Australia’s Oldest Surviving European Cemetery (1790)
By Judith Dunn
Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery was established in an old stock paddock on the outskirts of Parramatta as a general burial ground for all denominations in January 1790. From the headstones and associated records of the once non-denominational cemetery ‘St. John’s,’ therefore, we discover that Parramatta’s people were, from the outset, more religiously and ethnically diverse than the popular notion of a strictly ‘British’ colony would have us believe. But we also learn about their work trends, health and lifespan, who prospered and who lived in poverty, how they were living and how they were dying. In short, St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta encapsulates and reflects the character of the growing town of Parramatta, providing us with a real, detailed picture of what was going on in the area at a given time and, thus, makes this heritage site a place of great cultural significance with aesthetic, scientific, social and historic value for the past, present, and future.
Historic Value: A Pioneer Cemetery
St. John’s is a true pioneer cemetery. We see this in the names of those buried here who, by their endeavours, shaped both the rising town and areas beyond. For example, St. John’s is the resting place of many pioneers whose names are now recognisable suburbs; William ‘Lumpy’ Dean (Dean Park), Whalan, Blaxland, Harris (Harris Park), Kelly (Kellyville), Wentworth (Wentworthville and The Home Bush), Lethbridge (Lethbridge Park), Thorn (Thornleigh), Pymble, and Hassall (Hassall Grove), to name just a few. Streets and local parks are also the namesakes of those buried here, such as Power, Freame, Tarlington, Sutter, Herbert, Killpack, Marsden, Fullagar, Gilbert, Best, and Abbott. These names, although not a full list and randomly selected, show how surrounding suburbs grew and how early tracks to properties became official roads.
The first burial in the cemetery was that of James Magee, the child of two First Fleet convicts, buried 31 January 1790 — a date which confirms St. John’s is earlier than the Old Sydney Burial Ground under Sydney Town Hall (est. 1793), the Devonshire Street (Sandhills) Cemetery under Sydney’s Central Station (est. 1819), and Rookwood (est. 1868). The first marked burial and eleventh interment on the site was that of First Fleeter Henry Edward Dodd, Superintendent of Convicts at the Government Farm, noted for growing the first successful wheat crop in the colony. Dodd’s death gave the cemetery two important firsts: the earliest memorial in situ in Australia and the first public funeral in the colony, as his funeral was noted as being, ‘attended by all the free people and convicts at Rose Hill.’
Another one of the cemetery’s great claims to fame is that it is the final resting place of more than 50 First Fleeters overall. Seventeen of St. John’s First Fleeters have memorial plaques, but only 16 of those lie in marked graves. As the list below demonstrates, the 17 First Fleeters with memorial plaques are a diverse group comprised of the convicted as well as free people of elite status, both men and women, and even a child:
- Augustus Alt, free. The first Surveyor General of New South Wales.
- Frances Hannah Clements, free. A convict’s child, born on board the Lady Penrhyn.
- Henry Dodd, free. Servant to Governor Arthur Phillip and Superintendent of Convicts at the Government Farm.
- Thomas Eccles, a convict who stole a side of bacon and two loaves of bread.
- Edward Elliott, a convict transported for burglary, he was one of the rare few who had a rural background as a husbandman.
- Thomas Freeman, free. Clerk to Captain Hunter on HMS Sirius and later Assistant Commissary.
- Deborah Herbert, a convict transported for stealing a length of cloth and clothing, was the complainant in Australia’s first case of domestic violence.
- John Herbert, a convict transported for highway robbery, was the defendant in Australia’s first case of domestic violence.
- Hugh Hughes, a convict transported for stealing 90 pounds of lead.
- Mary Kelly, a convict transported for seducing a publican with a view to robbery.
- David Killpack, a convict transported for feloniously stealing poultry, was originally bound for America but mutinied on the Swift (1783)
- Isaac Knight, free. Sergeant in the Royal Marines who served in the American Revolutionary War prior to sailing with the First Fleet.
- John Martin, a convict described as a ‘negro,’ likely a fugitive slave from the American colonies, transported for stealing a bundle of clothing.
- Jane McManus, a convict transported for stealing a silver watch and other goods.
- Christopher Palmer, free. A civilian servant to Andrew Miller and later the Commissary of Stores.
- John Palmer, free. A former prisoner of war in the American Revolutionary War and purser on the flagship HMS Sirius who later took the position of Commissary.
- James Wright, a convict transported for three counts of Highway robbery and the colony’s first baker.
The remaining First Fleeters are buried without First Fleeters’ memorial plaques, marked stones or plots, but their stories are no less significant. Among them are Australia’s first emancipated convict, Assistant Surgeon John Irving, as well as Richard Partridge, who was not only the colony’s ‘Left-Handed Flogger’ but also the adopted father of the first Aboriginal person legally executed in Australia: Daniel Mow-watty.
While the exact locations of all the unmarked graves within the cemetery are unknown, many of the earliest burials occurred in Section Four, which clearly has the least number of marked graves. Some of those plots may have been defined originally by wooden markers, which were probably cleared away and burnt as they deteriorated. The large number of unmarked graves in the cemetery generally points to the fact that the cost of a stone was beyond the reach of many. It is especially worth noting, then, that First Fleet convicts in marked graves (a total of nine) outnumber the free First Fleeters in marked graves (a total of seven). Although more gentlemen of quality would have been buried in Sydney cemeteries, the fact that so many First Fleet convicts have headstones indicates that even in the early days, given the opportunity to prosper, many convicts achieved sufficient wealth for a memorial to be carved and erected — a not inconsiderable cost.
Among this group of convicts and free settlers who rose to prominence and prosperity are the businessmen and women of the district. They include the emancipated convicts turned prominent inn-keepers Charles Walker of the Red Cow Inn and Andrew Nash of the Woolpack Inn, John Williams the ex-convict who became Parramatta’s first mayor, David Lennox master bridge builder and stonemason, Robert Campbell who was known as the Father of Commerce in Australia, Doctors Matthew Anderson and D’Arcy Wentworth, the Payten family of builders, Sarah Bell Matron of the Parramatta Female Factory, and John Clews the brickmaker.
The historical value of the cemetery embraces the stories of all those buried here; stories which range from pathos to bathos. In Section Three one finds Benjamin Ratty, a convict who became a constable and was shot by friendly fire while trying to arrest a gang of bushrangers. Equally tragic is the story of Dr. Richard Greenup; stabbed to death by a pair of scissors wielded by one of his patients in the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum. There are also tales of remarkable people like Elizabeth Peisley, who fell from her horse and died while rounding up the cattle at the age of 87; William Shelley, the pioneer missionary who suggested an Aboriginal school to Governor Macquarie and designed the rules and regulations for its conduct; Deborah Herbert who took her husband to court for beating her without just cause; and George Mealmaker, a political prisoner transported for sedition who became overseer of the first Female Factory, ‘The Factory Above the Gaol,’ which was located at present-day Prince Alfred Park, Parramatta.
The two most prominent burials are those of Governor’s wives: Elizabeth Bourke, wife of Governor Bourke, and Lady Mary Fitzroy, wife of Governor Sir Charles Augustus Fitzroy. Both ladies passed away in what is now the world heritage listed convict site Parramatta Park, just a five-minute walk from the cemetery. Elizabeth Bourke died in Old Government House, while Lady Fitzroy died in a carriage accident along with Governor Fitzroy’s Aide-de-Camp Lieutenant Charles Chester Masters. The double funeral of the Lady and the Lieutenant was the largest public funeral ever conducted at the cemetery.
The cemetery’s scientific value is revealed in the research, rarity and quality of the data. Before 1856 it was not compulsory to record births, deaths, and marriages so the earliest stones in St. John’s Cemetery are not just records of someone’s death but of their life. They are truly documents in stone. Causes of death are sometimes found in headstone epitaphs and give an understanding of lifestyle. They range from drowning, ‘died of a broken heart,’ falling down a well, a soldier who died of wounds, coach accidents, and ‘died from being ridden over by Alexander Elliott.’ The headstone inscription, ‘Afflictions sore long time I bore,’ points to illness and at least two suicides are recorded.
The handwritten burial registers for the parish of St. John’s also tell the researcher much about the health, lifespan, and causes of death in colonial Parramatta because those responsible for keeping these records became increasingly more consistent and more generous in the details they recorded about the departed. As time went on, they listed not just names but where these people lived, their profession or calling, the ship they arrived on, whether convict or free, as well as pathetically young and surprisingly old ages. Without the benefit of medicines available today, it is to be expected that a disproportionate number of children died due to diseases that can now be cured easily or even prevented. Food was often scarce or of poor quality and would have led to more deaths. Children and the elderly, being weaker, were more vulnerable. According to the family memorials, the cemetery sexton James Macey lost 11 children, the oldest reaching 18 years. Three of these children died within one month pointing to an epidemic in the town. William Neill, schoolteacher, died at the age of 43, ‘leaving a widow and 6 children to mourn his loss.’ Other children had predeceased him dying at 12 days, 3 weeks, 11 weeks, 4 months, 5 months, 7 months, 8 months, 18 months and 22 months. On the other hand, if the dangers of childhood and childbirth were avoided, many people lived to old age. First Fleet convicts Thomas and Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Eccles, for example, reputedly lived to 97 and 105 respectively; Ann Smith died at 91, and Elizabeth Shelley passed away at 96, ‘having survived her beloved husband upwards of 63 years.’
Sometimes there are brief subjective notes in the burial registers, illuminating a little more of a person’s life — ‘Lunatic,’ ‘Abode Female Factory,’ ‘Orphan’ — and even the cause of death including, ‘Shot in the Act of Robbery,’ ‘executed,’ ‘killed by a tree falling,’ ‘Speared by the Natives,’ ‘murdered,’ and the pathos of entries that record the death in childbirth of young women and their children.
The St. John’s burial registers reveal, too, that the whole range of working life is reflected in the cemetery from convict workers to gentlemen and everything in between. Trades show a great variety, which at first reflected the daily activities and needs of a growing town: stonecutter, shingler, settler, farmer, miller, carrier, servant, boatman, dairymaid, convict labourer. Solid tradespeople came next and were instrumental in developing, supporting, and servicing a more urbanised society. They include: stonemason, brickmaker, blacksmith, shopkeeper, coachmaker, cook, brewer, tanner, butcher, staymaker, sailor and baker. As the business district developed, the government town began to attract different workers and a sprinkling of professionals arrived: toll keeper, teacher, doctor, innkeeper (including several women innkeepers) Government Botanist, Matron and Master of the Female Factory, railwaymen and a landscape painter.
Social and Cultural Value: A Place of Diversity
As a non-denominational ‘general cemetery’ for the district originally, St. John’s Cemetery was and still is a place of diversity. Prior to St. John’s becoming a Church of England cemetery exclusively in December 1857,  ministers of different religions were laid to rest here. Chief Cleric Samuel Marsden, for example, lies across a path from Catherine Leigh, wife of the Wesleyan minister and missionary Samuel Leigh. Several evangelical Christians and non-conformist missionaries from the London Missionary Society are also buried here.
For the same reason, this is a heritage site in which many nationalities and cultures are represented, challenging the popular concept of the colony being exclusively British in its makeup. This makes the cemetery especially valuable, as migration patterns that would have been apparent in the community’s wider population can now be discerned from the once all-inclusive cemetery’s headstones and associated records. We find here the expected people of English, Scottish, and Irish origin but, with a little research, we find that French, German, Danish, West Indian, Negro, Chinese, ‘A Mahomatan from India,’ Romani, and Jewish people are also represented, revealing a surprisingly rich diversity. In recent years, therefore, there has been evidence of Asian ancestor worship at the cemetery in the burning of incense and food and drink being placed on graves. Christian prayer cards are also sometimes left and often flowers bloom in jars and urns showing a strong focus of spiritual and cultural sentiment. This is a place of many races and creeds – there is room for all of them.
Aesthetic Value: Work of Local Hands
Aesthetic values are revealed in the colour and texture of the cemetery’s materials and fabric. The stone that has been quarried locally then shaped and inscribed; the way these stones then fit in with the landscape as they age and become covered in a variety of coloured lichens. The metal of the grave surrounds, hand wrought by local blacksmiths and sometimes stamped with the blacksmith’s name, are also aesthetically significant. We also discover words deeply incised in stone in English, often misspelled, and a smattering of Latin, Greek and French. Strolling among the memorials reading biblical and cautionary verse was clearly a socially-acceptable pastime on Sundays, as epitaphs were composed with such pensive onlookers in mind: ‘Watch, for ye know not the hour’ and ‘As I am so you must be, prepare yourselves to follow me.’ On the other end of the spectrum, we find almost puckish humour, even if it is unintentional – ‘If I had faults who is without?’ ‘tears could not save her, therefore I wept.’ Yet, there is far more here for us to ‘read’ than just the textual elements of the cemetery’s headstones.Traditional cemetery symbolism, including dark-leafed trees in the landscape, adds to the solemnity of the surrounds while the very shapes of the cemetery’s Gothic headstones point towards God. Much of the carved symbolism relates to biblical themes; for example, the Lamb of God, carved anchors referencing St. Paul’s ‘anchor of hope’ and torches, which are also attributed to St. Paul and his metaphor of ‘running the race,’ doves symbolising the Holy Spirit, and the cross of faith, which often stands on the three steps of faith, hope, and charity.
The language of flowers and plants was much used in symbolism, particularly during the Victorian era. Acorns and oak leaves signify faith and endurance, ivy references fidelity in the way it clings to a support, passion flowers relate to the passion of Christ, and laurel wreaths suggest triumph as they were given for winning the race in ancient Greece — in the context of the cemetery, they signify spiritual triumph for achieving heaven.
Non-spiritual symbolism is represented also in broken columns, representing a life cut short, and buds with broken stems, which appear on memorials of children denoting a life ‘nipped in the bud.’
Torches related to the classical games where a torch was handed to the successor in the race and an hourglass were both used to show the person’s time had run out. All of these things visually—and, therefore, quietly—communicate complex messages to cemetery visitors.
The Future of Our Past: A National Heritage Site
There can be no doubt that St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta fulfils the requirements for conservation implicit in the Burra Charter. The cemetery helps us to understand the past by providing evidence of history, but it also contributes to the pleasantness of our environment and is a focus of our spiritual and cultural sentiment. The significance of the area is embodied in its fabric, setting and contents, in the associated documents and its relationship with the community.
Nevertheless, maintenance of the cemetery always was, and still is, problematic. Grass grows rapidly in summer but sometimes cannot be cut for weeks due to summer rain. And, despite being considered ‘the most substantial sandstock structure remaining in Australia,’ St. John’s remarkable convict-built 1820s wall with many of its bricks impressed with government arrows has endured a great deal of damage that will prove costly to repair. Some of the historic headstones, too, require professional restoration.
On Saturday 25 June 2016, however, the Friends of St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta was formed to guide Australia’s oldest surviving cemetery into the future. The Friends are working towards better maintenance, checking new memorials, repairs to the wall, research, a site-specific Cemetery Maintenance Plan, National Heritage Listing, and raising the profile of this very important site. Click here to become a Friend of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta online or email our secretary for a membership form and postal details.
For all denominations buried in this place, who in the early days suffered floggings and faced famine, daring early Chinese migrants, fiercely independent convicts, free settlers who also faced hardship, all who yearned for the comfort of their own religion when alive and the peace of their own ‘God’s Acre’ when dead, the preservation and protection of this historic cemetery is no more than they deserve. It is well we remember the words attributed to William Gladstone, English Statesman who lived through part of the Georgian period and almost all of Victorian times:
‘Show me the manner in which a nation or community looks after its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.’
— Judith Dunn OAM FPDHS
Chair of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta
Judith Dunn, “The Significance of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” St. John’s Cemetery Project, (2017), https://stjohnscemeteryparramatta.org/significance/, accessed [insert current date]
Judith Dunn, “The History of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” St. John’s Cemetery Project, (2017)
Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta, NSW: Parramatta and District Historical Society, 1991)
 Two early town plans of Parramatta trace the establishment of the cemetery. The first titled, ‘The Town of Parramatta’ c.1791 shows an ‘Inclosure for Cattle’ and the second plan, an enclosure to Governor Macquarie’s dispatch of 7 October 1814 shows the same site as the ‘Burying Ground.’ The cemetery at that time extended to Pitt Street, but there is no evidence that this section was ever used for burials as the earliest known photos of the cemetery show no memorials in the additional section of land. See Henry Bathurst, William Bligh, Lachlan Macquarie, “Plan of the Township of Parramatta in New South Wales 1814” [cartographic Material] / L. M[acquarie], (1915), Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, [a1528520]. For more details about the history of the cemetery, see Judith Dunn, “The History of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” St. John’s Cemetery Project, (2017), accessed 19 March 2017.
 “The first burial ground in the colony was in the vicinity of The Rocks near the Dawes Point Barracks, referred to by David Collins. “Their situation, (the proposed officers’ quarters) being directly in the neighbourhood of the ground appropriated to the burial of the dead, it became necessary to choose another spot.” This site, together with the Old Sydney Burial Ground established in 1793 on the site of the present Town Hall, appears to have been the place of interment in Sydney for many years after the foundation of the settlement. After The Rocs burial ground there can be no doubt the burial ground at Rose Hill (Parramatta) was the next to be established. “Progress” has since destroyed The Rocks cemetery leaving St. John’s, Parramatta as the oldest existing burial ground in Australia.” Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta NSW: Parramatta Historical Society, 1991), p.15.
 David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol.I, (London: T. Cadell jun., and W. Davies, 1798), p.148 accessed online 8 November 2016
 Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta, NSW: Parramatta Historical Society, 1991), pp.21-3
 Other examples mentioned above were gleaned from the headstones themselves and burial records. Parish Burial Registers, Textual records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia.
 From the headstone of “Elizabeth Shelley,” buried in Section 1, Row I, No.15 at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. See Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta, NSW: Parramatta and District Historical Society, 1991), p.61
 For examples of ‘Speared by the Natives,’ see William Garland, Francis Bowerman, and Robert Jenkins, buried 3 June 1796, 27 February 1797 and 28 February 1797 respectively.
 For ‘Shot in the Act of Robbery’ see John Sullivan, 10 March 1795; ‘Murdered,’ see Elizabeth Young, 18 September 1795; ‘Executed’ see James Derry and Matthew Nully, 18 November 1795 and George Milton, 10 April 1798; ‘killed by a tree falling,’ see Matthew Moody 12 September 1797; ‘drowned,’ see Ann Kennedy, buried 11 February 1798. Other examples mentioned above were gleaned from the headstones themselves and burial records. Parish Burial Registers, Textual records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia.
 St Johns did not become solely Church of England (thence Anglican) until December 1857
 The missionaries sailed on the Duff in 1796 to bring Christianity to the South Seas
 Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta, NSW: Parramatta Historical Society, 1991)
 “Save Cemetery for the Nation,” Advertiser (Parramatta, NSW: 1844-1995), Thursday 13 August 1970, n.p.
 The first arrow marks appeared in the early 1820s as a result of the Bigge report into the administration of the colony.
 This quotation was also paraphrased in 1890 in an article about the neglected state of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta.“No title,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), Monday 19 May 1890, p.4.
© Copyright 2017 Judith Dunn