One of my writing projects this year has been a biography of Sarah Bell, an Irish immigrant to colonial New South Wales who worked as the Matron of the Parramatta Female Factory between 1836 and 1843. My biography forms part of the St John’s Cemetery Project, an online database for Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery.
The grave of Sarah Bell in Section I, Row E, No.8, St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Photo: Jennifer McLaren, 2019.
Researching the lives of women in the past is challenging. During her tenure at the Factory, Sarah was a visible presence in the archives. As Matron, she was one of only a small number of women in the early colony of New South Wales with an official government role and salary. I managed to track her time at the Factory from government records and newspaper articles without too much trouble. Most of these documents (some…
St. John’s Cemetery Project is extremely fortunate to have Macquarie University PhD candidate Abbie Hartman as an intern. Abbie is an interdisciplinary historian of Public and Applied history whose work focuses on the public’s consumption of history and how the influence of media can shape and change this.
Her PhD thesis, ‘When This is All Over and the War is Won They Will Remember Us’: Public History, War and the Power of Memorialisation in Games, her Masters thesis completed in 2017, and several other projects she is working on examine how the general public understands and remembers conflict. As Abbie’s research has already uncovered, many young people currently studying history at the tertiary level report that their strong interest in history was initially sparked by the historical subject matter in video games they had played. For anyone who may question the relevance and value of the past and history as a field of inquiry in a rapidly changing world, Abbie’s findings are a reminder that history and ‘new media’ are by no means strange bedfellows. Indeed, her work confirms that the digital arena generally offers historians so many new, creative, fresh options in terms of how we can communicate our work to a wider audience than traditional textual histories have been able to reach.
One of Create NSW’sArts and Cultural Development Program (ACDP) Priority Areas is in fact engaging young people. On the whole, the St. John’s Cemetery Project aims to do this by (1) presenting historical content in an accessible, non-commercial, multimodal digital arena and (2) extending the reach of that content via social media platforms. Social media in particular allows the material funded by Create NSW in the upcoming collection on “Old Parramattans” buried at St. John’s to engage not only older generations who are already well aware of the significance of the cemetery and the historical treasures it holds, but also has greater potential to “enter the feeds” and hopefully capture the attention of a younger demographic who have not had an opportunity to encounter Parramatta’s rich history and heritage sites. The internship itself is, likewise, a way the project is engaging one particular young person in the project and giving a young academic specifically the opportunity to apply her historical skills and build her academic C.V. with practical experience in a real life public history project.
Abbie’s expertise in public history and how best to inform the general public about their local and national histories via digitisation clearly makes her a real asset to SJO but, as Abbie herself notes, the opportunity is definitely mutually beneficial:
“The St. John’s Cemetery Project internship is the perfect opportunity to explore the theoretical frameworks I have been studying and apply them to a real life situation. In addition to this, I will be able to bring my expertise in digital history to the project to bring the forgotten stories of St. John’s Cemetery back to the forefront of public consciousness. Overall, Parramatta is a place which I hold dear to my heart and spent a lot of time in during my childhood. I would love to give back to the community which has always made me feel so welcome.”
During her internship Abbie will be flexing her research muscles and immersing herself in digital archives as a database content developer. Chiefly, this means she will be assisting the St. John’s Cemetery Project Director, Dr. Michaela Ann Cameron, by creating profiles on the people buried in the cemetery and even fleshing out some of the details of their truly incredible lives. This work will help researchers when they come to the website and use the “SEARCH” database function, most likely looking for one of their ancestors. As such, Abbie is participating in constructing the part of the website that will be used by the public the most: the St. John’s Cemetery Project database. With Abbie’s vital contribution, the project will be able to deliver a fully functioning site-specific database to the public sooner rather than later and that, too, it is hoped will improve community engagement with the cemetery itself. You may also see Abbie doing some guest blogging on here!
Welcome to St. John’s Cemetery Project Abbie!
Read more about Abbie Hartman’s work on her Contributor profile here.
The grant will be used to produce a collection of biographical essays for the St. John’s Cemetery Project (SJCP) website on notable “Old Parramattans” buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta: Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery (est. 1790).
But don’t expect all the people featured in the essays to be ‘notable’ in the traditional sense of the word! This is by no means a collection of essays on white male elites exclusively. First Peoples will be represented in these stories and there will be convicts galore with all the juicy details of their dastardly deeds. The collection will also highlight individuals associated with the nearby Parramatta Female Factories, Wesleyans, master builders, women and children and, yes, the odd colonial elite — even then, as readers will discover, the colony being what it was, the most debonair, respectable gent was often hiding a dark side!
I’m sure a cursory glance at what is in store is quite enough to reveal why The St. John’s Cemetery Project and, indeed, the cemetery itself is what I have dubbed ‘The Gateway to Old Parramatta.’ Telling the stories of those buried at St. John’s allows us to shine a light on so many of Parramatta’s major heritage sites; the world heritage listed Parramatta Park’s Government House and Dairy Cottage, the nationally listed Parramatta Female Factory, the old colonial hospital site at the Parramatta Justice Precinct, the Wentworth Atelier, and Centenary Square. And all of these heritage sites and more are just minutes away from the cemetery on foot — a fact that should well and truly put Parramatta on the map as a major heritage tourism destination.
WHAT DOES THIS CREATE NSW FUNDING MEAN TO SJCP?
“Old Parramattans” builds on the collection of “St. John’s First Fleeters” already published on the SJCP, which was supported by funds totalling $7000 from the Royal Australian Historical Society Small Heritage Grant via funds allocated from the Office of Environment and Heritage and the City of Parramatta’s Cultural Heritage and Stories Fund in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Obviously being on a much larger scale, the $66,290 grant from Create NSW makes it possible to deliver my entire original vision of a fully functional biographical database for the cemetery. But my original vision was also for a project that was collaborative; one that would attract numerous historians so they could apply their expertise and contribute original, peer-reviewed research on Old Parramattans in a free, open access arena for the widest possible public audience. As a grant that exists to ‘support professional arts and cultural workers,’ this Create NSW grant is providing me with the means to assemble those experts at a time when these kinds of opportunities are all too scarce, so we are all extremely grateful.
The expert contributors assembled thus far have ties to universities across New South Wales and diverse research interests that will undoubtedly lead to a variety of perspectives on Parramatta’s colonial history. (Browse the current list of contributors here, but note that the list is still growing).
Together the contributors will use their expertise in a wide range of fields to draw out new information on St. John’s “Old Parramattans” and place those individual stories in the broader historical context to demonstrate the cemetery’s importance—not just on the local level but also on the state, national, and international levels. These biographical essays may therefore tell readers everything there is to know on a biographical subject; alternatively, they may delve deeply into one previously overlooked aspect of the subject’s life and use it as a platform from which they can explore a topic of broader historical significance.
The project will also be taking on an intern to assist with the database content development. Priority will be given to a local History student attending one of the Parramatta-based universities and will be an excellent opportunity for a junior historian to develop research skills and their academic C.V. while volunteering on a real public history project.
A COMMUNITY-ENGAGED PROJECT
When I founded the SJCP in July 2015, the ultimate aim was to make high quality content demonstrating the significance of the cemetery easily accessible and freely available to the public. My philosophy was that engaging and educating the public on the significance of a heritage site is the best way to garner the community support that is always necessary to conserve heritage.
As such, SJCP is a proud supporter of the local community organisation which formed in late June 2016: the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. The Friends are a dedicated group of volunteers whose purpose is to manage and conserve the cemetery for future generations. It is my hope that the biographical essays funded by Create NSW will help to raise the profile of this extremely worthy heritage site by educating the public and fostering greater community support for the Friends’ ongoing conservation work.
There are many ways the Friends can benefit from your help; you can become a member of the organisation, volunteer at working bees, or make a donation. Right now, the Friends are organising a Conservation Management Plan, after which their campaign for the National Heritage Listing of the cemetery can begin in earnest.
Special thanks to Dr. Geoff Lee for visiting the cemetery this morning to learn more about how St. John’s Cemetery Project will use these funds and how all of this aligns with the Friends’ aims for the conservation of the cemetery itself. And a big thank you to Judith Dunn and Jennifer Follers for taking the time to talk about the Friends, and also Brian Wickham, Friends of St. John’s Cemetery General Committee Member; your efforts in caring for the cemetery generally and in the lead up to Dr. Lee’s visit this morning specifically are greatly appreciated.
I can’t wait to start sharing the biographies of these “Old Parramattans” with all of you over the funded period (2019–January 2021). Stay tuned to the SJCP social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) to read the latest biographies written by the SJCP’s ever-growing stellar lineup of historians the second they hit the website!
St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta never ceases to surprise the avid researcher…
As Judith Dunn asserts, the headstones and burial records associated with St. John’s reveal that Old Parramatta was a much more ethnically diverse place than commonly thought. Today, St. John’s is “Anglican,” but this was not always the case; originally this was a non-denominational cemetery. So while we, of course, find plenty of British Anglican people among the cemetery’s permanent citizens, we also find Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Jewish, African American, German, Dutch, and French people here as well, to name a few. To this multicultural list, it seems we can now add the Romani (Roma): a nomadic people thought to have originated in Northern India and migrated to Europe where they are now predominantly located.
Over the past couple of months, our volunteer research assistant Suzannah Gaulke has been busy transcribing and compiling lists of Female Factory women and children who died in the Factory and were buried in the parish of St. John’s.
Sometimes, the old-fashioned and scrawly or faded handwriting in the burial records is just a bit too hard to read, or the spelling just a tad too “creative” to work out the name and more than one pair of eyes is needed. The name “Sovole” was one of those ones we both thought seemed a bit questionable, so I took a look at the original record for the thirteen-month-old baby boy who died at the Factory in May 1832 and realised the name was actually “Lovell.”
Having solved the mystery of the surname, I added his full name “Nathaniel Lovell” to the list, feeling that the little fellow finally had a digital memorial now, if not one of stone, and assumed that would be the end of it. Indeed, Nathaniel Lovell’s name had been one of hundreds I looked at and edited that night. I subsequently worked on completely unrelated historical research for my PhD thesis over the next couple of days, pushing the little boy’s name further and further from my mind.
Just three days later, though, I happened to be on a city-bound train scrolling through my Twitter feed (which, ordinarily, I have no time to do) and near the very top of my feed was the following tweet:
I was immediately drawn in by the prospect of reading a biography about the statistically less common case of a Romani “beggar woman” who became a convict and was incarcerated at the Parramatta Female Factory in North Parramatta’s Fleet Street Heritage Precinct. So I clicked and started reading it on my iPhone. As I read this beautiful piece of thorough research about Sapy Lovell by blogger Cherryseed who, it turns out, was writing about her own convict ancestor, the name “Lovell” began to faintly tinkle “Lovell…Lovell” in my mind before crescendoing into a rambunctiously ringing bell: I am reading about that little boy’s mother!
The timing of it was pretty unbelievable…It almost felt like the Lovells were having a little family reunion in my head.
By the time I reached the end of the piece, I learnt that poor Sapy was a “repeat offender” and, thus, a regular inmate at the Parramatta Female Factory. I also learnt that Sapy’s baby Nathaniel was likely the son of Lewis Boswell, also a Romani convict based at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks who had been transported per Surrey (1823), and that Nathaniel had been born in the Female Factory as well as died there. But that was not all: Sapy’s elder son, Louis Lovell, who was born in a workhouse gaol in England, had also died at the Factory soon after he and Sapy had arrived in the colony on board the convict transport ship Louisa (1827).
In my excitement, I reached out to Cherryseed and asked her permission to provide a link to her lovely piece about Sapy on the little boys’ “profile pages” as well as Lewis Boswell’s biography on Nathaniel’s profile on The St. John’s Cemetery Project database, and she graciously obliged, happy in the knowledge that these babies who didn’t stand a chance in the colony were being recognised on our website.
We do not know where Sapy was laid to rest, but at least now we know that her two little boys, Louis and Nathaniel, who belonged to a nomadic people and yet were doomed to spend their whole existence incarcerated, lie somewhere in this cemetery in unmarked graves. And though they were merely 15 months and 13 months old when they passed away, as far as our current research indicates at least, they are the sole representatives of the Romani people at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta and a pathway into the bigger life story of a beggar woman transported for the theft of a spoon.
Vandalism. Disgraceful Condition. Apple of Discord. Neglected Dead. Vaults in Ruins. A City’s Disgrace… These are just some of the phrases used over the decades in news headlines about St. John’s Cemetery in Parramatta.
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.’
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.’ 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. 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.
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.’ 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.
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.’ 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.’
In recent months, however, the site has finally taken a turn for the better with the formation of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramattaon 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.’ 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…’
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.’ Lots of work has been and will continue to be done. And it is paying off; the cemetery is now quite pleasant to visit.
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.
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. 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.
Today we launch The St. John’s Cemetery Project blog.
The blog will be an arena for announcing the publication of new biographies on the database, highlighting interesting research finds we are excited about, introducing our contributors and research assistants, and a place where they, too, will be able to participate as guest bloggers. It will also be a place to reflect on “doing” public history, digital history, convict history, and colonial history generally.
As the database is still in its embryonic phase, new features are constantly being added to increase its potential as a research tool as well as its utility to the local community members visiting the St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta site itself. Those new site features will therefore also be announced on the blog along with some discussion about how they might be beneficial to you, whether you are a tourist, an urban explorer, an avid family history researcher, a professional genealogist, or an historian.
The Highlight Reel
Given that this is the inaugural blog post, it is the perfect opportunity to bring everyone up to speed on what has been achieved thus far.
The St. John’s Cemetery Project’s first biography, Jane McManus: The Maid Freed From The Gallows, by historian Michaela Ann Cameron was published on 10 March 2016 and, since then, a further eleven biographies have been published. Nine of the twelve biographies currently available are part of our very first collection, St. John’s First Fleeters; a collection of biographies on the seventeen First Fleeters with memorial plaques buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta and a feature essay on the cemetery itself by Judith Dunn, the author of The Parramatta Cemeteries book series.
When historian Ben Vine brought his expertise in the American Revolutionary War to the St. John’s First Fleeters collection earlier this year, the result was two biographies that illuminated the fascinating and surprising connections between the American Revolution and the settlement of New South Wales: Isaac Knight: The Trusty Sergeant and John Palmer: The Purser, The P.O.W.
A number of biographies contributed by historian Michaela Ann Cameron provided further evidence of the complex, transnational histories buried in St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta; see, for example, Richard Partridge: The Left-Handed Flogger and David Killpack: The Merry Mutineer, the life stories of two convicts who mutinied on a convict ship bound for America after the Americans had well and truly won the right to their independence from Britain and the right to stop being used as “a sinke to drayen England of her filth and scum.”
See also Michaela’s biography John Martin: The Self-Freed Slave; the story of a man who was likely a black slave in the American colonies and found freedom in Parramatta a lifetime before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Even the biography of convict James Wright: The Highwayman features a link to a naval hero who died as a result of Anglo-French hostilities associated with the American Revolutionary War. These biographies are thought-provoking, because by illuminating these connections between the British Empire’s old domain (America) and what was then the new British domain (Australia) they also reveal how those transnational connections have been obscured. Ben Vine attributes this to the way Britain, America, and Australia have preferred to remember (and in some cases forget) certain aspects of the past over others.
Speaking of forgotten transnational connections, this digital history project has already begun to forge wonderful links across the seas and ignited an interest in the history we share with the motherland! The need to source images for historian David Morgan’s biography on Henry Dodd, the “Faithful Servant” of Governor Arthur Phillip himself, led us to reach out to Randall Hardy, the webmaster of a website dedicated to Dodd’s own former parish in England: hodnet.org.uk. Not only did the Hodnet – Shropshire website graciously permit us to feature a stunning image by photographer Geoff Potter of the church in which Dodd was baptised, they also featured on their website and social media the story of Dodd; their very own Hodnet man who now lies in Australia’s oldest grave with headstone in situ in the oldest surviving European cemetery in Australia!
And, of course, two major highlights since The St. John’s Cemetery Project was first conceived were the two award ceremonies for the small heritage grants that have enabled the St. John’s First Fleeters collection to be made manifest. The first ceremony, at which the Royal Australian Historical Society (RAHS) awarded $2000 toward the completion of the collection, took place in October 2015. In June 2016, City of Parramatta Council awarded a further $5000 to the St. John’s First Fleeters collection at the ceremony for their community grants.
Stay tuned to our blog and our social media accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to learn when the next batch of biographies for the St. John’s First Fleeters collection are published.