After the Old Melbourne Cemetery closed to further burials in 1854 funds for its upkeep began to dry up and it fell into disrepair. It became an eyesore that caused many residents to write to the newspapers calling for something to be done. One suggestion was reported in the "Melbourne Punch" of 28 July 1870: "Recreation for the Million - The North and West Melbourne people must be hard up for fun. They are sending a deputation to the Government to ask them to spend £2,000 in fitting up the old cemetery as a place of public recreation. If the request is granted, we trust the people will enjoy themselves as they anticipate picnics on tombstones, with funeral palls for table cloths, and the red wine quaffed from the skulls of the fathers of the colony; dances on the daisy sods that cover the mortal remains of JOHNNY FAWKNER'S old companions; "the tender tale breathed out beneath" the shade of the cypress tree, and bridal parties playing hide-and-seek among the ruined family vaults. Our spirits rise at the thought! How sweet, wethinks, to wander in the midnight hour through the ghostly pleasure-ground, with a fair young ghoul leaning on our arm, and casting longing looks on the closed graves over which we would disport; while the band of the North Melbourne Rifles, from their adjacent orderly room, would softly play the "Dead March of Saul" to keep up the jollity. We hope the Government will not balk the petitioners of their recreation."
In 1877 the Melbourne City Council succeeded in obtaining a portion of the cemetery for use by the Victoria Market. It was claimed that the Society of Friends Section and the Aboriginal Section, both of which fronted the Market were not consecrated ground and that there had been few burials in those sections. In the debates on the 'Melbourne Market Site Bill', Hansard records that it was claimed that there had only been two or three burials in the Aboriginal Section, and none in the Society of Friends Section but that one member of the Society of Friends had been mistakenly buried in the Jewish Section. It was also claimed that there would be a road separating the market and the remaining cemetery. As it was thought that an open iron railing fence between the old graves and a busy market would be objectionable, an amendment was introduced requiring that a solid brick wall of at least eight feet in height be built on the boundary. This brick wall can still be seen at the market.
What was not revealed in any of the debates, and is now widely accepted, is that all the cemetery records showing the exact location of each burial were lost about 1864. In fact twenty-eight bodies were removed at the end of 1877 and more have been located since then. One difficulty with the Aboriginal Section is that it was not connected to a religious denomination and therefore there are no surviving parish registers listing burials in that section. Several more bodies were found in August 1899 while making excavations for sewerage works. They were re-interred with those from 1877 in the Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton. And again in November 1990 the bodies of two young aboriginal men were dug up during excavations for a fire-hydrant service. One was believed to have part European ancestry and the other part Asian ancestry. It is therefore extremely likely that there are still further aboriginal burials in this area.
At the annual pioneers service at St. James Old Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne on Sunday morning, 4 November 1917, Archbishop Henry Lowther Clarke preached in the presence of the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson and Lady Helen Munro Ferguson; the Victorian Governor, Sir Arthur Lyulph Stanley and Lady Margaret Stanley; and other dignitaries. During his sermon the Archbishop protested strongly against the proposal to abolish the Melbourne Old General Cemetery. He stated that he was a trustee of the cemetery, and certain land therein was vested in him. Without questioning the right or power of Parliament to ignore the trust and carry out the proposal, he declared that Parliament was violating the bond entered into with the trust. If the proposal were effected it would be a desecration of consecrated ground, and of the hallowed remains of the pioneers buried there. He would do all in his power to prevent this. At the evening service Archdeacon William George Hindley, referring to the same matter, pointed out that when the pioneers were buried in the cemetery it was in good faith, in the minds of the pioneers in life and of their relatives remaining to mourn them, that the ground would be the resting-place of their bones for ever. He also protested, as vicar of St. James's, the church attended by so many of the pioneers, against the proposal.
It is believed that it was the congregation's response to the above sermons that led to the formation of the 'Old Melbourne Cemetery Preservation League' with Alfred Henry Padley as Secretary. On 16 December 1917 they held a rally in the old cemetery at which a talk was given about the pioneers and their respective graves pointed out. Then on 20 February 1918 they held a meeting in the Chapter House at St. Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne at which Archbishop Clarke presided. He said that he had not at first realised the seriousness of the plans to take over the old cemetery, but now felt that if he had refused to attend the meeting he would not have been doing his duty to the church he represented. He believed the cemetery should be kept in good order as a sacred ground.
Another meeting of the league was held on 27 February 1918 in the Presbyterian Assembly Hall, Collins Street, Melbourne. Rev. Dr. John Laurence Rentoul presided and moved: "That this meeting of citizens confirms the resolutions passed at previous public meetings protesting against the annexation and conversion of the old cemetery into a public market, and pledges itself to leave no stone unturned to preserve it for its rightful purpose for all time." The motion was agreed to. Among the speakers at the meeting were Mr. Isaac Selby, Mr. Mayston and Mrs. Frederic Godfrey Hughes (president of the Australian Women's National League).
The Old Melbourne Cemetery Preservation League then published a booklet written by A. H. Padley giving a history of the cemetery and set out their case for its preservation. In it Padley wrote "In 1914 a function was held in the shape of a Memorial Service at Batman's Grave, when a wreath was placed upon his monument. The State Governor, Lord Stanley, and the Lord Mayor (Sir David Hennessy) officiated at the function, and both publicly stated that under no circumstances would one foot of this historic cemetery be further encroached upon. But such is the irony of time that the first-named gentleman signed the assent to the recent Act passed, handing the balance of the Cemetery to the City Council, while Lord Mayor Hennessy's end of his period of office was marked by the efforts of his Council succeeding in doing the very thing he so solemnly promised would never be done."
A dispute developed between A. H. Padley and Isaac Selby which led to Selby forming the 'Old Cemetery and Soldiers' Memorial Union' in 1918. Selby had the idea of building a War Memorial in the centre of the cemetery to honour the servicemen who had died in World War 1. Though he did not succeed in doing this, his efforts may well have contributed to the establishment of the Shrine of Remembrance. In fact the way that St. Kilda Road diverts around the Shrine could be a model for Franklin Street being diverted around a new memorial garden on the site of the Old Melbourne Cemetery.
While it is well known that all the memorials and their associated remains were taken to Fawkner Cemetery in the early 1920s, it is less well known that in 1930 a steam shovel was used in the old cemetery to dig foundations for the row of market buildings fronting Franklin Street. This resulted in the following article appearing in the English press: "SKELETONS IN THE FERTILISER - CEMETERY SOIL FOR MELBOURNE PARKS - A protest has been made against the use of soil from the old Melbourne cemetery as top dressing for the city's parks and gardens. Residents of Parkville, the University suburb of Melbourne, appointed a deputation to interview the City Council on the question. It was asserted that skulls and skeletons could be seen in the soil in the parks. Meanwhile the Parks and Gardens Committee has been asked to report on the matter. A prominent Melbourne doctor said, in an interview, that he was too hardened to be disturbed by the revelations. Personally, he thought the Council's idea excellent. He failed to see why such fertile soil should be wasted. He was proud to think that he could be of some service to the world after his demise. A well-known company director was not so enthusiastic. He said that the idea of being used as top dressing for a city park had no great appeal for him." ("Nottingham Evening Post" Friday, 11 April 1930)
Many years later the Melbourne press reported: "PIONEERS' BONES ON DUMP - MINISTER'S COMPLAINT - REDRESS PROMISED - Declaring that the bones of pioneers of Victoria who had been buried in the old Melbourne General Cemetery had been thrown on the City Council's spoil dump in Royal Park, near the Parkville Presbyterian Church, the Rev. F. Milne, minister of the church, protested to the Minister for Lands (Mr. Lind) yesterday against what he termed an 'intolerable desecration.' Mr. Lind said that he would investigate the complaint with officers of the City Council, the Lands Department, and Mr. Holland, M.L.A. The bones, Mr. Milne understood, had come from soil excavated for additions to the Victoria Market, part of which was built over the cemetery. He indicated spoil heaps on which bones, held to be human, were visible. Mr. Milne's protest was made when a deputation of many Parkville residents interviewed Mr. Lind near the corner of Gatehouse Street and Royal Parade to protest against the erection by the council of an iron and wood stable for 24 horses and an engine-shed, and the use by the council of the eastern corner of Royal Park as a dump for spoil, road metal, and manure heaps. Mr. Milne pointed to his church, Ormond College, and the new Women's Hostel at the University, and an infants' school, and asked how such an abomination as the heaps be permitted in such a locality. Odours and flies were often so bad that he wished sometimes, that his faith would permit the burning of incense to remove the nuisance. Mr. Lind replied that when he had visited the area previously with the town clerk (Mr. Wootton) Mr. Wootton assured him that the cause of the complaint would be removed. He regretted that that assurance had not been effected. The deputy town clerk (Mr. Dean) assured Mr. Lind that the matter would receive attention." ( "Argus" 28 January 1937 )
More recently, when any excavations have been done on the site of the old cemetery an archaeological examination has been performed and a report prepared. Any human remains are replaced in situ and any artefacts catalogued.
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