Old Sydney Burial Ground

Dating back to the 1790s, the site is commonly called the Old Sydney Burial Ground.

It is also known as the George Street Burial Ground, the Cathedral Close Cemetery and, retrospectively, the Town Hall Cemetery.

Image: John Rae, “George Street looking north, showing Jewish Synagogue, Police Officers, the Markets, Old Burial Ground, now the site of Town Hall”, 1842, City of Sydney Civic Collection 1989.123

The site, on the outskirts of town, was chosen by Governor Phillip and the Reverend Richard Johnson in September 1792.

It was decided this place would not affect the health of the living and could remain a place of quiet seclusion.

The old burial ground was used for 27 years, yet its management was ad hoc. It was not formally gazetted as a burial ground, no trustees were appointed while the cemetery was active and it was apparently not consecrated.

The Church of England clergy officiated at funerals. Still, according to the Reverend William Cowper, “the dead of all communions were interred indiscriminately” and no formal cemetery register or plan of the burials was kept.

The cemetery buried convicts and free people. There were no apparent denominational divisions but some social distinctions were maintained. Early Sydney residents recalled that the military were buried in different parts of the cemetery.

By 1820 the cemetery was full so a new burial ground was set aside on Brickfield Hill – now the site of Central railway station. Some vaults and graves were opened and the corpses and sepulchre deposited in the new burial ground.

Once closed, the cemetery was neglected. By 1837 many of the headstones had been vandalised. The cemetery became “a resort for bad characters at night” and by day stray pigs, goats and horses wandered among the graves, many of which lay open.

Unpleasant smells arising from the grounds became unbearable in hot weather. Many blamed clandestine burials and grave robbers opening graves to steal leaden coffins. It was also recorded in a committee report that men utilised the old burial ground to answer the call of nature.

Given the lack of public interest in maintaining the cemetery, it is not surprising the City of Sydney decided to instead use the site for its Town Hall. However, political difficulties and public opposition to disturbing graves meant the colonial government offered other sites to the council, including George Street Markets, the police office, the old Government House site and Hyde Park. So for more than 30 years, the council met in various pubs and buildings around town.

In 1865 the council once again applied for a grant of a portion of the old burial ground. This time the colonial government agreed and part of the cemetery was formally transferred to the City of Sydney in 1869 for the construction of the Sydney Town Hall.

Devonshire Street Cemetery

In 1820, Governor Macquarie ordered the consecration of the Devonshire Street Cemetery. The burial ground was set aside on Brickfield Hill.  These cemeteries were the principal burial grounds from 1820 to 1866 in Sydney and they were often called the Sandhills Cemetery, a colloquial name found on some death certificates which reflects the land at the edge of Surry Hills.

Devonshire Cemetery 1932

A brick wall was erected before any interments took place to enclose its 4 acres (1.6 hectares). Within a four-year period, the cemetery was expanded by the addition of 7 acres (2.8 hectares) to its south. A road was formed along the southern boundary of the cemetery in the first half of the 1830s and was called Devonshire Street. The Devonshire Street Cemetery, where many of the early settlers were buried, was later moved to build the Sydney railway terminus.

In 1901, the cemetery was resumed to allow for the development of Central railway station, Sydney and representatives of deceased persons buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery were given two months to arrange for exhumation and removal of remains from the cemetery.  All reasonable costs were borne by the Government of New South Wales.

Central railway station was opened on 4 August 1906.  

Note:  Isaac Nichols, convict, farmer, shipowner, public servant, Australia’s first postmaster and original owner of Yaralla Estate was buried here.

Dead & Buried:  Curious history of Sydney’s earliest burial grounds.

The author of Dead & Buried, Warren Fahey, will be our guest speaker on Saturday, 7th July at 1:30 for 2:00 pm prompt start at the City of Canada Bay Museum.

Cemeteries hold so many fascinating stories and Sydney’s three main cemeteries – The Old Burial Ground on George Street, Devonshire Street Cemetery and the grand Rookwood Cemetery – all document the social history of Sydney from the arrival of the First Fleet through to the present time. 

These are stories of notable and ordinary people, the high and the low, of architecture, landscaping, and the ever-changing attitude to burial and remembrance. This collection of stories attempts to explain how the three early cemeteries evolved and, considering Rookwood is the largest Victorian necropolis in the southern hemisphere, and one of the largest in the world, how it has serviced Sydney for over 155 years. 

These are not morbid stories but a reminder of the mortality we all face. Many of the stories are from newspaper accounts and obituaries. There are also many stories behind the stories where the writer has diverted from the main story to reveal fascinating glimpses of Sydney streets and society. 

As a slice of Sydney’s past, the material concentrates on the earlier side of history with tales of colonial notables, sensational murders, tragedies, poets and politicians, artists and dreamers, gallant heroes and, because it is a Sydney history, a goodly number of eccentrics, ratbags and rabble-rousers. The collection also represents the religious, non-religious and cultural diversity of Sydney. 

Determining names to include became a personal choice and with well over a million burials across the three cemeteries, there definitely was no shortage of notable people – famous and infamous. This collection is much like a cemetery in as much as it is widely representative and, with nearly 800 pages, a generous slice of Sydney’s history. 


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