The St. John’s Cemetery Project grew out of an informal conversation I had in June 2015 with Paul Bowyer from Parramatta Heritage Rides.
Like me, Paul has ancestors buried at the site and had recently been featured in a Parramatta Advertiser article drawing attention to the deterioration of graves and the cemetery’s historical significance. So, naturally, our conversation turned to how we might be able to reactivate community interest in St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta.
I told Paul about some biographies I had been writing featuring Parramatta’s convicts. Among the entries I had already prepared was one about my oldest “Old Parramattan,” Lydia Barber; a convict who arrived in the colony in 1801. Paul enthusiastically responded:
“See? That’s the kind of information we need at the entrance to the cemetery so visitors can read these stories!”
I wholeheartedly concurred and cited the fact that the current signage, though helpful, is written on a 1980s typewriter and held up with thumb tacks and therefore is not engaging for visitors. A heritage site of this calibre – the oldest surviving Christian cemetery in the whole country – deserves better, especially given its educational value! High school history teachers often take their students to the site on excursion. We all learn better outside of the classroom and, as such, this site is one of the greatest teaching resources local history teachers have available to them. Then there is the tourism potential of this site, which has to be the most accessible heritage site in Parramatta, given its proximity to Parramatta Westfield and Parramatta Train Station. The cemetery and information about the cemetery, therefore, both need to be more inviting and accessible to people of all ages.
“A heritage site of this calibre deserves better.”
I had visions of brand new modern signage inside the cemetery’s lych-gate entrance. The new signage of my dreams would contain a QR code that visitors could scan with their mobile devices to open up full-length biographies online and have “history in the palm of their hands.”
The entries would be written by professional historians and fully referenced and accompanied by historical images and location photography to bring the stories of the forgotten departed ones to life again through multimodal storytelling. Best of all, this engaging, quality historical content would be easily accessible to the whole community.
So, that is the ultimate aim; to improve the visitor experience on site and engage the community so that they will want to visit this place and learn about the people buried here, whether they have ancestors buried here or not. Culturally speaking, if not by blood, we all are connected to the permanent citizens of this necropolis.
But, before the signage dream can become a reality, the textual content itself had to be developed. Ultimately, the aim is to provide an arena for the biographical details of all the people buried in the cemetery. To this end, I have set up The St. John’s Cemetery Project; a biographical database on St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta’s official website containing a mixture of full-length biographies and profile pages for all individuals buried at the cemetery. This larger project is obviously a Herculean task that will be developed over a long period of time, so I looked for ways to narrow down the parameters of the initial project. The solution was obvious, as one of the main messages of the Parramatta Advertiser article featuring Paul was that the cemetery was home to 17 First Fleeters with memorials; a major selling point for the heritage site and, thus, the perfect starting point. The project’s first collection is therefore, rather fittingly, St. John’s First Fleeters.
I approached St. John’s Anglican Church to arrange for hard copy publication of the content, so there will be multiple points of access to the material. This is particularly important, given that the aim is to engage a wide public audience and, therefore, diverse community; some of whom may not engage with material online but will access that content in an offline environment, e.g. the Church. St John’s Anglican Church agreed to print a hard copy version of the full content as a reference book for their repository and to print a pamphlet containing summarised versions of the information for visitors to the Church to take with them.
My application for a small grant from the Royal Australian Historical Society‘s Heritage Grant Program, was successful. I was awarded funding for the project and attended the RAHS conference Migration Matters on 25 October 2015 to receive my award. The awards were announced by the President of the RAHS, Associate Professor Carol Liston, and presented by Mark Speakman, Cronulla MP and NSW Environment and Heritage Minister.(pictured below. I am on Mark Speakman’s immediate right).
On 29 June 2016, I attended the City of Parramatta 2016 Community Grants presentation ceremony to accept a second heritage grant for the St. John’s First Fleeters collection. I am pleased to announce that this Parramatta City Council Community Grant has ensured the completion of the collection.
— Michaela Ann Cameron
Director, The St. John’s Cemetery Project