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Set in concrete in neat lines within Botany’s Pioneer Memorial Park are headstones from a vanished Sydney cemetery.
Enduring the wind, salt and air pollution for more than 100 years, these 746 headstones are remnants of the Devonshire Street cemetery that once sprawled across sandy, uneven ground bounded by the city’s Elizabeth, Pitt and Devonshire streets — where Central Station now stands.
The major cemetery for nineteenth century Sydney, the Devonshire Street Cemetery was divided by walls into seven sections denoting religious denominations. The oldest was the Church of England section, then Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Wesleyan, Quaker and Jewish sections.
Consecrated in 1820, the cemetery filled quickly over the following decades. It was officially closed in 1867, but family vaults continued to accept new burials. By the end of the nineteenth century, the entire ground was overgrown and uncared for; burials had been made within every square inch, even under paths. Rubbish was often dumped from neighbouring terraces, and at night it was a dangerous, insalubrious place.
In January 1901 the State government announced its intention to clear the cemetery to make way for Central Station. It is estimated that over 30,000 bodies had to be removed. Descendants were given two months’ notice to decide where their forebears’ remains would be reinterred. Those not claimed would be transferred to Bunnerong cemetery, an extension of Botany cemetery.
Before the graves were exhumed, two dedicated locals from nearby Albion Street, Surry Hills, set about documenting the cemetery. Married couple Arthur and Josephine Ethel Foster were standing next to the headstone of ex-convict and successful businesswoman Mary Reibey when they decided to photograph and copy the inscriptions.
Mrs Foster photographed the headstones as Mr Foster cleared away the undergrowth and inked the text carved into the stone to ensure the words were clear. He also copied the inscriptions into notebooks. While the couple primarily documented the Church of England section, their record is extraordinary — it allows us to look back to nineteenth century Sydney and read the tragic accounts of short lives and misfortunate deaths, for example:
Harriet Mary Sheba
Only daughter of
Joseph Hyde Potts
Who ceased to breathe
On the 5th day of December 1838
to the memory of
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
While headstones and burial monuments feature in the foreground of the images, there are often glimpses of the surrounding landscape — the undulating land, the looming dark trees, the texture of the old brick walls and the terrace houses built right up to the edge of the cemetery. In the distance are the landmarks of smoke stacks and church spires.
The Fosters worked on their project in their spare time — Saturday afternoons, Sundays and holidays. Mrs Foster took hundreds of photographs and Mr Foster transcribed about half of the 1,220 Church of England monuments, along with parts of other sections. Their work attracted the interest of journalists after the resumption of the cemetery was announced in the press. As the Australian Star reported in February 1901:
'A LADY PHOTOGRAPHER, with her attendant genius holding the umbrella … to shield her from the bright and ardent sun of an easy and cool summer’s day, was there and she even wanted to take the photographs of Constable Williams and the representative of the ‘Star’, doubtless under the belief that such persons were part and parcel of the whole panorama ...'
In her booklet Odd Bits of Old Sydney, published in 1921, Mrs Foster reflected on photographing Sydney in the early twentieth century;
"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’".
In many of the images, evidence of cemetery clearance can be seen; workmen digging the ground, headstones piled up, and tram tracks laid to enable the tram to transport the remains out of the cemetery.
It wasn’t just the cemetery that was cleared in 1901. The entire block where Central Station now stands, some 11 acres (4.5 hectares), included some of Sydney’s early colonial buildings; the Benevolent Asylum (built in 1820), Christ Church parsonage (built 1852), the Police Barracks and Inspector General of Police, the morgue, the Sydney Female Factory, the Convent of the Good Samaritan and the Tram Depot.
Central Station opened to the public in August 1906. In 1915 the second construction phase began, involving extensions to the north and west wings (completed in 1918), and the clock tower, completed in 1921.
In the mid-1920s, suburban lines were electrified, and Platforms 16-23 were constructed. The Central Electric Station was completed in 1929.
The Fosters were among the founding members of the Australian Historical Society (now the Royal Australian Historical Society) in 1901. After Mr Foster’s death in 1924, the couple’s meticulous documentation of the cemetery and other Sydney landmarks was purchased by the Library. Mrs Foster did not photograph or write again on Sydney’s history, but she remained closely involved in the RAHS until she died in 1955. Arthur and Josephine Ethel Foster are buried at South Head cemetery.
Almost 120 years after the Devonshire Street cemetery was cleared, the headstones that remain standing at Botany cemetery are still beautiful — though altered. The old stones are covered in lichen, and the predominant colour of the scene is rust-red. The many examples of Victorian-era stonemasonry — angels, seraphs, sacred hearts and crosses, draped urns and broken columns — contrast with the modern cemetery. And some of the inscriptions can no longer be deciphered.
Senior Curator, Research and Discovery
This article was first published in SL magazine, Winter 2019.
Glass negatives of headstones in Devonshire Street Cemetery, Sydney, and other cemeteries, ca. 1900-1914, by Mrs. Arthur George Foster, ON 146/nos. 330-485
Photographs of tombstones in Devonshire Street Cemetery, with typescript indices, 1900-1901 / Josephine Ethel Foster (Mrs Arthur George), PXB 768
Epitaph book of Church of England section of Devonshire Street (Sand Hills) Cemetery, Sydney 1901, compiled by A.G. Foster 1900-1901, with typescript introduction by C.H. Bertie, 1925, B 765
Arthur George Foster papers, 1900-1901
State Records of NSW
Devonshire Street Cemetery Board records
Devonshire Street Cemetery Reinterment Index
References and further reading
Sydney burial ground 1819-1901: Elizabeth and Devonshire streets and history of Sydney's early cemeteries from 1788 by Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty, 2001
Gravestone inscriptions, N.S.W. compiled by Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty, 1973
Sydney cemeteries: a field guide by Lisa Murray, 2016
[Devonshire Street Cemetery re-interment register and index] [microform]