Old Sydney Burial Ground: From Necropolis to Metropolis

by Lauren Piggott

Devonshire Street Cemetery, now the site of Central Railway Station Source: Royal Australian Historical Society

Devonshire Street Cemetery, now the site of Central Railway Station
Source: Royal Australian Historical Society

Ever had a cold chill or unsettling feeling of something spooky at Central or Town Hall station? For the cynics among us, you may be surprised to find that long before Sydney had railway stations, these sites were home to Sydney’s first cemeteries. Our current Town Hall stands on the first official cemetery where convicts and respected citizens were buried alongside each other.

In 1792, what is now considered the city centre was then the ‘outskirts of town’ and was used to bury those who died in Sydney within the first three decades of European settlement. The mystery of Old Sydney Burial Ground comes from the fact that there were no formal registers or records of who was buried here, leaving it to dedicated historians to uncover.

Discoveries included famous businessman Thomas Reiby, whose wife Mary Reiby’s face features on the $20 note, James Bloodsworth was a previous convict who built most of the colony when European settlers arrived, and died a free man, John Putland, son-in-law of Governor Bligh, was another respected man buried in a grave at the Old Sydney Burial Ground. These men were buried alongside convicts and children, such as the five year old girl who fell down a well, the 11-year-old girl who burned to death trying to boil a kettle and two young convicts who died while chopping wood and being struck by lightning. These causes of death show a different time and how death was much more common than it is today.

Because of this, this graveyard filled quickly. By 1820, the cemetery was completely overcrowded and a new burial ground was created at Brickfield Hill, which would later become the site of Central Railway Station. Once the Old Sydney Burial Ground was abandoned, it became rundown and derelict. Graves were vandalised and robbed, and due to the incorrect procedures of burial, unpleasant smells began to rise from the ground. It was deemed as a threat to public health and so it was decided in 1865 that the burial ground would be exhumed and become the location for Sydney’s Town Hall.

Construction of the new Town Hall began in 1869 and graves were to be taken elsewhere, such as to the new Necropolis at Haslem’s Creek, which is today known as the largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere, Rookwood Cemetery. However, the initial excavation was not done properly, as coffins, tombs, headstones and skeleton bones were continuously found throughout the 19th and 20th century and into the 21st century whenever Town Hall went under construction.

Despite all the discoveries, it was only two years ago that there were warnings that construction of Sydney’s new light rail could lead to uncovering more bodies.

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