Headstones as historical sources

Student activities

Task no. 1

Who were they?

Headstones can provide information about a person’s life. When the Devonshire Street Cemetery was to be removed to make way for Central Station, Arthur and Josephine Ethel Foster thought it was important to record information about the cemetery and the people who were laid to rest there. They took photographs of the headstones and they also recorded the inscriptions by hand, one by one into a record book. Here are some of the inscriptions that the Fosters recorded in the two years they spent on their project.

Josephine said: ‘We all realise how rapidly the old is giving place to the new, and only by means of pictures will those who come after us know what Sydney was like once upon a time. And in looking at pictures of quiet streets, quaint old homes, beautiful gardens and fine old trees, they will understand why many today still call this queenly city “Dear old Sydney”’.


Joseph Charles Tremayne

 Only son of Joseph Hyde Potts

Of the Bank of N.S. Wales

Who resigned his spirit

On the 9th day of November 1838

Sacred to the memory of Mary Curran

who was found Drowned

August 1st 1821

Aged 46 Years

The Mother of Storers children

Sacred to the memory

of William Oliver

who was accidentally killed by a Bullock Cart

April the 2d. 1821

Aged 34 years

Catherine Jane, who departed this life
in the 22nd year of her age,
having never recovered from the
shock and affliction occasioned by
the awful and sudden death of her husband
who met his fate
by the falling of his horse.
Likewise their son Alexander, aged 2 days


Sacred to the memory of Samuel and Easter [Esther] Bradley who where Inhumanly

Murder’d by their own Servant

on the 15th of August 1822

S.B. Aged 59 Years

E.B Aged 65 Years



Imagine you are either Arthur or Josephine Foster and you are visiting the Devonshire Street Cemetery, taking photographs and recording inscriptions.

Compose a script of the conversation they might have had about the inscriptions they read, recorded and photographed. Use the samples above in your script and include what the Fosters learnt about life in the early days of the colony. In this script, you might include their reasons for dedicating so much of their spare time to making these records.

Task no. 2

Looking after the past for the future

Look at Source 1. This is a very old headstone belonging to George Graves who came to NSW with the First Fleet in 1788.  George Graves was a free sailor on the First Fleet ship, Sirius. He died when he was 48 years old, but we do not know how he died.

Unfortunately, people in the past were not always as careful about preserving headstones as we are today. George Graves’ headstone was discovered because it had been used as part of a footpath in The Rocks, Sydney.


  1. Do you think it was right or wrong to use George’s headstone as part of the footpath? Give reasons to support your opinion.
  2. Imagine that you find out in the news that your old local cemetery is going to be destroyed. All the graves will be dug up and the land will be used for shops and houses. Write a letter to your local council about the importance of the cemetery to your community and why it is necessary to preserve it.
Series 02: Glass negatives of headstones in Devonshire Street Cemetery, Sydney, and other cemeteries, ca. 1900-1914 / Mrs. Arthur George Foster, ca. 1900-1914
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