Sydney Architecture Images- Gone but not forgotten

Old Sydney Burial Ground Plaque 34 of the Green Plaques




George Street (Town Hall site)


in use as early as 1793, and closed as a cemetery in 1820




Rendered brick Stone


Church  Utility cemetary
Summary Sydney Town Hall sits on the site of what was once the principal cemetery of NSW. Dating back to the 1790s, the site is commonly called the Old Sydney Burial Ground.
Picture of Sydney Town Hall cemetery wall in 1842 (on left of picture). Sydney markets / police station shown to the north of the site. Source: The Daily Telegraph.

The 1789 smallpox epidemic among the Sydney Aborigines caused a breakdown in traditional burial practices and the job of burying the dead was often left to the Europeans, who buried them in places that had become customary burial grounds. At first European burial grounds were situated wherever the colonists saw fit or wherever was convenient.

The British custom mostly involved burying people in graveyards attached to a local church but there were no churches in the first years of the colony. The first official public European burial ground was established only in 1792, on George St on the site of what is today the Sydney Town Hall. The site was chosen by governor Arthur Phillip and Reverend Richard Johnson, primarily because it was then on the outskirts of the settlement.

In 1812 the original block set aside for the cemetery had to be extended as the population of the town grew. The ground was never officially consecrated, although that year there was also a land grant for the church of St Andrews. But development soon overtook the outlying cemetery and there were complaints from nearby shops and houses about the smell from the burial ground.

In 1820 the Old Burial Ground, as it became known, was officially closed and later a brick wall built around it to protect the gravestones from vandalism and desecration by wandering goats and cattle.
Above- St. Andrew's Cathedral and Sydney Town Hall circa 1900
Above- site plan of the cemetery.
Above- map from 1820 showing burial grounds. Click for large view.
Town Hall

On the other side of Druitt street, where the Town Hall now stands, was one of the early Sydney cemeteries. The first was in George street North, in the vicinity of an eye-sore to the city; during the day boys played between the tombstones and at night it was the haunt of bad characters. There yet probably remain a number of coffins in the Town Hall grounds, while others may have the Globe street; the second was near the corner of Clarence and Margaret streets; and the third was on the Town Hall site, and was in use as early as 1793, and closed as a cemetery in 1820.

For some 50 years it remained as wood blocks of George street as their covering. One, I know, is under the footpath just on the south side of the southern gateway entrance to the Town Hall.

In 1904, when the electric light cables were being laid along this footpath, a corner of the coffin was disclosed. It was not disturbed, but a bottle containing an inscription and newspaper of the day was placed inside, and the coffin cemented over. Little did the relatives of that man dream when they lowered the body into its grave that it would have one day for its tombstone a magnificent building, that over it would pass daily the tread of a thousand feet, and that within a foot of its resting place would pass a mysterious current with powers so incredible that it would transcend their wildest dreams.

When the City Council was looking for a site for a Town Hall in 1843 it asked the Government to vest in it the old burial ground for this purpose. The Governor agreed, and introduced a bill in 1845, but a select committee reported against the proposal, and the measure was dropped. I do not know if the letter of an irate objector to the proposal which appeared in one of the papers in September, 1845, had anything to do with the rejection of the proposal. So that you may judge I quote the first paragraph :—
"Gracious Heavens! Is it possible that, in the nineteenth century, when the universal diffusion of human intelligence and knowledge is declared to be the Ultima Thule of sublunary blessedness, in the promotion of which her most Christian Majesty Queen Victoria, of all the lords, temporal and spiritual, of her Imperial Parliament profess to combine, that her Majesty's representative in Botany Bay should be so abandoned to all sense of decency, allegiance, and duty to her most gracious Majesty, and her most loved subjects in this remote territory, as to propose a project so monstrous, so inhuman and unchristian as the sacrilegious spoliation of the sacred repositories of the silent dead."'

When the members of the Legislative Council came to the surface again after reading this, they also probably ejaculated "Gracious Heavens!" The Council was more successful in a later application, and on March 3, 1869, an Act was passed vesting the site in the Council.

Fellow Royal Australian Historical Society

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Sydney’s first official cemetery

Sydney Town Hall sits on the site of what was once the principal cemetery of NSW. Dating back to the 1790s, the site is commonly called the Old Sydney Burial Ground.
It is also known as the George Street Burial Ground, the Cathedral Close Cemetery and, retrospectively, the Town Hall Cemetery.
The site, on the outskirts of town, was chosen by Governor Phillip and the Reverend Richard Johnson in September 1792.
It was decided this place would not affect the health of the living and could remain a place of quiet seclusion.
In 1812, Governor Macquarie authorised the extension of the burial ground to the north and west, and granted a site for a new church, St Andrew’s, next door. With the extension, the burial ground covered just over 2 acres.
The old burial ground was used for 27 years, yet its management was ad hoc. It was not formally gazetted as a burial ground, no trustees were appointed while the cemetery was active and it was apparently not consecrated.
The Church of England clergy officiated at funerals, but according to the Reverend William Cowper, "the dead of all communions were interred indiscriminately" and no formal cemetery register or plan of the burials was kept.
The cemetery buried convicts and free people. There were no apparent denominational divisions but some social distinctions were maintained. Early Sydney residents recalled that the military were buried in different parts of the cemetery.
The corner close to Kent Street hosted graves of the non-commissioned officers of the 46th and 48th Regiment. Over in the south-west corner near the Presbyterian Church, soldiers of the 73rd Regiment were buried. And in the ground fronting George Street, near Druitt Street, some non-commissioned officers of the NSW Corps were buried.

Detail from Sheet E1 of the 1865 Trigonometrical Survey of Sydney (City of Sydney Archives/State Records) showing the size and boundaries of the Old Sydney Burial Ground. Druitt Street runs along the bottom of the picture, Bathurst Street along the top, and George Street to the left. The building within the cemetery grounds is the wooden temporary St Andrews Church.
By 1820 the cemetery was full so a new burial ground was set aside on Brickfield Hill – now the site of Central Railway Station. Some vaults and graves were opened and the corpses and sepulchre deposited in the new burial ground.
Once closed, the cemetery was neglected. By 1837 many of the headstones had been vandalised. The cemetery became “a resort for bad characters at night” and by day stray pigs, goats and horses wandered among the graves, many of which lay open.
Unpleasant smells arising from the grounds became unbearable in hot weather. Many blamed clandestine burials and grave robbers opening graves to steal leaden coffins. It was also recorded in a committee report that men utilised the old burial ground to answer the call of nature.

Graves to governance

Given the lack of public interest in maintaining the cemetery, it is not surprising the City of Sydney decided to instead use the site for its Town Hall. However, political difficulties and public opposition to disturbing graves meant the colonial government offered other sites to the City, including George Street Markets, the police office, the old Government House site and Hyde Park. So for more than 30 years the Council met in various pubs and buildings around town.
In 1865 the City once again applied for a grant of a portion of the old burial ground. This time the colonial government agreed and part of the cemetery was formally transferred to the City in 1869 for the construction of the Sydney Town Hall.
Politician and undertaker Robert Stewart was given the difficult task of exhuming the remains.
Few could remember who was buried there – or where. It appears no plans or registers of the cemetery were kept and few headstones remained. Little is known about the actual exhumation process, although evidence suggests it began in April 1869 and was completed by September the same year.
The remains that could be found were moved to the Church of England cemetery's new Necropolis at Haslem’s Creek – now known as the Rookwood Necropolis. Only 1 legible headstone remained standing, commemorating Captain Hamilton, and this was removed by relatives to the Necropolis as well.
The City commissioned stonemason Francis Murphy to create a large classical monument to identify the graves at Rookwood. The inscription records the name of the mayor but due to gaps in the historical record it does not list any names of those buried in the old cemetery.

What lies beneath

It soon became obvious the exhumation was done in a basic manner. Stewart, the undertaker, appears to have followed the City engineer’s advice to only clear the building’s footprint. Coffins were unearthed during the construction of the Deanery of St Andrew’s in 1871-1872.
Coffins and a headstone to Darby Carbery were uncovered in 1888 when the main hall of the Sydney Town Hall was being completed, and in the 1890s water main excavations uncovered skulls.
Coffins and tombs were discovered in 1904 and 1924 when electric light cables were being laid.

Newspaper headlines proclaiming the coffin discoveries in July 1924. (City of Sydney Archives)
Tombstones and ironbark coffins were found by workmen in 1929 during the open-cut excavations for Town Hall Railway Station.
In 1974 vaults were uncovered during the excavation and formation of Sydney Square, which sits between Sydney Town Hall and St Andrew's Cathedral.
Drainage works under the Sydney Town Hall in 1991 brought to light another 7 graves, some with skeletal remains. Part of a headstone inscribed to Elizabeth Steel was also recovered.
In 2003, graves were discovered to the north of the Town Hall during building works for a new forecourt area.
Then in September 2007, with new building works about to commence, evidence of grave sites was again uncovered beneath the Lower Town Hall. Initial site-specific archaeological investigations point to the remnants of at least 50 simple graves – no headstone fragments, coffin fragments or brick vaults have been uncovered.
These archaeological discoveries help to build up a picture of the burial customs at the start of European settlement. Unexpectedly, a number of graves were marked by stone memorials and a large proportion of burials appear to have occurred in timber coffins rather than simple shrouds.
These findings challenge historians' and archaeologists' expectations of common burial practices in the new colony. Evidence of brick-lined vaults and cedar coffins with brass studs confirm elaborate funerary practices took place in the new colony, suggesting British burial practices and customs had been adopted in Australia.