A call to preserve Australian History

By Suzannah Gaulke


Vandalism. Disgraceful Condition. Apple of Discord. Neglected Dead. Vaults in Ruins. A City’s Disgrace…[1] These are just some of the phrases used over the decades in news headlines about St. John’s Cemetery in Parramatta.

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The lych-gate entrance to St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Photo: Suzannah Gaulke @HideawayHistory (2016)

From as early as 1868, newspapers were calling attention to threats on the cemetery, with complaints ranging from vandalism to neglect. For over a century, Parramatta locals have made this call to take action, to remember their heritage, and to look after the final resting place of some of Australia’s earliest European settlers, including a total of over 50 First Fleeters, 17 of which have memorials. For this cemetery ‘is an immensely significant site…due to its links to the history of the British Empire and world convict history.’[2]

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I began looking into the history of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta in the media after receiving a news clipping from my fellow history student and blogger Lonely Beaches. Written in August 1970, the article entitled ‘Save Cemetery for the Nation’ presented a pretty sad and beaten picture of the cemetery: ‘Whisky and rum bottles…lay in a tomb which had been attacked by vandals’ and ‘tangled weeds and blackberries hide some of the graves,’ while epitaphs were ‘becoming worn and illegible and vaults’ were ‘collapsing.’[3] The article mentioned an appeal made by the Bishop in Parramatta, H. G. Begbie, to restore the cemetery; an appeal that was supported by the Cemetery Trust as well as members of the Parramatta Trust. But the article also called for the descendants of the people buried in St. John’s Cemetery to take action in the restoration by tending to their ancestors’ graves.[4] It was hoped a quick improvement of the cemetery’s condition would add weight to an appeal to the Federal and State governments as well as to the Parramatta City Council for annual maintenance grants.[5]

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“Save Cemetery for the Nation,” Advertiser (Parramatta, NSW: 1844-1995), Thursday 13 August 1970

As suggested above, the call to action in 1970 was nothing new.

One of the earliest complaints regarding the state of the cemetery presented in the ‘Media’ archive on the St. John’s Cemetery website is dated September 1868. This news clipping spoke of vandalism that had hit a number of churchyards at the time, including St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Reportedly, youths were plucking ‘flowers planted by bereaved relatives and friends’ prompting the journalist to warn that ‘the perpetrators of such wanton outrages were liable by law to severe punishment.’[6] The aim of this notice was to caution these youths of the consequences of these ‘barbarous acts’ and it is clear that the author hoped it would be enough to deter any subsequent vandalism.

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Parramatta. From Our Correspondent. Vandalism,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 – 1954), Friday 4 September 1868, p. 2

As the decades passed, though, St. John’s Cemetery continued to be described as being ‘in disgraceful condition’ and ‘so unsatisfactory as to give rise to much regret,’ as well as being, ‘to a large degree, in all stages of neglect and decay.’[7] In fact, comments such as these continued to be issues worthy of news space up until 2015; see, for example, Clarissa Bye’s article in the Parramatta Advertiser, ‘Historic St. John’s Cemetery at Parramatta in State of Neglect.’

revival-of-oldest-cemetery-2016In recent months, however, the site has finally taken a turn for the better with the formation of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta on Saturday 25 June 2016. The Friends of St. John’s Cemetery is a community organisation of Parramatta locals working to restore and preserve what is left of this history and to raise public awareness of this heritage site. Recent events hosted by the Friends, such as the St. John’s Cemetery Tour Day in July 2016, have sparked new interest in the site, especially among the local community, while the Community Working Bee on Saturday 29 October 2016 also saw the Friends ‘achieve a great deal.’[8] According to Judith Dunn OAM, Chair of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta:

‘The early birds started at 7:45am and the last ones left at 2:30pm. Everyone worked so hard in quite warm weather…5 trees on the southern wall were cut down; overhanging vegetation on the northern and western walls was cut back; a litter collection of the whole cemetery was completed; the large area of rubbish on the left-hand side of the entrance was cleared by hand as there were graves underneath so it could not be done by bobcat; all woody weeds in Sections Two and Four were poisoned; weep holes were uncovered and bricks moved to the side; loose bricks from the damaged northern wall were moved to storage at the stone pile and covered in plastic to prevent deterioration…’[9]

By the end of the day, there were ‘36 large bags of green waste, one wheelie bin full of beer/wine bottles etc. and one bag full of general litter including clothing, plastic bottles, tin cans, plastic bags, etc.’[10] Lots of work has been and will continue to be done. And it is paying off; the cemetery is now quite pleasant to visit.

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Maintenance is not enough, however, and the need for funding for restoration works and the proper telling of the cemetery’s history continues to be a prominent issue. The St. John’s Cemetery Project is working to give voice to the numerous stories of those buried in the cemetery; its first collection ‘St. John’s First Fleeters’ has been supported by grants from the Royal Australian Historical Society and Parramatta Council. New mediums such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are also being used to call for helping hands and funding, but the call remains the same as the one in newspapers all those years ago: ‘save the cemetery.’

What draws me to the issue of keeping an old cemetery tidy and presentable is the bigger issue that Australia has with its neglected history. A few years ago, I took a trip around Europe. I visited fourteen cities and towns in nine different countries and was overwhelmed by the amount of history that stood, plain as day, in every street. Everything from old buildings to tucked-away museums, to cobblestone roads — Europe’s vast and rich history is out in the open for anyone to see. While thousands of people travel to Europe every year to see its historical sites, few people realise how much Australia has to offer in this very department. There are more ‘plain as day’ sites in Australia than I realised until very recently.

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The Friends of St. John’s Cemetery Tour Day, July 2016. Photo: Julie Rusten

Much of this is simply because we are not taking full advantage of our country’s historical resources. An historic cemetery of this quality would be a popular tourist site in Europe, yet here in Australia it is unknown to tourists and Australians alike. St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta is a living testament to some of Australia’s earliest European history and can be quite a sight to behold on a sunny spring day. Within walking distance from Parramatta’s historic Parramatta Female Factory (yet another neglected historical site), and the Old Government House and Dairy Cottage in the World Heritage listed convict site Parramatta Park, the cemetery ‘is one of the jewels in Parramatta’s heritage crown’ and sits in a rich, historical area.[11] With the right resources, such as access to walking tours, good historical maps, clear modern signage and descriptions, etc., this area could provide tourists with a very similar experience to walking through some of the old towns in Europe. The call to ‘save the cemetery’ is not just a call for the Parramatta locals, but should be a call to Australians everywhere to save the history of this nation.

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St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Photo: Suzannah Gaulke @HideawayHistory

Suzannah Gaulke is an undergraduate student in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Suzannah is partnering with The St. John’s Cemetery Project and Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta as a volunteer research assistant in partial fulfilment of course requirements for the History Beyond the Classroom course, coordinated by Associate Professor Michael McDonnell @HstyMattersSyd.

Subscribe to Suzannah’s blog Hideaway HistoryYou can also follow @hideawayhistory on Facebook and Twitter.


NOTES

An earlier version of this post was published previously on my blog Hideaway History. Thanks to Michaela Ann Cameron for her edits and suggested addition of the working bee information to this post.

[1] “Parramatta. From Our Correspondent. Vandalism,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 – 1954), Friday 4 September 1868, p. 2; Old Chum, “Old Sydney, Parramatta Revisited: Jesse Hack. St. John’s Cemetery in a Disgraceful Condition. The Resting Place of Early Australian Pioneers. Alt’s Tomb. The Kendall and Michael Families,” Truth, (Brisbane, Qld.: 1900 – 1954), Sunday 3 April 1910, p. 11; “That Apple of Discord,Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, (Parramatta NSW: 1888-1950), Wednesday 14 October 1914, p. 2; “St. John’s Cemetery: Another Apple of Discord,” Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, (Parramatta NSW: 1888-1950), Wednesday 14 October 1914, p. 2; “Neglected Dead: Our Historic Cemetery: Graves in Shocking Condition,” Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, (Parramatta NSW: 1888-1950), Friday 28 October 1927, p. 4; “Historic Cemetery: Vaults in Ruins,” Sydney Morning Herald, (NSW: 1842 – 1954), Friday 14 October 1927, p. 16; “A City’s Disgrace: Vandals Destroy Tombs,” Cumberland Argus (Parramatta, NSW: 1950 – 1962), Wednesday 22 May 1957, p. 1.

[2] The Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta, “About – St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta, (http://stjohnscemetery.jimdo.com) accessed 28 October 2016.

[3] “Save Cemetery for the Nation,” Advertiser (Parramatta, NSW: 1844-1995), Thursday 13 August 1970.

[4] “Save Cemetery for the Nation,” Advertiser (Parramatta, NSW: 1844-1995), Thursday 13 August 1970.

[5] “Save Cemetery for the Nation,” Advertiser (Parramatta, NSW: 1844-1995), Thursday 13 August 1970.

[6]Parramatta. From Our Correspondent. Vandalism,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 – 1954), Friday 4 September 1868, p. 2.

[7] Old Chum, “Old Sydney, Parramatta Revisited: Jesse Hack. St. John’s Cemetery in a Disgraceful Condition. The Resting Place of Early Australian Pioneers. Alt’s Tomb. The Kendall and Michael Families,” Truth (Brisbane, Qld: 1900 – 1954), Sunday 3 April 1910, p. 11; “St. John’s Cemetery: Another Apple of Discord,” Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, (Parramatta NSW: 1888-1950), Wednesday 14 October 1914, p. 2; William Freame, “Among the Tombs: St. John’s Cemetery,” Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, (Parramatta NSW: 1888-1950), p. 4.

[8] Judith Dunn OAM, “Thank you from the Chair of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” Saturday 29 October 2016.

[9] Judith Dunn OAM, “Thank you from the Chair of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” Saturday 29 October 2016.

[10] Judith Dunn OAM, “Thank you from the Chair of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” Saturday 29 October 2016.

[11] The Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta, “About – St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta, http://stjohnscemetery.jimdo.com/about-1/, accessed 28 October 2016.

By Suzannah Gaulke

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I was having a conversation with my grandfather over the weekend about the work I have been, and will be, doing for St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. When I mentioned that I would be writing a biography of a convict buried in the cemetery for The St. John’s Cemetery Project, he inquired as to whether there could be enough information to write about a common individual. I explained that there is often a lot of information to be found in official records. But then he asked about what more I would say after presenting the simple facts of a trial, transportation, and death.

How could I possibly write a biography that is deep enough and interesting enough to capture and hold a reader’s attention?

This got me thinking about how history is more than just presenting facts. It’s about the writing. It’s about the story. The multitude of stories. History is not just one continuous story, it’s more like a room full of strings. You pick a thread and follow it along to see where it goes. And there are plenty of strings following off from that thread, each with their own stories, told in their own ways.

img_3872Over the last couple of months, I have been working on compiling lists of the Female Factory inmates and their children who died at the Factory and are buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. I began by going through the photos of each page in the burial records. I would scroll through each page, looking over the quality or profession column for the golden words “Convict; Factory.” The first time I found those words it was a moment of excitement. After scrolling through almost four years of nothing about the Female Factory, seeing those magical words marked the beginning for me. I then took the information from each cell in the records and wrote it into the word document set up purely for recording all the information about those buried in the cemetery and connected to the Female Factory.

Then came the fun experience of deciphering the handwriting. I have some experience in reading bad handwriting every time my birthday comes around and I try to read the birthday wishes of some of my older relatives, but as I tried to read the names and numbers scrawled in the records I realised how much I relied on context to guess the words. Trying to read a word by itself is much more difficult. You have to try to decipher each letter while also putting it in context with the rest of the word. There is also the spelling, which is astonishingly bad at times. After going through name after name and place after place, you suddenly realise that you can’t seem to work out any words anymore and you end up spending ages on single words, writing down letter by letter the word you think is there before finally moving on to the next word. It’s only when you come back to the page the next day that you realise you were looking too close and that the name now reads more clearly than ever.

img_3879There’s nothing more satisfying then solving a word though. After staring at the same name for a number of minutes – looking at it from different angles, trying to work out each letter individually to put together some sort of coherent name – striking the Eureka!! moment comes with great excitement and relief. I was surprised at how much I have enjoyed doing these lists. I knew they wouldn’t be boring, because like cemeteries each name is a thread of history and just the possibilities of what lies along those strings intrigues me to no end. Because behind every name, ship and date is an entire life. Not always a long life, but always a story sitting along that thread.

After going through the burial records, there are always plenty of gaps in the lists. Then comes the task of trying to fill in those gaps. At this point, I turn to the internet (the place of infinite answers), specifically the Claim a Convict website.

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The Claim a Convict site helps to fill in some of the gaps left by the records, especially the ships that individuals came to Australia on or confirming the identity of the mothers of children buried in the cemetery. It generally has more detail than the records and is certainly much easier to read! This extra level of research really fills in the lists and it always feels good to find that missing piece, but it can often lead to more questions. There are times when the gap is so big, it could potentially be filled with a number of pieces. At that point, all you can do is write down the possibilities, and hope that later down the track you will have time to dig a little deeper. And that the information you need is still out there.

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It’s always amazing what stories are told with the little information found on the records. For instance, the recurrence of names never ceases to amaze me. The number of Margarets, Marys, Elizabeths and Anns dominate the pages and show how popular those names were, not to mention how they have survived through the ages. And the different ages of each individual spark the imagination as I think over what kind of life they led, or what sort of person they were before they died. You end up thinking about what they did with their lives, what they thought of their lives, what they thought they would do with their lives. And for the children, you think about their mothers, about how many children they had lost, about whether they had more children, about what the rest of their life was like.

The records have been fun to look through and they have certainly highlighted to me how the smallest amount of history can tell a story and how many stories are out there. Each person has a history and there’s a lot more recorded than we realise. These convicts, given a sentence likened to death, have more left about them than they probably ever thought there would be. Each story can be found, and though they will never be complete, the names in these records will always be available, right next to their list of crimes. History is never black and white, nor is it ever just the recitation of facts. There is embellishment – historians have to fill the gaps somehow – and there is definitely an agenda with every article, book or show talking about history. But that’s what history is; it’s the telling and retelling of past events in a way that will capture the audience’s attention. In the end, history is simply a form of storytelling.

Suzannah Gaulke is an undergraduate student in the Department of History at the University of Sydney and is volunteering as an intern with SJCP for the next few months in partial fulfilment of her course requirements.

Subscribe to Suzannah’s blog Hideaway HistoryYou can also follow @hideawayhistory on Facebook and Twitter.

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