The Old Sydney Burial Ground is a fascinating part of Sydney’s heritage. It has a colourful history, even being labelled a “disgrace to the city” by one Mayor during the 1860’s. What makes this site so interesting is the possibility of new evidence being found at the site as it hasn’t yet been totally excavated. This is primarily because the Old Sydney Burial Ground is now Town Hall, in the very centre of Sydney on George Street.
The Burial Ground was first used in 1792, and then expanded in 1812. It was active for 27 years, during which time it was never actually formally gazetted. Not much about the Burial Ground was formal. No official register of burials was ever kept, it also had no denominational divisions. As it was administered by the Church of England, everybody was buried with Church of England rites regardless of religion.
It closed down in 1820 and abandoned in favour of Devonshire Street Cemetery which was opened in 1819 and located where Central Station stands today. Due to the poor burial practices when the cemetery closed down there were complaints of effluvium rising through the soil. It’s poor reputation continued with sightings of cattle wandering through the ground causing incidental damage and reports that many men considered the Burial Ground as a very large, public lavatory. It was also subject to frequent grave robbings. The land was not transferred over for the building of Town Hall until 1869 so the cemetery remained in this state for almost 50 years.
After the land was transferred, workers began exhuming the bodies to be moved to then recently opened Rookwood Necropolis (opened 1865). Most of the bodies were re-buried in unmarked graves. This was because there were such scant records but also the task of moving the headstones was too great at the time. A sandstone monument was erected that memorialises those re-interred, but does not inscribe the names of those moved. Since the Burial ground finally closed and Town Hall was built over the top, there have been excavations uncovering tombstones, coffins and even skeletal remains of those left behind when the transfer took place. Some new sections of the sanctuary were excavated as recently as 2007.
The remains are still in-situ and Town Hall still goes about its business above and around the site. It will be interesting to see if more remains are found that can give clues to how these early convicts lived. It is safe to assume that the majority of convicts who died in the early days of colonised Sydney were buried here, and therefore there is much that can be learned from a site such as this.
References and Links
Lowe, A. & MacKay, R. 1992. ‘Old Sydney Burial Ground’. Australasian Historical Archaeology 10:15-23.