ROOKWOOD CEMETERY MORTUARY RAILWAY
The railway has been intrinsically linked to the story of Rookwood Cemetery.
The first New South Wales railway line, 14 miles from Sydney to Parramatta, opened with great celebration in 1855 and proved to be a deciding factor in the Colonial Government’s ultimate decision, in 1861, to purchase over 200 acres of the Liberty Plains estate to establish a grand cemetery, a necropolis, to serve the rapidly expanding colony, and, at the same time, with a keen eye on the future.
The Rookwood mortuary train, a branch of the Sydney to Parramatta line, commenced with the consecration of the new cemetery one hundred and fifty year’s ago, in 1867, and operated for over 80 years, until 1948. It’s first spur-line, commenced in 1865, and was a short link from Haslem’s Creek station into the cemetery grounds.
This was the golden era of steam where the railway was seen as a wonder, and an experience never to be forgotten. It was also practical for a burial ground some 17 kilometres from Sydney central and the mortuary railway transported millions to what is now recognised as the largest, most important, Victorian-era necropolis in the southern hemisphere.
Initially, from 1865, the mortuary train ran from the Redfern Sydney Terminus. In 1867 the railway commission announced a twice daily service from Sydney’s Central Station No. 1 , which, by prior arrangement, could stop at stations along the way to collect corpses and mourners. Return tickets were one shilling. Corpses travelled free. It was also possible to hire a special train in addition to joining the regular passenger service.
The most important building of the mortuary railway was the Necropolis Receiving House, or Mortuary Station, Regent Street, which opened in 1869. Reflecting the ornate style of Victorian funerals it was an impressive Gothic building, designed by the Colonial Architect, James Barnett, and featured Sydney sandstone with distinctive carvings of angels, cherubs, flowers and fruits. It was far more dignified than the Railway’s usual construction of timber and corrugated iron.
The mortuary train was identified with a sign ‘Funeral’ on the front of the loco and the hearse carriages were attached to its rear. There were two types of hearse carriage, an eight wheeled van accomodating up to 30 corpses, and a smaller, 4 wheeled van for 10 corpses. Mourners, travelling in the passenger carriages, were politely referred to as ‘friends’ and, by all accounts, securing a seat on the crowded trains was difficult and almost impossible on Sundays and special days like Mother’s Day.
The trains, typically with twelve carriages, were often so overcrowded that a newspaper in 1920 declared, “The funeral trains which leave Sydney twice each day, carry their freight of living and dead, however, little consideration is shown to the dead, but none to the living. Conditions exist to-day which have been in vogue since the opening of the railway line to the great cemetery at Rookwood, though vast improvements have been carried out in our railway system. Of all the trains, we may well suppose, there is none which pays more handsomely than the funeral train. How many thousands have now been carried by it to their last resting-place, and how many millions of mourners have accompanied them on this last sad journey. And yet this train is one of the greatest blots on our railway system. When, after a long, weary journey, it reaches Lidcombe, it is shunted on to a siding, and left standing while the engine is very leisurely taken off and changed to the other end. The same performance is repeated on returning. This is really a refinement of cruelty, senseless in its inception, unpardonable in its continuance.”
Rookwood covers an extremely large landscaped area and four stations were constructed on site. Mortuary Station Receiving House no. 1, previously the Haslem’s Creek Cemetery Station, was the main stop and the most ornate building. Like Regent Street it was sandstone with Gothic design. It had a bell which sounded out across the cemetery 30 minutes prior to the return trip to Sydney.
Mortuary Station No. 2 serviced the Roman Catholic and Jewish cemeteries. Mortuary Stations No. 3 and 4 were smaller and relatively basic in design and facilities.
The last trains that ran funeral processions all but ceased in the late 1930’s.
Following this they were only used for visitors on Sundays and Mother’s Day. The service was briefly revived during World War II during the lean years of petrol rationing, however, transportation had changed and buses and motor vehicles ruled the roads.
The last railway timetable was recorded in 1947 and read Sydney 2.17pm to Strathfield 2.33pm to Rookwood #1, 2.50pm.
On the 3rd of April, 1948 the mortuary train service was officially terminated and the rail tracks unceremoniously pulled up. The spur was recorded as closed on the 29th December 1948.
The Rookwood Mortuary line is testament to the heritage of New South Wales Rail from small steam locomotives through to fast electric trains. It was literally the last journey for many passengers and the railway was a fitting partner to the grand Rookwood City of the Dead.
FREE TRAIN TRIPS
Sun 18 May 1930
The Great Depression hit Australia in 1930 and it hit exceedingly hard. Many people could not even afford the price of a bag of apples let alone a train ticket. ‘Riding the rattler’, a term popular in Australia, saw many desperate people sneaking onto public transport for a free ride.
Officials tricked by aged joy-riders. (Sydney Sun. 18 May 1930) A novel way to secure a joy-ride was demonstrated this week by a 70-year-old Sydney man, who had spent his pension and was broke. He went to the Board of Health and said he was destitute and ill, and asked for a pass to the Lldcombe State Hospital. This was given him, and he caught the train to Lidcombe and the four- wheeler from there to the hospital. Once in the hospital grounds he dashed away. Attendants caught him and brought him before the medical officer. Questioned, he said there was nothing wrong with him, but he had had no money, and felt like having a trip somewhere, and had thought of this method of obtaining it. Some time ago, it was revealed, he had used this method of getting to Rookwood cemetery without paying. He used to go to the Board of Health, secure a free rail way pass, travel to Lidcombe station, and then walk the half-mile to his wife’s grave. He would spend the day there tending it carefully, and then would secure a ride back to the city from a lorry travelling along the Parramatta-road.
THE BODY ON THE BUS
The Mortuary Railway link line to the Rookwood Necropolis was opened as part of the Sydney to Parramatta railway line in 1869 however, before the advent of motorised vehicles deceased bodies were transported, like the living, in horse and cattle drays. Whilst undertakers were engaged to transport most coffins to the Mortuary Receiving House, Regent street, Central Railway, some families made their own arrangements. The following letter to the Herald ( located in the Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser 22 Jun 1877) tells of a surprising case
Sanatorium writes to the ‘Herald’:—
Last Wednesday afternoon something quite of a novel character might have been witnessed at the Sydney Mortuary. At the time fixed for the despatch of the funeral train for Rookwood, an omnibus marked “Woolloomooloo,” and numbered “32,” was driven up, and from it emerged several mourners ; a coffin was next taken out of the bus, conveyed to the platform, and placed in the usual van. Much surprise was evinced at this strange proceeding, and I venture to ask if omnibuses are allowed to be used as hearses. And, as not long since these vehicles were prohibited from carrying baskets containing soiled linen, I should think it equally necessary, as a safeguard to public health, that their licenses to “carry passengers” should not apply to both the “quick and the dead.”
Famed music retailer W. Paling was also a composer and this Railway Waltz was composed to celebrate the opening of the Sydney to parramatta Railway. Paling went on to establish a chain of music stores.
A CRUEL SCANDAL – THE MORTUARY TRAIN
The following rather hysterical rant comes from the Catholic Press 12 August 1920.
In these days of reform, when everyone and everything is considered, one very glaring defect has been overlooked by both people and Government, until a state of things exists bordering on a scandal. We refer to the funeral trains which leave Sydney twice each day, carrying their freight
of living and dead. Little consideration is shown to the dead, but none to the living.
Conditions exist to-day which have been in vogue since the opening of the railway line to the great cemetery at Rookwood, though vast improvements have been carried out in our railway system. Some little, attempt has been made of late to improve the funeral train service on Saturdays, but that is all. Of all the trains, we may well suppose, there is none which pays more handsomely than the funeral train. How many thousands have now been carried by it to their, last resting-place, or how many millions of mourners have accompanied them on this last sad journey, would take some reckoning. And yet this train is one of the greatest blots on our railway system. When, after a long, weary journey, it reaches Lidcombe, it is shunted on to a siding, and left standing while the engine is very leisurely taken off and changed to the other end.
The same performance is repeated on returning. This is really a refinement of cruelty, senseless in its inception, unpardonable in its continuance.
Let us look at the thing as it stands. The cemetery is 12 miles from Sydney; the majority of the dead of Sydney are buried there. A train leaves twice daily, morning and afternoon. This train is generally well-filled before leaving Sydney. It stops wherever required, to pick up, which means that it is practically an all-station stopper. Mourners from the suburban stations have to crush in as best they can. The train is held up for 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour at Strathfield while tickets are collected. A stop is made at Rookwood (Necropolis), which could be cut out, and served just as well from No. 1 Mortuary Station. We have known times when it has taken the train 40 minutes to get from the Necropolis to No. 1 Mortuary Station — a distance by rail of two miles.
We all know that when death comes it is sad. The strain during the last days of sickness is followed by the preparation for the interment, the sad, heart-rucking scenes on the closing of the coffin, and the starting of the funeral. The very mention of these details is a nightmare to many. The people — the women, whom we consider first — become more composed after a while, then, as the train drags on and nears the cemetery, the graves with their headstones appear.
The mourners are worked up again in anticipation of the further ordeal at the graveside. Every moment makes the suspense more painful and more awful, but when the train is held there shunting and waiting mid changing for 20, 80 or 40 minutes, is not this a cruelty which amounts to a scandal, and all the more because the people are too sorrow-stricken to notice the cause of this unnecessary suspense. Then, again, when the sorrows of the graveside, with all their harrowing details, are over, to have to go through the same thing – being kept in sight of the tombstones in a stuffy railway car, is a double cruelty. This has been going on ever since the cemetery line was extended. During the last few years, miles of rail have boon laid round about the cemetery, rails to the Abattoirs, rails to the brickworks, rails to the cattle yards — but never a thought of improving the line which, day after day, carries the saddest freight it is possible to conceive — the living with the dead. Day by day we hear the pulling, pulling, shunting, starting and stopping of the funeral train, and no one thinks that perhaps of those on board some of the tears could be dried, some of the hysterical cries could be stilled, by a little thoughtful consideration by the Railway Commissioners.
The Central Railway to Rookwood Mortuary Railway closed in 1948
All Aboard The Mortuary Train – Corpses Ride Free
The Sydney to Rookwood train was a vital part of the Rookwood cemetery’s early history transporting corpses and mourners on a daily basis. The Sydney Mortuary Station opened in June 1869 and became known as Regent Street Station however it was popularly referred to as the Mortuary Station or Cemetery Station. The train ran to the Rookwood Receiving House Station in the centre of the cemetery. Because of the size of the necropolis there were three other rail stations at Rookwood. In 1867 The Sydney Morning Herald announced a twice daily service from Sydney’s Central Station No. 1 stopping at stations along the way to collect mourners. Return tickets were one shilling each way. Corpses travelled free.
Regent Street and the Receiving House were designed by colonial architect James Barnet using elements from the Venetian 13th century Gothic style. Principal sculptors Thomas Ducket and Henry Apperly worked on the elaborate carvings that were a feature of the stations, including angels, cherubs, and gargoyles.
The last trains that ran funeral processions all but ceased in the late 1930s. Following this, they were only used for visitors on Sundays and Mother’s Day. The service was briefly revived during World War II during petrol rationing. The last railway timetable was recorded in 1947 and read Sydney 2.17 p.m. to Strathfield 2.33 p.m. to Rookwood #1, 2.50 p.m.
On 3 April 1948, the service was officially terminated with the spur recorded as closed on 29 December 1948. Within Rookwood one can find headstones for some of the railway’s key figures. The first locomotive driver, William Sixsmith,Samuel Twiss, driver of the first paying passenger train, and James Robinson, first guard of the NSW railways.
The first railway in Australia, undertaken by the Sydney Railway Company, was commenced on July, 30, 1850, to run between Sydney and Parramatta. Many said it was doomed to failure because of the cost and relatively small population of the colony. The 14 miles of rail track took a staggering five years to complete and created mayhem in both private and government circles. Established by a private railway developer the company simply could not retain its workforce despite ‘importing’ thousands of navvies from Britain. As soon as these men of the axe, pick and shovel, heard a whisper about ‘free labourers’ and the possibility of gold – they downed tools and literally walked off the job and started walking to the State’s central west diggings. In one year over 500 imported labourers hot-footed it to the goldfields.
When the Sydney-Parramatta railway was eventually opened on the 26th September 1955, Englishman William Sexsmith, was at the locomotive’s controls. Early that morning Governor Denison and various colonial officials travelled by the train through bushland to the far outpost of Parramatta. The train snaked its way back and forth all day completing a final run at 11pm when Sexsmith drove the celebrating navvies who had worked on the railway. The first railway ticket ever sold in New South Wales was purchased by Mr. Thomas Day, a well-known boat builder of Sydney. He went up to the station early and waited two hours in front of the ticket office before he got what he wanted – the ticket marked ‘number one’”
The first locomotive driver in New South Wales, William Sixsmith, is buried at Rookwood Cemetery