A Kindred Spirit of more than a century ago

The Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta may have only officially formed in late June 2016, but the current members are merely the latest in a long line of Friends. It’s a pleasure to come upon words written by a kindred spirit of 120 years ago.  In spite of all the time that has passed, “Wanderer,” writing for the Granville Independent and Parramatta Advertiser in March 1901, describes many familiar sights within the cemetery. Given the timing of the piece, and the similarity of the wording to later articles contributed to local newspapers by St. John’s Cemetery’s greatest advocate of the era, William Freame, it seems “Wanderer” was likely a nom de plume Freame used early on.

Like a few of the inscriptions on the historic headstones mentioned in the piece, “Wanderer’s” own words are sometimes hard to make out in the faded newspaper print, yet some of the details are still so current and full of passion as well as hope for a heritage site “rich” in “a wealth of old time records…many of them pregnant with weight in the history of Australia.” Thus, for your reading pleasure, I have transcribed “Wanderer’s” full tribute to St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta below.




Some people have a mortal aversion to graveyards even by daylight—to ask them to enter one in the dark would assuredly mean hysterics. The writer, when a boy, with other young urchins, has had many a happy moonlight chase after rabbits in an old burial ground, such a place as the coffin was borne to on the shoulders of men. God wot the poor folk down below slept well all the same. At times some dozen or more boys and girls would gather on some old flat-topped tomb, and there under the shade of the tall cypresses discuss school matters, mischief or some old-time story of ghostly mystery. Queer taste this in juveniles but we were ne’er a whit the worse. A big fellow in khaki, just back from Africa, was often a member of our graveyard council.

The other day I was asked if I’d like to “do” (potential word that) St. John’s Burial Ground, and I agreed to exploit the place in quest of “copy.” The ground is sacred to many in these parts and here rest the ashes of many an Australian pioneer. In such a spot a latter day Gray might well write another elegy amid the time-worn lichen-covered stones, the silence only broken broken by the laughter of children outside or the whistle of a passing train. It is indeed a typically sequestered God’s acre. By the way, what an expressive term that is—God’s Acre—whether applied to the quiet old English churchyard, the last resting place in the tropics ‘neath graceful palms and bright-hued flowers or out in the red sandy waste of the Never Never country where bleached wooden crosses stand in sad memoriam.

Entering this old resting-place of St. John’s, the first thing to strike one is the rank growth of grass, also the plentiful sprinkling of what as children we called “Bachelors’ Buttons.” Tree growth is not heavy here, the cypresses making the best showing. Through the grass lizards run here and there, and the warm air is animated with bees, flies, and gay-plumed butterflies. Here at least one could realise the phrase, “The world forgetting, by the world forgot.”

Almost the first step on entering brings one to a quaint piece of work by the left hand side of the main path. It is a pointed topped stone to the memory of a child 18 months old, no date, and the laboured mixing of capitals and small letters bespeak the hand of an amateur who most likely wrought at a task of love.

Trudging kneedeep through the rich lush grass, touched here and there with a blaze of purple or scarlet blossom or a star-shaped passion flower, what a wealth of old-time records came to hand, many of them pregnant with weight in the history of Australia.

A very conscientious attendant told me with pride that this ground “beat Devonshire-street bad” in the matter of antiquity.  In proof of this he led me to a weather-beaten stone, whereon was the statement that Thomas Daveney, buried there, died in infancy, in 1791. Just near by stands then stone telling that “Mary Story, wife of Thomas Story, whitesmith,” departed this life on November 11, 1792. Near at hand is the grave of the grandparents of (then) Mr. George Thornton, J. P. of Sydney.” On a-leaning headstone, to the memory of John Bryan, aged 21, who died in 1802, are carved three coffins, a crucifix, and a figure of the sun with grotesque human features. The big vault of the Best family tells of many departed, including George, who was drowned in the Whollondary. James Nolan was buried here in 1804, and another stone records that Robert Harvey was drowned in “a dreadful gale in the Parramatta River” in 1875. Stones to the memory of soldiers who died in the district are numerous, one recording the deaths of two captains and a sergeant of the 80th Regiment. Among the many old family graves are those of the Hacketts, Kilpacks, Major D’Arcy Wentworth and many other honoured colonists, the ages in many instances exceeding 70 and 80 years.

A remarkable thing about these old stones is the clearness of most of the inscriptions, while those on stones of much later date are often almost illegible. The old stone seems of finer grain and much harder. Not a few of the worn inscriptions show pencil and other marks where the curious have sought to decipher them.

Dr. Marsden’s grave is a notable one from the historic associations of the venerable divine’s name. He lies here in a vault with his wife and relatives. A brass plate on the stone tells that the Rev. Doctor was 73 years of age when he died on May 13, 1838; that he was minister of St. John’s Parramatta for nearly half a century and that he was one of the first chaplains who arrived in this colony. The Rev. H. H. Bobart, for 18 months minister of St. John’s, is also buried in the same vault, having died on July 19, 1854. Then there is the grave of the Rev. John Eyre, who was one of the missionaries to the Society Islands per ship Duff, and who died on April 12, 1854, aged 87.

There are many more of these documents in stone worthy of note, but I must confine myself to mention only a few of them. One is to the memory of Benjamin Ratty, who died on October 7, 1826, aged 30 years. The inscription sets forth that “Deceased was a constable in the town of Parramatta during seven years, and this stone was erected by its inhabitants as a mark of their esteem for his services on various occasions, and particularly for his intrepid behaviour on the field on the night of the 23rd of September, when he received a wound which caused his death from a pistol shot, which conduct led to the apprehension of a part of the Banditte.” Part of this inscription is illegible owing to the stonecutter having carved words on top of others. In a remote corner is the grave of Peter Porter of the 57th Regiment, who died on August 13, 1832. Below are the following quaintly pathetic lines :—

“As you from me was called away,

You could with me no longer stay.

Here as a stranger as I be,

May Heaven protect my children three.

As from me you did depart.

You leave me with a broken heart.”

Another stone that is worthy of mention is the large slab over the grave of an old time Government servant who had a very stirring career. The inscription runs thus:—

“To the memory of Augustus Theodore Henry Allt [sic], Baron of Hesse Cassel, who died January 9th, 1815, aged 84; late Surveyor-General of New South Wales at the first settlement of the colony, which situation he held till he was superannuated he served as Lieutenant of the Guards in George the II’s reign; was Aide-de-Camp to Prince Ferdinand at the battle of Mendon [sic], and Captain of the Manchester Volunteer Regiment at the Siege of Giberealter [sic], under General (name illegible, Rooke presumably), where he distinguished himself by his gallant manner. He was a Compleat Gentleman, never told an untruth to the injury of any man, and died universally regretted by all who knew him.” The stone was erected by a nephew of the Baron in H. M. Navy.

Perhaps the above jottings will awaken a little interest in the historic ground where so many of our honoured dead are lying, and if so is it too much to hope to see some of the graves put in a little better order than they are at present?

Granville Independent and Parramatta Advertiser (NSW : 1900 – 1901), Friday 8 March 1901, p. 6.