19th century ancestors. There were protocols which mourners tried to observe, often at great expense, and which many poorer families found a major financial burden. Coffins were elaborate and often the hearse was pulled by a team of plumed horses led by a top-hatted funeral director in a mourning suit. All mourners were expected to wear full dress funereal attire. Black was the chief mourning colour for clothing and funereal decorations such as stationary, door ribbons and sashes. Women wore dull-surfaced black fabrics such as crape, plain bombazine, paramatta, merino wool and cashmere were also favoured and used depending on income. The complexities of wearing mourning dress took hold as the Victorian era progressed following the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria wore her widow’s weeds for the remainder of her long life until 1901, when the Edwardian era began. Loyal subjects, even in the Antipodes, emulated their Queen. The fashion for heavy mourning was drastically reduced during the Edwardian era and even more so after the Great War. So many individuals died that just about everyone was in mourning for someone.
AVENUES OF TREES, SCRUBS AND FLOWERS.
The Victorian and Edwardian attitude to death was vasty different from today however we do have the Victorian era to thank for the beautification of cemeteries. Prior to the nineteenth century cemeteries were mysterious, dank and often neglected spaces. The dead were buried with pomp and ceremony, mostly with dark overtones – mourners wore black, the corpse and coffin draped in black, the horse-drawn hearse was black – all suggesting the darkness associated with death and the graveyard. Victorians, although still using black as the funereal colours scheme, decided that cemeteries should be attractive, welcoming places and healthy for the living.
Australian Town & Country Journal 9 Dec. 1876 observed, Upon arrival at the Cemetery, the visitor at once sees that those in charge have succeeded in laying out the place so as to produce a very pleasing effect. In accordance with the directions of the Act, they have laid out the portions of land vested in them in such a manner as is convenient for the burial of their dead, embellishing the grounds with walks, avenues, trees, shrubs, and flowers; and the monuments, tombstones, enclosures, buildings, and shrubberies are kept in a clean and orderly manner. Some of the monuments exhibit great taste on the part of their designers; and it is consoling and comforting to find that the metropolitan burial-ground is kept and ornamented in a highly creditable manner. Chapels, in style of architecture generally Gothic, have also been erected on the grounds for the several denominations, in which to read their burial services over the remains of their deceased co-religionists.
Today’s visitor to Rookwood is met with a well-planned network of roads leading to the various denominational and general cemeteries. The diversity is symbolic of Australia’s population with designated areas for early and later ethnic groups. The Jewish and Chinese sections are amongst the earliest alongside the Christian denominations. Later sections include Orthodox, Muslim, Japanese, Hindi, and even a section for Australia’s gypsy families. Rookwood is open to all and past funerals have included the high and mighty and the low and bohemian. Criminals reside next to Judges, rebels next to political giants. All are equal on death.
The parklands themselves are beautiful and restful with avenues of trees, rose gardens, fountains and memorials. Topiary is as appropriate as wild bush flowers. It is not too surprising that many Sydneysiders use the cemetery grounds for cycling, picnicking and for contemplative walks.
A SUBURB NAMED FOR A CEMETERY
Considering Rookwood’s one hundred and fifty year history it is not surprising there have been squabbles and speculation over its name. When established in 1867 it was referred to as Haslam’s Creek Cemetery, reflecting the original name of the main property acquired by the colonial government. The pioneer inhabitants had a problem with this so, after consideration, the burial grounds became known as The Necropolis, the ancient Greek name for the ‘city of the dead’. As the cemetery grew it was decided a new name was necessary and, after many squabbles and silly suggestions, it became Rookwood. Legend has it a local identity wrote to the newspaper suggesting the name because of the number of black birds (like the English rook) in the area. More likely it was influenced by the English Brookfield Cemetery. The Railway Department, always an important part of the early Western Sydney story, confirmed the name by declaring its main station as ‘Rookwood’. The surrounding suburb grew and, according to local newspaper and council reports, the area soon outgrew its name. There was far too much confusion between the cemetery and the residential and farming areas. Local fruit and livestock producers were marketing their produce as ‘Auburn’ rather than ’Rookwood’, suggesting a trade and public prejudice against Rookwood.
Some old timers argued the name was fine and pointed to Sydney’s Waverley as an example of a cemetery and ‘most aristocratic residential suburb’ sharing the same name. Alderman Javes, the Council’s senior resident, arguing for the retention of the name, claimed ‘Rookwood had never disgraced him and he had never disgraced Rookwood’.
There was agreement that the cemetery should retain the name Rookwood but the borough needed a new name. Newington was suggested. In November 1913 the name was officially changed to Lidcombe. Syllables from the name of two alderman from the adjoining wards (Lidbury and Larcombe) were combined to form the name Lidcombe on 1 January 1914. The municipality amalgamated with Auburn local government area in 1949. Rookwood remains Sydney’s main burial ground.
BIRTHS, MARRIAGES AND DEATHS
The circle of life has always been announced in our newspapers. As early as the first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette, the documentation of Sydney life was chronicled in a special announcement column. Obituaries also appeared in these newspapers. The Sydney Morning Herald, and a long line of New South Wales newspapers continued the tradition. It is still an important part of print media, especially for the Sydney Morning Herald.
The earliest newspapers reported the deaths but not necessarily the place of internment. When Rookwood opened it became common practice to include burial details. Victorian funerals were often elaborate affairs with processions and detailed services conducted in city churches or halls, followed by the body and mourners travelling to Rookwood for the final internment. It was also vital to include railway timetable details of the so-called Mortuary Train that departed from Redfern direct to the designated receiving station at the cemetery.
STRANGE GRAVES IN THE CITY
The World’s News (16 Jan 1954). Many prominent citizens have been buried in rather unusual places in Sydney and suburbs, apart from those buried in cemeteries. The great William Charles Wentworth, just before he died in England, expressed a wish to be buried beneath a large rock at Vaucluse on which he so often sat and gazed out over the harbour. His body was brought back to Australia and he was buried beneath this big rock. Later a fine mausoleum was erected over the rock. This rock was originally part of the Vaucluse House grounds, but in recent years Wentworth’s last resting place has become separated from his historic old home. For many years the vault of the Rodd family, after whom Rodd Island is named, held the remains of members of this historic family. It had been cut from a solid rock at Five Dock, but when the estate was subdivided the remains were removed to Rookwood cemetery, near Sydney. There was a large family vault at Bondi, known as O’Brien’s vault. This was erected about 1857, and it was said that several of O’Brien’s wives were buried in this vault. When the estate was divided and sold in 1928, however, the bodies were removed to St. Thomas’ graveyard at Enfield.
TRUSTING THE CEMETERY TRUSTS
Management of a cemetery is a complicated business and sometimes things go sideways.
The various sections of Rookwood are controlled by trusts representing vested interests, especially religious and cultural groups. The following article, from the Sydney Truth (6 Dec 1925)
details, albeit in that newspaper’s somewhat sensationalist style, tells of w hat apparently was a routine clean-up of a site area.
A heap of little white wooden crosses — pathetic emblems of sentiment for the beloved dead — a pile of humble, inscribed memorials, thrown into a jumbled mass by the arbitrary order of officialdom. He who walks through the Church of England portion of the Rookwood Cemetery, and sees piled up, one upon the other, in indiscriminate fashion, crosses and other emblems that once adorned the graves of the dead, might wonder what it is all at out. No discrimination was shown, and without any warning to the others.The sentimental emblems were numbered, and then thrown holus bolus into a heap around a shed in No. 6 section of that portion of the cemetery.
The result was that over the week-end, people, following their usual weekly custom of visiting thefield of death to tend the graves, were struck by the havoc that had laid bare the little mounds of earth, and had left them hardly identifiable. Nothing was allowed to remain, not even a, stick, and angry visitors, with their bunches of flowers, and other adornments, who had left the graves in good order the week before, wondered at first whether some cruel jester had been at work, or whether some loutish vandals had brought about the havoc.
Very few at first suspected the Trust. But, whatever the cause, there was no apparent reason why, without warning, a wholesale raid should have been made on the erections, and the lot torn up, and tossed into a heap.
Note: Rookwood is now managed by two separate trusts, one representing the Roman Catholic Church and the other is the Rookwood General Cemetery Reserve Trust which has amalgamated all previous trusts to ensure more efficient management and planning.
Many, mourning the loss of a near and dear relative, were hurt by the spectacle, and ignorant of the constitution of the Government that controls the cemetery, found it hard to find a reason for the pillage.
SYDNEY’S WORST FIRE
Sydney grew up haphazardly and, like most cities of the mid Victorian era, many buildings were prone to the dangers of fire. Open fires were generally used for heating, in steam manufacturing and lighting. Combined with the timber foundations of most buildings it came as no surprise that the city experienced several major fires. The worst fire came in 1890 and was referred to as ‘The Great Fire of Sydney’. It appeared to have broken out in a five storey printer’s building in Hoskin’s Lane, between Pitt and Castlereagh streets.
The newspaper account from 1890 observed, The fire had spread so rapidly, however, that despite the prompt manner in which the brigades responded to the call, it was soon apparent that the whole of the block of buildings in which the fire originated was doomed, while there seemed every possibility of the conflagration spreading to alarming dimensions. The water supply was not particularly good and Superintendent Bear, recognising the danger of the flames spreading, issued orders for summoning all the suburban brigades. The volunteer firemen turned out readily, and
there were soon between 150 and 200 firemen present with all their appliances. The morning
fortunately was quiet, and scarcely a breath of wind stirred, but the terrible draught created
by the huge fire carried the flames in a northerly direction, and the windows of the Athenaeum Club were soon alight. Every effort was made at this stage to check the fire, but so intense was the heat and so dense the smoke that the firemen were compelled to retreat from Hoskins-lane, which was the only spot where effective work could be done.
The entire city block was destroyed, many of the firefighters were injured in collapsing walls and extreme heat however it appears one of the most dangerous aspects was a group of volunteer fireman who discovered a liquor wholesale storeroom and ‘helped themselves’ until they were completely useless in the battle, and a hinderance to others.
Over the years many of Sydney’s firefighters have been laid to rest at Rookwood Cemetery with full Brigade honours ceremonies accompanied by the Fire Brigade Brass Band.
THE OLD FIRE BRIGADES OF SYDNEY TOWN
In the early days of Sydney the major insurance companies had their own fire brigades, small metal plates being attached to buildings insured by the different companies. It wasn’t unusual to find several buildings in the smh precinct will different fire brigade relationships. This, of course, led to confusion and unfortunate favouritism.
When answering calls, brigades first ascertained whether the building concerned was insured by their company. Others used the brigade on a ‘user pays’ system.
The fire engines carried their own water supply and also tapped into assigned water outlets. The fire trucks were either manpowered or drawn by horses. Accidents were common.
There is a grave inscription in the old section of Rookwood cemetery, a tombstone on which was inscribed: “Erected by the members of the insurance fire brigade to the memory of Thomas Williams, whose death was accidentally caused by a fire engine passing over him. May 30, 1870, aged 12 years.” Then follows a verse:
“Alas, he is now sleeping
In a cold and silent tomb;
And his gentle mother’s weeping
Through her son’s early death.”
MONUMENTS LARGE AND SMALL
Gravesite monuments come in all shapes and sizes as families and friends express their grief for their departed. Although the work of the funeral stonemason, like so many traditional work methods, has become computerised, there is a still a demand for both the simple and elaborate memorial. Particular demands of cultural groups also determine what type of memorial erected.
Monumental masonry typically offers four types of tombstone memorial. The most common is
the Traditional style Headstone with granite kerbs covered by a full size granite slab. Headstone only has an inscribed granite headstone mounted on a simple concrete foundation. These can be mounted upright or in a laid back ‘pillow’ style. Soldier style consists of a concrete foundation with granite kerbs around the edge with either an upright heads tone and granite chip pebbles covering the grave. A premium finish would involve additional works including split-rock finishes with thicker granite achieving a more solid look.
One of the largest monumental graves at Rookwood was made by local stonemasonry company Messrs. A. Larcome & Co, of Eastwood. In 1900 the stonemasons, on order from a Mr. T.E. Larkin, of Sydney, what was described in the Cumberland Argus & Fruit Growers Advocate (2 Feb. 1900) as a ‘huge monument, which is to be erected over the grave of two of Mr Larkin’s children buried in the Necropolis. From base to summit it will be 16 feet. The monument will consist of five tiers of wrought Victorian blue stone, and upon this will rest a large Celtic cross of carved Carrara marble. The cross will be about three inches by ten feet high. The foundation is to be laid H shape, and the different tiers of blue stone will have polished panels upon which inscriptions can be cut and laid in
gold. The base will be intersected with beautifully worked marble corners. The whole work will occupy several months. This monument is to be erected in the E.C. portion of the cemetery.
NO WORDS WILL BE SPOKEN
Surely one of the quirkiest aspects of Regency and Victorian funerals was the employment of a funeral mute.
The mute’s job was to stand vigil outside the door of the deceased, then accompany the coffin, wearing dark clothes, looking solemn and usually carrying a long stick (called a wand) covered in black crape. History’s best-known mute is undoubtably Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, who was employed by the extremely sour undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, for children’s funerals.
Though most of these “mutes” were perfectly capable of speech, it was their responsibility, not only to remain silent throughout the duration of every funeral, but also to maintain an exaggeratedly mournful expression while they served in the capacity of mute. Macabre as it may seem, during the Regency period, there were men and boys who regularly supplemented their income as professional mutes.
The earliest concept of the funeral mute can be dated back to Ancient Rome. It was the custom for a mime to walk in the funeral procession of a deceased member of an important family. The Roman mime dressed all in black and wore a mask made of wax which was fashioned to look like the departed. Each mime was chosen based on their physical resemblance to the person who had passed away. As he walked in the procession, the mime did his best to mimic the mannerisms of the deceased and his family. This masked mime was intended to represent the physical personification of the ancestors of the newly departed, come to earth in order to provide their relative with an escort into the underworld.
THE FUNERAL PROCESSION
Funeral processions of prominent colonists were recorded in the Sydney Gazette as a sign of respect and, no doubt, a documenting of spectacle. The first use of mutes as part of the funeral procession in 1811 was a remarkable occasion. The Sydney Gazette recorded upwards of 200 mourners attended the funeral of Catherine Connell, wife of Mr John Connell of Pitt Street, in spite of the ‘wetness of the afternoon’. Not only was the procession noteworthy for the use of ‘Two Mutes, bearing staves (the first occasion of such being introduced in this Colony)’; it formed ‘one of the most numerous and respectable that in this Territory ever attended a departed Sister to the Grave’.
The funeral of the merchant Thomas Burdekin in 1844 gives us a glimpse of a wealthy funeral in Sydney in 1844. The funeral service was held at St James Church. The undertaker, William Beaver, dressed the corpse in a ‘superfine shroud and cap’. A strong cedar coffin was placed inside ‘a State Coffin covered with velvet and richly mounted with Gilt furniture with an engraved brass plate’. The hearse was drawn by four horses draped with black velvet and with plumes of ostrich feathers on their heads. There were at least six mutes and porters. The mourning party was supplied with hatbands, gloves and scarves. This extravagant funeral came to £61 4s. (Dictionary of Sydney)
Today we are used to public spectacles including State Funerals however, in the nineteenth century funeral processions attracted large crowds. Many, led by the undertaker and mute attendants, had several horse-drawn carriages, walking mourners, bands etc as the procession solemnly moved through the streets.
Religions and cultural groups mark the death and passing of one of their own in diverse ways. Some specified mourning is demanded by faith, others yield to tradition, and others are community reactions based on family or friends directions.
Wakes were also part of the death ways, but differed according to ethnicity. The British tended to gather for eating and drinking after the funeral, whereas the Irish gathered in the home around the laid out corpse, ‘talking, eating, singing, getting drunk’ and the conviviality continued after the funeral. Christians conduct a service and then meet for tea and refreshments so as to provide mourning family and friends an opportunity to meet; orthodox and some muslim religions oblige the wife of a deceased male to wear black for a full year. Jews conduct a minyan as part of the burial rite, this is a public outpouring of grief staged under rabbinical law. Traditions surrounding death can be very complex and, obviously, everyone wants to do the best for the deceased.
As Australia becomes more culturally diverse so has its funeral customs. Rookwood, as Sydney’s largest and most all-encompassing cemetery, caters for a staggeringly large number of ‘special request’ funeral arrangements. Some involved food and drink and many the wake has been staged officially and unofficially within the cemetery boundary.
Local restaurants and cafe, including Rookwood’s own Reflection Cafe offers catered spaces and facilities for wakes.
Some people obviously care little for the dead and this news item, published in the Cumberland Newspaper, 1916, tells of an unusual theft from Rookwood.
At Parramatta Police Court on Monday one of the cases listed was — Arthur Paton
versus Walter Speechley. The defendant was charged with damaging property of the Church
of England cemetery, Rookwood, by taking gravel from there. Constable Murphy related the facts of the case, and the defendant was fined £2, and ordered to pay £3 7s damage, court costs and professional costs. Constable Murphy stated that the defendant tried to get away, when he was
discovered sweeping up gravel in the CofE. section of the Necropolis. He gave a wrong name at first. Subsequently it was discovered that he came from Redfern. The lawyer in the case representing the trustees of the cemetery stated that the gravel was worth about £1 10s per load. About seven loads had been missed.
One of the most ‘stolen’ items at Rookwood over the years, apart from graveside ornaments like crosses and angels, has been ‘cuttings’ from roses.
ROOKWOOD WAR GRAVES AND MEMORIALS
On July, 1914, Britain sent a warning signal to the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia that war was imminent in Europe to which Australia’s Prime Minster, Joseph Cook, responded, “If the old country is at war, so are we.”
The Great War, as it was known, was an unprecedented international catastrophe with 30 countries at war resulting in over 37 million military and civilian casualties – over 10 million military combatants died plus some 7 million civilians. Countless millions were wounded.
Australia, with a population of around 5 million suffered heavy casualties with 62,000 deaths and 150,000 wounded. Australian soldiers came from all walks of life: from the city and from the country. Young men between 18 and 44 enlisted to the sound of the bugle.
Recruiting marches wound their way from inland population centres and down to the capital cities – “Come and join us – do your patriotic duty,” they shouted, calling themselves Dungarees, Kangaroos, Wallabies, Waratahs and the Cooees. The recruits were trained, uniformed and farewelled – to sail away to the very front lines of war. The most-popular song of the time, popularised by the Australian singer Florrie Forde, was Goodbye-ee.
WW1 was a frontline war where soldiers lived in near unbearable conditions like rabbits down a hole. Trenches snaked their way across the war zones – enough to circle the globe one and a half times. Barbed wire, a vicious weapon of war, poisonous tear gas and deafening bombs joined never-ending gunfire as the allies and the axis powers fought deadly battles for over 4 years.
In 2015, one hundred years on, Australia remembered its role in the ill-fated Gallipoli landing. Other centenaries, particularly the 1916 battles of the Somme and Fromelles, remind us of the futility of war and the senseless loss of life. The Aussies and the Kiwis of WW1 were tenacious fighters and joined together as the fighting ANZACs. Their bravery new no bounds and history salutes them through countless stories and songs. With little regard for authority they performed their duty with a good measure of typical laconic Aussie humour. They often said: “we’d rather shoot than salute.”
Australian women also went to war. The Red Cross Nurses were a vital part of the Great War story. Affectionately referred to as ‘The Roses of No Man’s Land’ – a comment on their red and white uniforms, they held a special place in the heart of every soldier. Their service should never be forgotten.
War was eventually followed by peace and the bodies of the dead were buried across Europe, many in unmarked graves.
Leading up to the centenary of WW1 it became apparent that there are many types of war memorials existing in the area managed by the Rookwood Cemetery General Reserve Trust including young soldiers who died in training before seeing action, returned servicemen in family graves, as well as symbolic graves and monuments by families for soldiers killed or missing in action and those never found. Rookwood Cemetery is the only memorial many families ever had, not being able to go to France or Turkey to see the collective war memorials there.
There is also a Jewish War Graves section and a memorial to the Merchant Navy casualties.
The New South Wales Garden of Remembrance adjacent to the Sydney War Memorial, within the Rookwood Necropolis, has currently over 73,000 plaques commemorating our war dead.
The Flanders poppy has special significance for Australians. Worn on Remembrance Day (11 November) these red poppies were among the first wild flowers to bloom across the devastated battlefields of northern France and Belgium. In soldiers’ folklore, the vivid red of the poppy came from the blood of their comrades soaking the ground. In 2015 Rookwood Cemetery initiated the ANZAC Centenary Campaign – a salute to the war dead with a daily placement of poppies on a commemorative fountain and on the anniversary of individual war graves. Another program, Remember the ANZACS , reaches out to the community for stories, memories and photographs of family members lost in the Great War.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Rookwood will remember them.
Petty Theft at Rookwood.
It is difficult to believe or understand but in its long history Rookwood Cemetery has been targeted by thieves taking everything from fresh flowers to funereal ornamentations. The worst years were the turn of the 19th century and the 1930s Depression. A report in the Sydney Morning Herald, December, 1901, reported that ‘crosses, wreaths and costly plants and shrubs are being constantly removed surreptitiously.” The article suggested that many of the thefts were by inmates of the nearby Rookwood Asylum. The Depression years of the 1930s were desperate times and people did desperate things to stay alive and it is therefore, to a degree understandable, that a few bunches of flowers or pot plants, placed by grieving relatives, would be ‘sold’ at hotels to raise a few pennies. Today, generally, we are more sympathetic to burials and such theft has diminished accordingly.
Roads to Nowhere
Being such a large and busy necropolis requires Rookwood Cemetery to carefully plan its traffic management. The cemetery is a network of connected roads which can be quite confusing to newcomers. It is particularly busy at weekends when many people come to visit family graves. Recreational and sporting cyclists also use the road network, especially in the early mornings. Navigating the cemetery work vehicles, funeral hearses and general traffic requires awareness, something that distressed, grieving visitors can easily forget. Heavy traffic, especially of earth moving equipment, is also a concern and to add to the turmoil.
The main roads in the cemetery are Necropolis Drive, Memorial Drive, Haslem Drive (named after the original land), Weekes Ave (named for Norman Weekes who was necropolis engineer from 1926 until his retirement in 1970), Barnet Avenue (named for the colonial architect who designed the necropolis), Cohen Avenue (named for the original land owners, the Cohen brothers) and Hawthorne Avenue (named for John Stewart Hawthorne, born 1848, who was a long serving chairman of the Anglican section of the Rookwood Necropolis). The cemetery’s administration office is situated on Hawthorne Avenue in the centre of the necropolis.
One can imagine what the earlier days of the cemetery would have been like. Horse-drawn carriage processions and unreliable motor vehicles competing with hundreds of mourners disembarking and embarking at the various mortuary railway stations situated across the site. A year before Norman Weeks was appointed to oversee engineering works, including roadways, a Mr. F. D. Hedger, of Haberfield, in angry letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald alleged, “That roads leading to and running through Rookwood Cemetery are in a disgraceful condition and calling for immediate construction and proper maintenance,” Mr. Hedger, “who had attended three funerals in the last three weeks”, described driving over the roads as “nothing short of torture.”
There are two main entries into the necropolis. The Weeroona Road entrance is the most used chalking up well over 60,000 entries a month (average of 2050 a day) and the East Street entrance registers around 42,000 entries a month ((1390 a day). The Necropolis Cemetery Trust is responsible for all roads and signage and over the 2016/17 period will undertake new roadworks for Necropolis Drive and also new signage throughout the parklands.
Tossing Pennies In The Air.
It has been said that Australians will gamble on just about anything, including two blowflies on a wall (which one will fly away first?) and, if we have a national gambling favourite it would have to be the very Australian game of two-up. Often referred to as the ‘fairest game on earth’, the game is played iled by a designated “spinner” throwing two coins or pennies into the air. Players gamble on whether the coins will fall with both heads (obverse) up, both tails (reverse) up, or with one coin a head and one a tail (known as “odds”).
It most probably had its origin in a primitive version from England and Ireland however the predilection of the convicts for this game was noted as early as 1798 by New South Wales’s first judge advocate. He also noted the lack of skill involved and the large losses. By the 1850s, the two-coin form was being played on the goldfields of the eastern colonies and it was spread across the country following subsequent goldrushes. Two-up was a favourite of ANZAC troops and, of course, it is played (legally) across the country every ANZAC Day. But who would have thought the game had a history with Rookwood Cemetery! The most famous Two -up school (that’s what they were called) was called Thommo’s although it never had a fixed address. It moved around to avoid the police gambling squad. The most notorious Thommo’s were in Sydney’s east, especially around the working-class suburbs of Newtown, Darlinghurst and Surry Hills. Each school had a couple of lookouts positioned to warn of any possible police raid. These lookouts were commonly referred to as ‘cockatoos’, possibly because, like the bird, their eyes and heads moved everywhere.
One such Thommo’s school was held at Rookwood. The Cairns Post, September, 1946, reported that ‘Many two-up players dived among tombstones and trees to escape when a detachment of the police special squad raided a two-up school at Rookwood cemetery. Apparently it was a very large ring lit by kerosene lanterns. Twelve men were charged as a result of the raid.’
The Sydney Morning Herald also reported the story. ‘Stalking their way among graves at the Rookwood Cemetery, the police at midnight raided a large two-up school which was in progress. About 60 men were present but only 12 were caught, the remainder having escaped.
The police stated the game was well organised, the area being illuminated with acetylene gas and kerosene stoves used for warmth. The 12 men were taken to the Burwood police station and charged with gaming.
One of Rookwood Cemetery’s busiest days of the year is Mother’s Day. It has been this way for a very long time and an article in the Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advertiser (Parramatta), May, 1933, succinctly explain the tradition.
THEY REMEMBERED – Pilgrimage to Rookwood Cemetery
In their annual pilgrimage of remembrance, thousands of people visited Rookwood Cemetery on Sunday to lay floral tributes on the graves of their mothers.
A special service of trains from the city and Bankstown was run by the railway authorities, and every carriage was packed to over-crowding by persons of all ages bearing wreaths and
bunches of flowers. White blooms predominated, but there was a large number of yellow and pink ones. Hundreds of motor cars streamed through the entrances, and people thronged the streets leading to the gates. Many, finding the trains overcrowded at Lidcombe, walked to the cemetery. It was the annual pilgrimage of remembrance, flowers were laid upon then graves, and the grass was cut and levelled. The cemetery assumed the appearance of a huge garden of flowers
In the 21st century Mother’s Day remains the busiest day of the year for the Necropolis and symbolic white flowers still remain the most popular tribute.
Attacked by large cat at Rookwood Cemetery.
Over the past twenty-five years reports of a giant cat, possibly a panther, have been reported by the media. Most reports detail the cat prowling, and scaring the living daylights out of the residents, of the lower Blue Mountains. Fact or Folklore? Maybe the giant cat was a relative of the one that attacked two boys at Rookwood Cemetery in February 1929. The Singleton Argus reported the attack. “While two boys were in Rookwood Cemetery yesterday they were attacked by a large cat, which had taken possession of an empty grave. Both were bitten by the animal before they could get away.”
Feral cats are a pest across Australia and Rookwood, with its plentiful birdlife and rodents, is an ideal location for pesky pussies. Put simply, people should not take cats into the necropolis parkland. Cats are curious and an escapee feline is nigh impossible to catch with so many bushes, graves and gullies. Leave them at home.
Mass Internment at Rookwood Cemetery.
A terrible accident occurred in Sydney Harbour on the morning of the 5th January, 1909, as a result of which 15 blue jackets lost their lives. A party of 80 man-of-war men, fully armed for rifle practice at the Randwlck Rifle Range, left Garden Island, the Naval Depot, shortly before 7 o’clock. They were seated in a long-boat, and this craft was taken in tow by one of the small launches belonging to the station. The intention was to land at Man-of-war Stairs, Farm Cove, and then proceed by tram to the Rifle Range. The morning broke fairly clear, and at 7 o’clock there was just a little bit of a haze, but by no means thick enough to obscure the harbour or the landmarks.
The launch was travelling well, but when about 150 yards from Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair the South Coast metal steamer Dunmore came along and crashed into the long boat. It was a moment of intense excitement. All hands were carrying arms, and the accoutrements were heavy. It is estimated that the weight of each man’s accoutrements was over 601b. The Dunmore struck the longboat on the starboard side, cutting through her, and at the same time causing serious injury to some of the bluejackets.
One onlooker said he saw two men thrown clean out of the boat. When they fell into the water, both threw up their hands, and disappeared from view. In a few minutes there was nothing more to
be seen of the longboat. She had gone down, leaving her living freight struggling in the water. The majority of the men, somehow managed to keep afloat, while the pinnace steamed around, picking them up. An eye-witness described it as an ‘awful scene’. “It seemed from the island that the men were being cut to pieces by the propellers of the steamers as they moved among the struggling seamen”. A bluejacket from the Encounter declared that he saw a man going round with the propeller of the Dunmore.
Prior to internment at Rookwood the hearses with the fifteen coffins travelled through the city with a full military parade. Thousands of Sydneysiders came to salute the victims prior to the bodies being put on the number 14 station train to Rookwood.
(The Sydney Mail & New South Wales Advertiser 13 Jan. 1909) ‘On arrival at the Necropolis a vast crowd was in waiting, and with the arrival of the additional section from the city, numbered about 3000. The naval and military forces were drawn up on the railway platform, and the bearers raised the 15 coffins, and moved off for the naval section, headed by the Police Band. Each coffin was still covered by the Union Jack, and as the cortege moved along the winding paths, the great crowd fell into order and joined in the procession, the Police Band playing the ‘Dead March’ from ‘Saul.’ On arrival at the graveside the 15 flags were removed from the coffins by the bearers, who were drawn from the special friends of the deceased on board ship. The funeral service was read by the Rev. H. C. Fargus, chaplain of the H.M.A.S. Encounter, and Rev. W. G. Taylor, of the Methodist Church. The fifteen men were buried side by side. At the conclusion of the service the firing party extended along the graveside, and the orders were given, ‘Load,’ ‘Present,’ ‘Fire!’ Forty shots rang out, and the rifles remained at the ”Present’ while the bugles sounded. Thrice came the order, and thrice the bugles called out. As the smoke cleared away, the ‘Last Post’ was sounded, and the Police Band played the sailor’s favourite hymn, ‘Brief life is here our portion.’
Responsibilities of a Cemetery Trust.
Running the day-to-day business of a cemetery, especially one as large and complex as Rookwood, is fraught with problems, some expected, others come as a surprise, but all have to be dealt with by the cemetery’s trust bodies. There are three trusts involved in the administration of Rookwood. The Rookwood General Cemetery Reserve Trust (RGCRT), the largest management body, is responsible for vast parkland and management for all christian faiths (other than Roman Catholic) as well as Muslim, Taoist, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist etc and non religious burials. It also works with the Office of Australian War Graves for the many military grave sites and memorials. The Catholic Metropolitan Cemetery Trust (CMCT) is responsible for the Roman Catholic section. There is also a Rookwood Necropolis Trust (RNT) reflecting the combined trusts responsibility to the NSW Ministry of Land.
The management of Rookwood has changed several time over the many years of its existence. These changes reflect change in society, burial requirements and, above all, Australia’s changing population. Today it could be said that Rookwood represents the most historical multicultural part of Australia for every cultural and ethnic group is represented.
Australia’s varied ethnic and religious identity formed by waves of immigration from the earliest colonial settlement is manifest in the hundreds of thousands of monuments and memorials. The descendants of each wave are now recorded in about half a million epitaphs as the cemeteries within continue to operate.
Hard Times at Rookwood.
Over its long history, 2017 marks Rookwood’s 140th anniversary, the cemetery has experienced several public outcries calling for attention to ‘problems’. The cemetery trust bodies of the times, usually in cooperation with local and State government, were charged with fixing such ‘situations’.
In 1911, not for the first time nor the last, the cemetery received complaints about straying cattle in the necropolis grounds. In an article published in the Molong Argus 14 July 1911 reads more like a horror story than a report. The medical report concerning the condition of Rookwood Cemetery contains startling disclosures. The report says many coffins are only two feet below the level of the surface. In one section of the cemetery a large quantity of oozing water was discovered, which on being analysed was shown to be grossly contaminated with animal organic matter. In hot and dry weather disagreeable colours arose out of these graves. More than two adults sometimes were interred in one grave and sometimes three adults. Several infants are at times buried in the same grave. The surface drainage was carried to Thorsley’s estate, where it was alleged it was drunk by stock awaiting sale at Flemington. Milch cows also used this surface drainage for drinking purposes. Local newspaper, Clarence & Richmond Examiner Grafton July 1911 responded defending the cemetery saying, The Health Officer’s report, regarding the condition, of the Rookwood Cemetery has created considerable consternation. Several master undertakers state that the report must refer to the old portion of the cemetery, and deny that three adults were buried in one grave, or that a coffin was placed two feet from the surface.
In September 1920 a letter to the Cumberland Argus & Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta), under the signature of ‘Grave Owner’ a letter detailed the problem of straying cattle. Apparently cattle had been allowed to graze in the cemetery grounds and were creating a nuisance. The cause of the problem was that landowners encouraged their stock to enter the cemetery grounds, despite it being illegal. Fencing was routinely damaged to allow cattle access and the trust management eagerly sought police and court prosecution. The cemetery rangers had a full time job rounding the cattle up on a weekly basis and then sending them to the pound. The stock were still straying in 1927 as this Sydney Morning Herald item explains. Somehow the local council blamed the trust not the rate-paying farmers. Wandering stock nuisance. Complaints that straying stock, wandering into the Rookwood Cemetery, damaged graves, headstones, and kerbs, and ate shrubs placed on graves, were made at the last meeting of the Lidcombe Council. Alderman Kingsley said the cattle and horses had been straying in the cemetery for about a year. It was decided to send a protest to the trustees of the cemetery.
The Easter Encampment at Rookwood
As the Boer War approached and Australia heard Britain’s bugle call to arms, preparations were made for our service duty. Training camps were set up across the country and, in Sydney, in 1898, a massive encampment was established at Rookwood Cemetery. This report of the establishment of the camp appeared in Australian Town & Country Journal, 9 April 1898. By Monday the greater portion of the preliminary work in connection with the forthcoming Easter encampment has been broken. The major portion of it, apart from the administrative details, has fallen upon the Permanent Artillery, under Captain Luscombe, D.A.Q.M.G., who, with Lieutenant Cox Taylor and about sixty men, were in camp since February 21. Since that date they have pitched between 850 and 900 tents, erected store-rooms, etc., and indeed got the camp ready for occupation. Owing to this the troops are spared the necessity of putting up their tents. Some ingenuity has been shown in the planning out of the camp. It is the reverse of compact, and the manoeuvring ground is painfully circumscribed; but possibly the best has been done that funds permitted.As far as the main batch of tents is concerned, there is plenty of shade timber and a good supply of water. The latter is laid on all over the place, so that there need be no leading of horses to water or carrying of it about in water carts. The other two camps are more out in the open. Leaving the train at Rookwood Station, and following the Rookwood-road in the southerly direction for about a mile or a mile and a quarter, you strike the track which bears away to the left and leads to the enclosed grounds of the asylum, or the reservoir. At this point one has the main camp on the left hand of the roadway, and the Infantry Brigade on the right. On the left are the tents of the Army Service Corps and the Medical Staff Corps; then Captain Luscombe’s lines for the 1st Garrison Division Artillery (who will probably furnish the necessary guards during the training), and the Field Companies of Engineers.The Lancers and Mounted Rifles adjoin, also the B.D.F.A., and finally the Headquarters Staff, whose lines are bounded on the southern side by the fence of the asylum and on the east by the cemetery grounds. Over the road are tents of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Infantry Regiments. The Volunteer camp is situated about a mile further to the east, on what is commonly called “Milkman’s Hill.” It is reached most directly by the Bankstown-road.
Rookwood’s world record grave -digger
Some would consider working in a cemetery as a strange occupation however, many people who take jobs at Rookwood’s necropolis, remain in the position for extremely long service. Norman Weekes, employed in 1926 as engineer, remained in his job for forty-four years. The Sydney Sun newspaper 5 Jan. 1930 carried a story on another long-serving employee.
Mr. George Coates, a veteran resident of Martin-street, Lidcombe, has just retired after 35
years as a grave-digger, in which time he has dug more than 37,000 graves in Rookwood Cemetery. This is believed by some to be a world’s record for a grave-digger. When he started he was the only grave digger employed in the Methodist section. Today there are four.
In those early days there were very few occupied plots in the hundred acres of cemetery. Now there are nearly 1,000,000 graves, and there is room for a million more.
One man can dig a grave in from two to six hours, the time varying with the nature of the soil, according to the veteran. If it is clayey ground, the digging is very difficult. When not digging, Mr. Coates spent his hours in cleaning up the footpaths in the cemetery, and caring for graves. The work never palled upon him. He considered it a good job. and only stopped because he reached seventy years of age. He was sorry to retire. His son Dennis is employed in the same occupation at Rookwood but he has only a few thousand graves to his credit.
Chinese riots at funeral.
The Sydney Morning Herald (15 Oct 1938) coverage on the funeral of Chinese community leader, James Wong Chuey, reported on a Chinese funeral tradition that led to a near-riot in the streets of Sydney. Large crowds gathered in the streets of the Chinese quarter of the city yesterday, when the funeral of Mr. James Wong Chuey took place. There was a wild scramble by hundreds of people when handfuls of pennies were thrown into the streets from a taxi cab by one of the mourners. Many pennies had previously been distributed among the mourners as good luck tokens together with small lumps of coarse sugar. By 2 p m the streets near the Chinese Masonic Hall where the funeral service was held were lined with onlookers. Hundreds of Chinese stood at the doors of their shops
After the service the procession lined up in the confined space of Mary Street. In the lead was a ten piece band which played the Dead March In Saul. Following were two Chinese carrying black and white banners and two carrying large round wreaths. Immediately behind came two more Chinese carrylng between them a large photograph in a heavy frame of the dead man. Behind the photograph marched Mr Chuey’s brother Freemasons dressed in blue suits there heads closely clipped and with their regalia of light red sashes around their breasts
The coffin was draped with rich red silk and two carloads of wreaths followed the hearse In the mourning cars were the widow relatives and representatives of the Chinese community including the Consul General Dr C J Pao .At the rear of the procession were 30 taxi cabs to take the mourners to Rookwood cemetery.
Just before the procession moved on the Chinese began to distribute pennies among the mourners two to each person. Immediately they were bolstered by onlookers, principally women, asking to be given pennies The Chinese patiently explained that the pennies were only for the mourners.
When it was found that there were hundred of pennies too many one of the distributors entered a taxi cab and began to throw them out the window into the street. The crowds surged of the pavements and surrounded the cab ten-deep shouting for pennies. Police officers rushed forward and cleared them away.
The procession delayed tram services in the vicinity of George Street and the Central Railway Station The remains were interred at the Church of England Cemetery, Rookwood.
Sydney’s Vast Mortuary.
Here is an interesting description of Rookwood in 1927. Sydney has the largest city of the dead in Australia (says the Sydney “Daily Telegraph“). It Is Rookwood cemetery, and by the end of this month it will contain three-quarters of a million graves. For several years over 12,000 bodies have been interred in this vast mortuary each year. The cemetery is almost 700 acres in extent. It contains five railway stations, and is visited by two trains daily.
Rookwood is a mecca for hundreds of thousands of Australians each year, and last year over 1,500,000 people visited it. On Sundays especially many thousands visit graves, spending the
day in the cemetery, planting flowers, and tending these already growing. Each of the large denominations has special sections and walks, and gardens in portions of the cemetery are carefully leaded by their employees, but in the older sections graves are overgrown with weeds, and in parts there is not even a mound to mark the “narrow cell.”
On many of the graves them are magnificent tombstones, which cost thousands of pounds, the most expensive of all being the mausoleum of John Eraser in the Presbyterian section. This tomb is stated to have cost over £15,000. It is said by monumental masons, that the 90,000 headstones by the cemetery have cost over £1,500,000.
Rookwood Crematorium. A contentious beginning.
It is difficult to believe that the majority of the population in the first part of the twentieth century needed convincing that crematoriums were a sensible alternative to burial. The ‘crematorium issue’ was hotly debated and even led to the establishment of a Crematorium Society to educate people as to the sustainability of cremating. In 1925 Rookwood opened its new crematorium. The Sydney Morning Herald covered the event in graphic detail.
An official inspection was made on Saturday afternoon of the new Crematorium at Rookwood Cemetery, about 2000 people being present. Speakers expressed the opinion that cremation was the most hygienic and sanitary method of disposing of the dead. Mr. Watt, Chairman of the N.S.W. Crematorium Co. Ltd., said that cremation would prevent the conversion of huge tracts of valuable
land into ‘cities of the dead,” make the task of the poisoner more difficult, remove all risk of persons being buried alive, and in the long run would be cheaper than earth burial. Dr. Morris said that the Cremation Society was to be congratulated upon the efforts it was making for the benefit of the people of Australia. As soon as the people could be induced to regard cremation in a rational way, they would wonder how they tolerated such an insanitary and unsatisfactory method as earth burial. Dr. Purdy said that cremation was the only sanitary and hygienic method known to science.
Canon Lee of St. Mark’s Church, Darling point, said that cremation had nothing to fear from the full teaching of the Christian faith. Where were they going to dispose of their dead ? Waverley Cemetery was closed and South Head would be closed very shortly. Were they going to perpetuate those tragic ” cities of the dead ?”
Dr. Creed M.L.C., president of the Cremation Society, said that the gathering which was inaugurating the crematorium in New South Wales represented the crowning of a movement commenced in Sydney in 1888 by the passing of a bill by the Legislative Council.
That bill, however, was ignored by the Assembly. The adoption of cremation would be of considerable benefit to the health of the people, particularly the children who came
immediately in contact with germs whose vitality was so constantly preserved by earth burial and formed centres from which they spread to surrounding district. The most grave danger in this respect was from anthrax, the germs of which were only really destroyed by fire. In the future they might have to face yellow fever, cholera, and plague.
Dr. O’Neill, the State’s medical referee, said that the inspection of an exhumed body would convince anybody of the benefits of cremation.
Rookwood Cemetery – City of the dead.
Here is an extraordinary description of a visit to Rookwood in 1923 as published in the Grenfell Record.
And concerning this cemetery at Rookwood. What a city of the dead! The train streams on from one Mortuary Station to another, until we alight at No. 4; on the intervening stoppages are seen crowds of people and coffins borne aloft containing the remains of your dear departed, over whom shortly thanks will be given to Almighty God for having delivered him from the miseries of this sinful life—a state of existence, which, by the way, he, in a majority of cases, is singularly loath to leave—a removal which he, she, or their friends resent to the utmost, and do all in their power to avert. One seems to be taking quite a long journey streaming through this cemetery; on all sides—this being Saturday afternoon—are people attending to graves, weeding, planting, or watering at times you may see the remains of Chinese being exhumed, and the bones being packed away in strongly built, brass-bound boxes, preparatory to being shipped off to China. There was an unusually large crowd at the Sydney Mortuary station, and it was necessary to run three trains to the cemetery, all being crammed, the funeral car contained many coffins and a profusion of wreaths —a costly, and in most cases inconvenient method of expressing sympathy. At the four stations coffins were withdrawn from the car—coffins large and small, their contents all that remains of what was once full of life and hope; coffins of the aged, and one—a little blue one—we saw being carried under the arm of an undertaker’s man, and no one following. Such is life !
The Rose of No Man’s Land
Rookwood Cemetery proudly hosts the Australian War Graves cemetery and also several monuments to those who served in military service including the Boer War, First and Second World Wars, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam and, more recent assaults. There is also a special section remembering those who died in merchant shipping associated with wartime service. In early wars bodies of the fallen were buried where they fell. It was simply not possible to send the bodies back for Australian burial. Many deaths were simply marked with a cross in fields of unmarked graves. Such is the horror of war. Later wars allowed bodies to be repatriated by air and thus providing an opportunity for families a full service farewell. Of course, many returned from war severely injured and were treated at the various Australian repatriation hospitals like Sydney’s Prince Alfred and the Veteran’s Concord Hospital.
Today’s military services are equal opportunity employers and both men and women serve. The early wars, particularly WW1 were ground wars and predominately fought by men as infantry soldiers, maritime or airmen. One area where women played a vital and outstanding role was in medical service. Many women served in the frontline hospitals and some worked with orderlies to retrieve the bodies of the injured and dead. Dressed in their distinctive red and white uniforms of the Commonwealth Red Cross, they were often called the ‘roses of no man’s land’.
There was even a popular songs by that title. Written by by Jack Caddigan and James Alexander Brennan, it was a wartime favourite with its memorable chorus:
There’s a rose that grows on “No Man’s Land”
And it’s wonderful to see,
Tho’ its spray’d with tears, it will live for years,
In my garden of memory.
It’s the one red rose the soldier knows,
It’s the work of the Master’s hand;
Mid the War’s great curse, Stands the Red Cross Nurse,
She’s the rose of “No Man’s Land”.
The original 1916 version sung by William Thomas can be heard at
Rookwood Cemetery is the last resting place for many Red Cross Nurses and their outstanding service will never be forgotten.
Vandalism, Rabbit Hunting and a Wild Boar loose in the Cemetery.
Management of a cemetery the size of Rookwood requires continual surveillance.
In many ways cemeteries are public land but, of course, they are sacred to the dead, and should never be desecrated. In history vandalism has occurred at most cemeteries and other problems arise occasionally and often surprisingly.
What would possess someone to wilfully damage gravestones is beyond most normal people however the Sydney Morning Herald Feb. 1949, reported how: Vandals last week tore
down headstones and smashed expensive granite and marble ornaments at Rookwood Cemetery.
Damage estimated at £300 was done in the independent section. Eight Jewish and four Gypsy,
graves were ruined.
In that same year Rookwood experienced a unique event when a wild boar took over the cemetery.
The Evening News reported: No one knows where it came from. People firs saw it roam from Rookwood cemetery into a yard by Lidcombe station. It charged across a bridge as passengers came up from a train, made children scream, Ticket-collector Peter McDonald, of Park Road, Rydalmere, waved his arms to frighten it off. The boar charged and bit his left hand. Mr. McDonald tried to kick it. The boar bit his left calf. It raced down a ramp, knocked over 71-year-old Mrs. Mary Thompson, of Granville, and tore her clothes. Then it charged through a milk bar and out at the back. Police tried to shoot it. It crashed through a paling fence and tore along a lane into
another street. It charged Mr. Arthur Butfield, of Auburn, and gashed his right thigh. Then it plunged down a slope into a canal.There it was cornered.
The wild boar most probably escaped from the Flemington Stock Sales Yard and walked along the railway track to the cemetery.
The Evening News told about rabbits at the Rookwood Cemetery. Rabbits are a problem in the parklands however they are usually controlled by eradication program. Apparently in Feb. 1917
Police investigated numerous complaints regarding men going through Rookwood Cemetery with dogs and guns, seeking rabbits. It is stated that the trappers occasioned considerable damage to well-tended graves,marked by charges of shot.
Today’s Rookwood Cemetery parklands do support a wide range of animal, reptile and bird life. Feral goats are often seen amongst the headstones. One surprising aspect of present-day Rookwood is its beehives. To support the environment RGCRT works with the Friends of Rookwood to manage bee hives at Rookwood Cemetery. These bees form an integral part of the cemetery’s eco system. Australia’s agricultural industry is dependent on bees, likewise bees provide benefits to our native forests by adding to biodiversity and providing positive outcomes such as soil and water retention, local area cooling and carbon sinks.
Scientists Find Life After Death
Cemeteries have been proven to be havens for rare plant species. Because cemeteries are protected from farming, often over many years, in Rookwood’s case over 140 years, they offer a sanctuary for plants, grasses and scrubs including endangered native plants. In some cases the plants and have been saved from extinction because, fenced off from the wider world of grazing and cultivation and the use of fertilisers and herbicides, they are habitats that have not been entirely transformed by the arrival of Europeans. Among other things, a wattle, Acacia pubescens, which is endangered nationally has been found at Rookwood.
Ecologists and Rookwood cemetery authorities are discussing what can be done to keep some botanically significant corners of Rookwood protected from interference.
One interesting feature of cemetery life is that mourners often bring potted plants. Some even go as far as planting them near the gravesite. Many hybrid plants have emerged in the Rookwood parklands, particularly rambling roses. Rookwood has many varieties of roses and a specially tendered Rookwood rose garden. There are some reasonably well known tea roses that have come from Rookwood including the ‘William James Wright’ and ‘Agnes Smith’ rose.
Crooner Johnny Ray’s Rookwood Connection.
There was a time, throughout the 1950s that American singer Johnnie Ray was the top of the pops. Ray has been cited by critics as a major precursor of what would become rock and roll, for his jazz and blues-influenced music and his animated stage personality. Tony Bennett credits Ray as being the true father of rock and roll. He was particularly popular in Australia where he toured for pioneer entrepreneur Sammy Lee and his ‘Big Shows’ at venues like the Sydney Stadium.
He is best-known for his heart-wrenching vocal delivery of ‘Cry’ which influenced many acts including Elvis and was the prime target for teen hysteria in the pre-Presley days. His other hits included ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’, The Little Cloud That Cried’, ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ and ‘Just Walking in the Rain’.
According to a story in the Australian media in November 1954 the crooner had arranged a wreath for a 15 year old blind girl who, according to the Brisbane Telegraph, 12 Nov. 54, “who only lived to hear one man sing.”
The girl, Sylvia Stewart, died yesterday after months of illness, from cancer.
On his recent visit to Sydney, Johnnie Ray, sang to the dying Sylvia and made her “the happiest girl in the world.” Tortured by pain, she listened smilingly as Johnnie sang “Somebody Stole My Gal.” Blind and condemned to death, she spent her last days waiting for letters from Ray.
At the funeral there was a wreath from the singer. The card read: “Now the angels will sing for
you.” Women mourners, many of them blind, were near collapse at the service at a Newtown undertaker’s premises today. Sylvia was buried in the Church of England section of Rookwood Cemetery.
Australia’s Gypsy Royalty.
Few will know that there were gypsies on the First Fleet and during the 19th century many followed seeking a new life in Australia, possibly to escape the social problems associated with Europe’s ‘travelling people’. It has been estimated there are around 10,000 Australians who can claim Romani or gypsy heritage, although travelling people rarely fill in census forms. Gypsies are scattered around the world and lack a homeland, and have no central government with a king or prime minister. However, they have developed at least a loose organisational structure for governing themselves via family-based bands, or kumpanias, which traditionally travelled together in caravans. A Romani family unit typically encompasses multiple generations, and includes a patriarch and matriarch, their unmarried offspring (both young and adult) and a married son, his wife and their children. Many Australian gypsies gravitated to working in carnival and circus employment, allowing them to retain their travelling status.
Rookwood Cemetery has been the last resting place for many gypsies and has a dedicated area.
The largest gypsy family in Australia is the Sterio family who are Greek Orthodox and not Romani.
In 1943 ‘Prince’ Costa Sterio was buried at Rookwood. He was only 30 years old and was given a full ‘royal burial’ in the gypsy tradition with an elaborate coffin buried in a deep cement grave. Over 500 people attended his service at the Greek Orthodox Church, Bourke street, Surry Hills. The Truth newspaper reported that: after the ceremony, police officers described scenes in and outside
the church as “a disgraceful exhibition of morbid public curiosity.” One officer said that a crowd of watchers charged into the church like a herd of cattle to get a glimpse. A highlight of the funeral was his mother pouring brandy over the coffin.
It was the funeral of Gypsy Queen Ruby Elizabeth Sterio that really attracted attention. Ruby Sterio ‘Queen’ for over 35 years. She died in 1983. Here is a first hand report on the funeral and traditions observed.
The body of the queen, who died on July 6 at the age of 75, had lain in state at a city funeral parlour for eight days in a specially made cedar casket, gold-painted and adorned with silver-coloured designs. Long before the appointed time for the funeral service at the Greek Orthodox Church in Bourke Street crowds assembled outside. Police, under the direction of Superintendent Lawrence, were in attendance, as was the Leichhardt District Brass Band, which the gypsies had hired for the occasion. The service was conducted in Greek by the Rev. John Evanglinides. and was understood by only a few of the gypsies. After the short service the gypsies crammed into three cars, and, led by the brass band playing Handel’s Dead March in Saul, the cortege wended its way slowly to Crown Street, where the band temporarily left the proceedings.
“The gypsies wanted the band to play all the way to Taylor Square, but we couldn’t allow that,” said Superintendent Lawrence. Two of the gypsies’ cars, one with engine trouble and another with a
flat tyre, were left at the starting point. At Rookwood Cemetery the band resumed its place at the head of the procession. As the coffin was being lowered a woman member of the tribe poured a bottle of wine over it. At a given signal all the others flung silver coins, and several clambered down to kiss the coffin. John Sterio, elder son of the late queen, overcome with emotion, threw himself at the coffin. During the graveside service, several gypsies smoked cigarettes, and one gypsy woman smoked a pipe. Cost of the funeral is estimated at £200. All the dead woman’s jewellery and trinkets were placed in her coffin.
Mass Burial at Rookwood.
One of Australia’s worst air disasters happened when a Royal Air Force transport plane crashed soon after taking off at Mascot Airport in 1945. Six crew and six passengers were killed. The R.A.F. official spokesman stated: An aircraft of R.A.F. Transport Command crashed shortly after the
take-off from Mascot at about 8 o’clock to.night. It is regretted that there are no survivors.
The Argus newspaper reported: There were tragic scenes at North Brighton, Sydney, as firemen and ambulance men, assisted by police, cleaved through the wreckage of the plane in search of the bodies Nearly all the victims appeared to have been incinerated, and some of the bodies were grotesquely mangled. Wreckage of the plane was strewn along the river for a distance of about 60 yards. The bridge itself, carrying a sewerage system, is only about 60ft long, but is surrounded by hundreds of acres of park land where the plane possibly could have made a safe landing.
The force of the impact on the concrete coping tore a huge gaping hole in it, and the undercarriage of the plane, after being torn to shreds by about 20 trees of huge girth, dived under the bridge. Occupants of the aircraft may have been killed before it burst into flames.
There was a general turnout of the fire brigade, but the men could do nothing until the fire subsided about an hour after the crash. Meanwhile hundreds of people crowded to the scene.
Victims of the R.A.F. plane crash at Mascot on Thursday night were buried at Rookwood. Each of the coffins, covered with the Union Jack, were buried simultaneously in the Church of England and Catholic sections of the war cemetery. Four chaplains officiated at the simple graveside ceremony, and the crowd of mourners, totalling,more than 2000, joined in the prayers.
Naval and Air Force officers provided an escort for each coffin, which arrived at the cemetery on R.A.A.F. tenders, and were preceded to the graveside by sailors with their arms reversed.
After the service a volley was fired over the graves, and naval and R.A.A.F. buglers sounded the ‘Last Post.’
Rookwood’s Dark Neighbour
A darker side of Rookwood was its neighbour – the Rookwood Asylum. In 1879 the government purchased 1300 acres and, although originally planned for a boy’s training institution, in 1893 it opened as Rookwood Asylum, which, because of the severe economic depression of the 1890s, became a home for infirm and destitute men and boys. In 1913 it became a State Hospital , and later an aged-care home and even later again, in 1966, it became Lidcombe Hospital.
During its darkest years many paupers from the Asylum and Sydney’s hospitals and benevolent institutions were buried in unmarked graves. Over 30,000 children, including many babies from Sydney hospitals and institutions were buried in unmarked communal graves. Today those children are remembered by an expansive garden – the Rookwood Circle of Love.
Rookwood’s Memorials to Australian Military Services
Within the vast grounds of Rookwood Cemetery there are several memorials to Australian men and women who served and died in war. Such memorials are important in the story of war because so many dead, by necessity, were buried where they died: makeshift graves, at sea, mass graves or, as in WW1, bodies were never recovered. For many families Rookwood’s memorials are the only place for grieving and remembrance.
The Sydney War Cemetery contains 732 Commonwealth burials and commemorations of the Second World War. Those members of the United Kingdom Forces who are buried in the cemetery died while prisoners of war in Japanese hands and were cremated. After the war the Army Graves Service arranged for their ashes to be brought by H.M.A.S. Newfoundland to Sydney for interment. Among the war graves is that of one civilian died while in the employment of the Admiralty during the war. There is also one French war grave.
The New South Wales Garden of Remembrance was constructed adjacent to the Sydney War Cemetery, within the Rookwood Necropolis, in the early 1960s. The Garden was expanded several times and in the late 1980s was completely redeveloped. The NSW Garden of Remembrance has a plaque capacity of 100,000 and has recently undergone structural works to provide more commemorative wall space. There are currently over 75,500 plaques displayed.
The NSW Cremation Memorial is within the building which forms the entrance to Sydney War Cemetery and commemorates by name men who died in New South Wales during the Second World War, and were accorded the last rite of cremation in various crematoria throughout the State. Their ashes were either scattered or are buried where proper commemoration is not possible. There are in all 199 names on the memorial.
In the rear corner of the war cemetery is the Sydney Memorial, which commemorates almost 750 men and women of the Australian Army, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Australian Merchant Navy who lost their lives during the Second World War in the eastern and southern regions of Australia, and in adjacent waters south of 20 degrees latitude, and have no known grave.
The Jewish War Memorial, situated in the Jewish section of Rookwood, is a flagstaff with a tablet at the base displaying the Star of David and an inscription reading: ‘In memory of those Jewish members of Commonwealth and allied armed forces who served in WW1, WW2, Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam’.
Merchant Navy Memorial. In the centre of Rookwood is a roofed columbarium of brick and wood construction set within a memorial garden. It is dedicated:
‘Erected to the memory of Members of the Merchant Navy who lost their lives through enemy action in World Wars I and II, many of whom were well known in the Port of Sydney and the burial or depositing of ashes of seamen of all nations. They that go down to the sea in ships these men see the works of the Lord... Psalm 107. Erected by the Merchant Navy War Memorial Appeal through the Sydney Mission to Seamen (‘The Flying Angel’) 1948’
Transcribing Rookwood’s Secrets.
All cemeteries have secrets. Headstones and other memorials often offer cryptic clues in tantalising stories that beg to be told. Genealogists study family history and the Society of Australian Genealogists (SAG) has been helping people trace family history for over 80 years. The historians and general members of SAG have worked closely with Rookwood Cemetery to unravel the stories hidden in cemetery record books and through a definitive headstone inscription program that commenced in 1981, with a Bicentennial Grant, and resulted in SAG and the Friends of Rookwood publishing ‘The Sleeping City’, a magnificent collection of histories associated with various aspects of the cemetery. Edited by David Weston and coordinated by Laurel Burge the book explains how dedicated ‘members of the Society, their families and friends, pulled on their sunhat and walking shoes and, armed with clipboards, pen and chalk, gave up their Sundays to go to Rookwood Cemetery to participate in the sometimes confusing, often amusing, but always rewarding task of preserving a part of this country’s history for the benefit of future Australians.’
Much of the Society’s research is now available online at www.sag.org.au including digitised editions of various historical journals, a MIDAS – Manuscript, Image & Digital Archive System and a zillion other search options. This online resource is a valuable tool whether you are searching family history or specific projects. Join them.