There is no entirely accurate record of all the deaths and burials in Melbourne in the 1830s. The first burial ground was located on a hill which became part of the present day Flagstaff Gardens. This was followed in 1838 by a larger area nearby which was to become known as the Old Melbourne Cemetery. In those days all denominations used the one building for holding their religious services and in keeping with this spirit of co-operation the burial ground was originally intended to contain the remains of all denominations even though it was controlled by the Episcopalians. It was consecrated by the Anglican Bishop of Australia, William Grant Broughton on 18 April 1838 while on a visit to Melbourne.
The Presbyterians were said to be unhappy with this arrangement as they did not want their members buried in the same ground as other denominations so they obtained an adjoining block of ground for their burials. This was followed by adjoining land being set aside for other denominations. As a result the Old Melbourne Cemetery became an early example of the type of cemetery containing denominational sections that we have today. It was not until the 1840s that each denomination received a Crown grant giving them ownership of their portion of the cemetery. These grants were issued in the names of individuals prominent within their denomination in trust for the interment of the dead.
William Willis was the Sexton of the Episcopalian section and continued in this position for about 14 years until the early 1850s. In 1881, when he was living in retirement in Collingwood with his son, he was one of the people interviewed by John Joseph Shillinglaw who was seeking to locate the exact location of John Batman's grave. Shillinglaw had begun a public subscription to erect a memorial over the then unmarked grave of John Batman and fortunately left very detailed records of his dealings which are now held by the State Library of Victoria. In his notes, Willis is recorded as saying of the lost early records that they had been stolen, though it is not clear if he had first-hand knowledge of this or if it was something he subsequently heard about. Shillinglaw was able to locate Batman's grave which consisted of a brick vault containing the bodies of Batman and his son.
Another source of information available to Shillinglaw was a letter, written by the then Sexton, Henry R. Johnstone to William Weire in Geelong containing a diagram showing the location of Batman's grave. This letter, dated 11 January 1858 is now amongst Shillinglaw's papers in the State Library of Victoria. Johnstone had succeeded John Francis Gillman who was Sexton in the mid 1850s.
About 1867 it was reported that a Constable had been appointed as Caretaker of the Cemetery. This was probably Sergeant Thomas Harold Summerhayes of the Melbourne police whose appointment came to an abrupt halt in March 1872. In 1861 Summerhayes had married a former prostitute named Rosanna Carran. After they moved into the Cemetery Lodge he continued with his duties as a policeman but during his absences his wife used the Lodge as a brothel. On the evening of 27 December 1871 Summerhayes returned home to find his wife with a blacksmith named Michael Kinane. Summerhayes assaulted Kinane causing a head and hand injuries which put Kinane into hospital for a week. Kinane sought to take legal action against Summerhayes for the assault and the case was heard in early March 1872. Kinane argued that Summerhayes had known of his wife's activities but the case was thrown out of court and costs awarded against him. When details of the case appeared in the newspapers Summerhayes was asked to vacate the Lodge and was given a transfer to Gippsland. However he first spent a week or two at the Richmond barracks while an investigation was made into his conduct. Eventually he was cleared of any wrongdoing and took up an appointment in Sale.
Summerhayes was succeeded as Caretaker by Maurice Blaney Murphy. Murphy had been landlord of the European Hotel in Swanston Street in 1864 but became insolvent. In March 1872, while he was employed in the Public Works Department, he was temporarily appointed as Caretaker of the Old Melbourne Cemetery and his appointment confirmed shortly thereafter. He appears to have held this position continuously until his death in the Lodge in June 1896. His son, who also lived at the Lodge and shared the duties of Caretaker, was passed over as a replacement and was asked to vacate the Lodge by 19 September 1896 in favour of Henry Richardson.
Henry Richardson lived in the Lodge and occupied the position of Caretaker until about 1910. In 1911 Mrs. K. Richardson was listed as the Catetaker occupying the Lodge, but by 1912 John Leffers had taken charge of the cemetery and accomodation. Leffers had been on the staff of the Health Department and by 1914 was said to have done much to clean up the cemetery grounds as well as establishing a garden and lawn at the Lodge. He appears to have been the last appointment to the position and left about 1919.
Over the years there were many newspaper reports about the cemetery being overgrown and many of the graves being in a dilapidated state. A wooden fence had been built around the cemetery in the 1840s but no fences were erected internally to divide the denominational sections. Large gaps developed in the fence and all sorts of animals were said to be found inside the grounds. There was also said to be a lot of vandalism and criminal activities going on. In 1866 the government allocated money to repair the fence but it remained unspent as no one could be found to do the work. It was not until 1869 that tenders were called for a stone and iron palisade fence and a contractor appointed. A delay occurred during construction when is was found that City Council had proclaimed footpaths around the cemetery to be 20 feet wide. In digging the foundations for the fence it was found that this encroached on some of the graves and a request was made to reduce the width of the outside footpath to 16 feet. The new fence was finished about December 1869 at a cost of about £4,000 and the remains of the old fence, together with some of the equipment used in the construction of the new fence advertised for sale. The base of the new fence was bluestone to a height of about 3 feet 6 inches mounted with iron spikes of about 6 feet in length. At intervals of about every 30 feet the stonework continued upward, into which the crossbars ran. This fence lasted for many years, though in 1910 it was reported that at least some of the fence had been relocated to Murchison Square.
Tenders for the erection of a cottage within the cemetery grounds were called for in 1856 and a contract for £495 awarded to Thomas Grimwood. This cottage or lodge was located in the Jewish Section in the north-west corner of the cemetery. According to one version of what happened to the early records of the cemetery, a fire was said to caused damage to this building in 1865 in which the records were destroyed. However there does not appear to be any evidence from around 1865 for this having occurred. Also, there does not appear to have been any explanation as to why each denomination would have had their records in the caretaker's cottage at that time. Another version explaining the loss of the early records, attributed to monumental mason John W. Brown, is that they went down in the "S.S. London" in the Bay of Biscay in January 1866. Again, there does not seem to be any explanation as to exactly who the former keeper was who supposedly had possession of them or why. The "S.S. London" was actually on its way back to Australia at the time it sank. However, as even Isaac Selby wrote his book in 1924, the effect of losing these records ". . . is not so important as some would have us believe. True, we have thus lost the location of very many unnamed graves, but there is a very complete Register of Burials in the Victorian Statist's Office."
Garryowen quotes George Wanstab, Secretary to the Trustees of the Old Cemetery, as saying that when he took over this position in 1866 there were no records of any kind available to him at the time. This is probably why, in 1867, the Public Works Department required anyone claiming ownership of a burial right in the cemetery to register and provide supporting evidence.
Over the years the Queen Victoria Market has progressively sought to take over the Old Melbourne Cemetery, each time stating that all burial remains would be treated in a sensitive manner and that no further disturbances would be made. One could be excused for being rather skeptical of these claims when one sees reports such as appeared in a Perth newspaper, the "Westralian Worker" on 7 March 1930 "Many bones are being unearthed at the site of the old Melbourne cemetery by a motor shovel which is being used to excavate earth in preparation for the extension of the Victoria Market. Last week more than 20 skeletons were found. A man stands beside the shovel and examines each load of earth before it is taken away to the Melbourne City Council's filling dump, where two employees of the Council again search the earth. The bones are gathered and stored in a shed on the site. Later they are placed in boxes and buried in the Fawkner cemetery. The old Melbourne cemetery was on the site adjoining the Victoria Market, and the early pioneers of the city were buried there."
Estimates as to how many people are still buried in the Old Melbourne Cemetery vary between 5,000 (Heritage Victoria) and 10,000 (National Trust). The Melbourne City Council is currently planning to realign Franklin Street so that it passes across the middle of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian Sections of the Cemetery and also do extensive building works on one side of the new street. Many well known identities from the early days of Melbourne are still buried there.
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