Sunday, September 18, 2005

History Week #1 - Green Fatty Matter

Went off to a talk about cemeteries yesterday. It was excellent. Nice big slides and plenty of factual facts and juicy stories.

It was at Customs House. Which is directly opposite when you get off the train at Circular Quay. Square old place, built in 1885, big tall windows and high ceilings.

Customs House

(Customs House is the small red bit on the left. The red line next to it is the train station at Circular Quay. The red bit in the top right corner is part of the Coathanger (Sydney Harbour Bridge) and the red bit in the bottom right corner is the Sydney Opera House.)

The talk was about the history of Sydney's cemeteries. You're thinking, Y-a-w-n. But not so. It was all tales of dodgy burials, wandering livestock, grave-robbing, strange stinks and beer.

In the first five years of the colony it was chaos. Peeps were buried pretty much where-ever and there was no Health Department making sure they got six feet under.

After that it was George Street. Where the Town Hall is now. When they built the Town Hall they dug up the bodies and moved them to new graveyards like Devonshire Street. But they didn't get all of them. Pretty much every time there's some work done below ground at Town Hall they turn up some more bodies. Cool! In a creepy sorta way.

There was some talk about how overcrowded and stinky the George Street graveyard got. The people at the time complained about hideous smells coming from it. Plus it was right in the middle of town and the land would've been useful for buildings and shit. So eventually it got the Town Hall built on it. The bodies they dug up got shipped off to other cemetries to be buried again and some of them went to the new cemetery on the new outskirts of town. Devonshire Street. Which wasn't the outskirts for long and has had Central train station on it since 1855. Government planning 'twas ever thus.

Anyways. Can't remember if it was the George Street cemetery that was being used as an outdoor loo (toilet) at night or if it was Deveonshire Street. Blokes wandering through there late at night were crapping in the shallower graves apparently. Gross.
There was also some digging up of coffins to nick the lead linings to sell. Don't suppose the grave-robbers stoped to re-bury the bodies either.

Devonshire Street was nice when it opened. Pleasant site, views over the city, nicely laid out rows and so on. But it got pretty crowded pretty quick and worrying whiffs started emanating from there too. By the time it was closed in 1867 there was somewhere between 38,000 and 58,000 peeps buried there and some of them were way too close to the surface.

Camperdown I've got down in my notes as doing business from 1849 to 1867. It's on Church Street and there's St Stephen's church next to it. It used to be a lot bigger. It's only 4 acres now and when it was cut down to that there were no exhumations. There's some festival held on the park that used to be part of the cemetery.

General Cemeteries Act was passed in 1847. Just as well. There was the strange smells problem still going on and one of the cemeteries had "a green fatty matter" in the water running off from it. Gross. The Act was all about where bodies could be buried (not where green fatty matter can get into the water that ends up as drinking water), how (six feet under, special methods for some diseases) and how many (not too close together, keeping proper records). No doubt there's a stack of other stuff in the Act. Can't find it on the net. Pity. It'd make interesting reading. Not for the squeamish though, I expect.

Rookwood's my favourite cemetery. I like the Victorian part. That's the old bit you can see from the train. Get off at Lidcombe station and go up East Street about a hundred yards and there's the gates. They've got their Open Day on today actually. Love the way peeps look when you say 'cemetery' and 'open day' in the same sentence. You get to go into the Fraser Mausoleum. Don't worry, it's empty now. Nice building. Black and white tiled floor if I remember right. Could be marble, can't remember. Tiny high windows letting in a nice light.

Anyways, it's just as well they opened Rookwood when they did. There was a measles epidemic that year in Sydney and they had to bury a lot of kids. There was another epidemic a few years later. Can't remember which epidemic this particular grave is from. It's a family grave. Nothing flash. It's on one of the Friends of Rookwood tours because most of the family was buried there inside a year. One parent and six or seven of their kids. All from one epidemic. Shit.

At the end of the talk there was a bit of a reading list and the room we were in was filled with the sound of scribbling pens. From the socialising round the urn afterwards I got the impression half the audience was in COSHA (City of Sydney Historical Association). Grabbed a newsletter and a membership form. They look like a useful crowd to join. They do talks and tours of the streets and so on. Right up my alley re my 19th century Sydney walkies.

After tea and a bikkie (biscuit) I wandered off to find the model of Sydney. I was expecting to find one of those models on a table like you see when some corporation is building some massive new skyscraper. But it was under the floor in the foyer. Good spot for it.

It was handy to see Sydney like that. I could see more clearly where I'd be starting my 19th century explorations. Can't hardly wait.


Suzanne said...

Love the way peeps look when you say 'cemetery' and 'open day' in the same sentence.

LOL. Made me snort red wine out me nose (and that's a first - it's almost always coffee.) Feeling better, then? Nothing like contemplating "green fatty matter" to make you less nauseous - er, no, that can't be right. Sounds like a really well done lecture.

Spike said...


There was a bit of a ripple of giggly horror through the audience at the gross bits.

It was indeed well done and I'm off to some more of their walks and talks post-Hist Week.

Feeling a bit better TYVM. Not so much of the chunderousness around breakfast. Nobody misses that :)