“Save Cemetery for the Nation” – An urgent call to preserve Australian history

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“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 headings to talk about Saint John’s Cemetery in Parramatta. From as early as 1868, newspapers were calling attention to threats on the cemetery, with accusations ranging from vandalism to neglect. For over a century, the call to take action, to remember their heritage and to look after the final resting place of some of Australia’s earliest European settlers has been spoken among Parramatta locals. For this cemetery ‘is an immensely significant site…due to its links to the history of the British Empire and world convict history’ (http://stjohnscemetery.jimdo.com/about-1/).
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I began looking into the history of Saint John’s Cemetery in the media after receiving a news clipping from a fellow historical student (who now has her own unique, historical blog at https://lonelybeaches.wordpress.com/) titled “Save cemetery for the nation”. Written in August of 1970, this article depicts a pretty sad and beaten picture of the cemetery’s condition. ‘Whisky and rum bottles…lay in a tomb which had been attacked by vandals’ and ‘tangled weeds and blackberries hide some of the graves’. The article speaks of an appeal made by Bishop H. G. Begbie, the Bishop in Parramatta, to restore the cemetery. This appeal was supported by the cemetery Trust as well as members of the Parramatta Trust. The hope was for descendants of the people buried in Saint John’s cemetery to take action in the restoration and to add weight towards an appeal to the Federal and State governments, as well as to the Parramatta City Council, for annual grants for maintenance.
As suggested above, this call was not a new endeavour. The earliest mention of the state of the cemetery presented on the Saint John’s Cemetery website (http://stjohnscemetery.jimdo.com/media/) speaks of vandalism that had hit a number of churchyards, including Saint John’s Cemetery. This news clipping from 1868 spoke of youths plucking ‘flowers planted by bereaved relatives and friends’ and warned 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 such acts and hoped it would be enough to deter any subsequent vandalism. As the decades passed, Saint John’s Cemetery was 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’. Comments such as these continued to be issues worthy of news space up until 2015 (see Clarissa Bye’s article “Historic St John’s Cemetery at Parramatta in state of neglect”).
The site has finally taken a turn in recent months, however, as the Friends of Saint John’s Cemetery work alongside Parramatta locals to restore and preserve what is left of this history. Recent events have worked to spark new interest in the cemetery, especially among the local community. Lots of work has been and continues to be done. And it is paying off; the cemetery is now quite pleasant to visit. Restoration is not enough however, and the need for funding and the proper telling of its history continues to be a prominent issue. The Saint John’s Project is working to give voice to the numerous stories of those buried in the cemetery. New medians such as Facebook, Twitter etc., are used to call for helping hands and funding, but the call remains the same as what was displayed in newspapers all those years ago: “save the cemetery”.
What draws me to the issue of keeping some 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 even I realised until very recently.
Much of this is simply because Australia, and especially its government, is not taking advantage of its historical resources. Sites like Saint John’s Cemetery would easily be popular tourist sites in a place like Europe, yet here in Australia, its often left unknown to tourist and Australians alike. It 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. Walking distance from Parramatta’s historic Female Factory (yet another neglected historical site) and the Old Government House, the cemetery ‘is one of the jewels in Parramatta’s heritage crown’ and sits in a rich, historical area (http://stjohnscemetery.jimdo.com/about-1/). With the right resources, such as access to walking tours, good historical maps, clear signage and descriptions, etc., this area could achieve 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 local Parramattans, but should be a call to Australians everywhere to save the history of this nation.
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Telling a Story

There comes a point in one’s academic studies when you begin to wonder why on earth you are doing what you are doing. What are you supposed to do with all this knowledge about theories and concepts, other than become an academic and teach another generation about all the concepts and theories you have learned? What if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life tied to the University? What can you possibly do with all of this study that will impact the world in any way? Where on earth is the practical side to all of this learning? I cannot begin to express the relief I felt after attending a class that showed this very “practical side” of history. I still remember the growing excitement within me as I sat in my very first class for the semester and listened to Michael talk about how historians have taken their university learning out into the “real” world. I remember thinking over and over again, with a mounting passion, that this, this was the answer to the oppressing question of ‘what on earth am I going to do with my life?’.
As the course unfolded, my passion only grew as, week by week, guest speakers spoke of the numerous ways in which they interacted with the world of public history. They talked about the ups and downs of working in both the “professional” academic sphere and the “amateur” local sphere. They described their various works and how they had taken their university learning out into various areas of Australian society and created so many projects of all shapes and sizes. The opportunity to travel to places one would not normally go and to dig in to histories that aren’t widely heard, and then use your own creativity to express and communicate the history you find to a wider, public audience is everything I could hope for in a career. Unfortunately, finding these opportunities with the addition of getting paid is not always easy. But the encouragement I felt in listening, week after week, to how these various historians had done it inspires me to reach forward regardless.
Our semester-long project is one of the most exciting things I’ve done at university and I have thoroughly enjoyed the prospect of going out and “doing history”. As I scrolled through the numerous organisations listed on the History Beyond the Classroom website in my first week of semester (the earliest I have ever started any project in my entire life), Saint John’s Cemetery immediately caught my eye. I have always loved cemeteries. That sounds a bit morbid, I know, but cemeteries hold so many glimpses of stories that we will never fully know. Not just in the words carved into a gravestone, but in the pictures on the stone, the font of the text and the shape and placement of the gravestone itself. Even just the dates given on each stone, the simple statement of one’s age, has always drawn me into the stories of cemeteries.
And so, on the Monday of week 5 (the eagerness I had to start this project only took me so far) I finally pushed through my anxiety of talking to strangers and composed an email to the secretary of the Friends of Saint John’s Cemetery, enquiring as to whether they might be interested in working with me for my project. Only a few hours later, I arrived at class to realise that our guest speaker was none other than Michaela Cameron, a member of the Friends of Saint John’s Cemetery and the driving force behind the Saint John’s Cemetery Project! I listened eagerly as Michaela spoke of her work with the cemetery and with getting biographies of the first fleeters written and made available through the cemetery’s website (stjohnscemetery.jimdo.com/). Michaela also talked about building a strong presence in social media, and so inspired me to begin my own history blog (which can be viewed at hideawayhistory.jimdo.com). I very much enjoyed setting up the website and have found great pleasure in researching and writing about small parts of history I find in my day-to-day life.
I have begun work with Michaela and am currently working my way through the burial records of Saint John’s Cemetery to find Female Factory workers who are buried in the cemetery. Though I have not worked out what my final project will be, simply going through these records is as enjoyable and intriguing as walking through a cemetery. Seeing patterns in names or noticing when there is an above average number of deaths suggests so many stories left untold. And there is a great deal of satisfaction in finally deciphering a word written in such cryptic handwriting! The chance to tell the stories of those buried in the cemetery, even if it only through a list made available to any curious web surfer, is a chance I take on with a passion and with much anticipation of what I might find.