Devonshire Street Cemetery
Chosen for its abundance of space and central location, the area bordered by Elizabeth and Devonshire streets was chosen to replace the Old Burial Ground as Sydney’s premier final resting place. By 1900, its advanced state of neglect and decay reflected its residents and disturbed the public.

1878 THE DEVONSHIRE-STREET CEMETERY- Though New South Wales bids fair, by her fiscal policy, and vast natural resources, to take the lead amongst the Australian Colonies, she certainly needs frequent reminders of her sleepiness in other matters. A deputation of well-known gentlemen waited on the Minister for Lands on the 3rd instant, to request that a sum of £3,000 be placed on the Estimates for the improvement of Devonshire Street Cemetery. Considering that this burial place is now almost the very centre of Sydney and its immediate suburbs, we must confess to feeling some slight sensation of shame that any body of citizens could have taken such a matter in hand in so half-hearted a manner. If the money is sought to construct drains all round the ground to carry the essence of decayed humanity into the harbour sewers, or to remove the brick and stone buttress in Elizabeth Street, through which slimy and offensive matter oozes after rainy weather, and so somewhat lessen the evils likely to arise, we commend its probable appropriation as one step forward ; but it is high time some more definite action was taken in regard to this death-nest in our midst. The health of the living demands the removal of the dead to a distance which precludes even a chance of its suffering from their undue proximity. The old cemetery in Melbourne has been closed to burials now over ten years, and yet the gates of the Devonshire Street Cemetery are still often thrown open, that persons living at a safe distance may place their dead under the very noses of their fellow-citizens resident in the locality. What would be the effect of a memorial from the residents in the neighbourhood of Belmore Park, praying for a cemetery to be opened at any other place within a similar distance from the General Post Office? No doubt a storm of disapproval would burst out at once from those who are now so vulgarly selfish as not to heed, or too ignorant to see, the gross injury they are doing to those whom they thus compel to keep company with their dead relatives. We cannot believe in the love for the dead which demands their interment in such a bustling neighbourhood as that which now surrounds the Devonshire Street grounds. It is a maudlin mummyism utterly inconsistent with that refined feeling which prefers graves as quiet as those which, in the recent Loch Ard disaster, received the bodies the waves refused to cover. Then let the Devonshire Street Cemetery be closed at once. If any-one owning tombs there should be too poor or too miserly to build fresh ones on more suitable sites, let compensation be given by the Government. After the lapse of five or ten years let the whole hill be cut away, and the coffins removed to Haslem's or elsewhere. There can be little doubt that the value of the land reclaimed would be much in excess of all cost of making the improvement. What rational ground can there be for any longer postponing a change which must come in the course of a few years!
Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier 1878

In January 1901, the Department of Public Works served notice that anyone with relatives buried at Devonshire Street were to front up and make known their desire to have the remains reinterred at other cemeteries by train, with the cost to be borne by the NSW Government. Unfortunately, these relatives were given a strict time limit of two months to act, and by the end of that time, only 8,460 bodies had been claimed. This left 30,000 remains unclaimed, most of which were transferred to other cemeteries. With so many bodies to exhume, some of the creepy finding made the newspaper.

1901 BURIED ALIVE - Many gruesome scenes are witnessed at the Devonshire-street cemetery during the removal of the remains of the early colonists buried therein, but perhaps the most painful and distressing was when the other day, one of the vaults were opened (says ‘Rylstone’ in the Mudgee Western Post). On removing the slab at the entrance of the vault it was seen that something was wrong. The coffin was lying on its side and there, in kneeling position, on the floor of the vault, was the skeleton of the man who had occupied the coffin. One arm of the skeleton was bent across the eyes as if to shut out the horrible and hopeless position the poor victim had found himself in. The little knot of people who were witnesses of the opening of the vault examined the skeleton and the coffin very carefully, and it was seen that the coffin had been opened by force. There was only one conclusion to come to, and that was that the unfortunate man bad been buried alive, probably In a trance, and when he awoke, the horror of finding himself buried made him use frantic efforts to release himself, with the result that his struggle to regain liberty he burst open the coffin, to find himself in a living tomb. Oh! the horror and agony of mind that this poor creature mast have endured during his imprisonment in the vault, before death released him from his suffering, can better be imagined then described. The kneeling position of the victim indicated clearly that, although he found himself in this terrible plight, he had bowed to the will of Fate had placed his trust in the Great Creator, and had spent his last moments in prayer. I have always bad a horror of being buried alive, and have on rainy occasions expressed a wish to those near and dear to me, when I "shuffle off this mortal soil," to let my remains lie in the house until they smell a wee bit 'gamey.' If any of my folk die before me I shall certainly take the same precaution with them. One can stand many kinds of jokes, but being buried alive is a bit beyond my paper.
The Corowa Free Press 1901

The reason for the rush was that Melbourne had started work on their Central equivalent, Flinders Street Station, that same year. Sydney was determined to get the drop on Melbourne this time, as Flinders predecessor ‘Melbourne Terminus’ had been Australia’s first city railway station back in 1854, pipping Sydney by a year. The Devonshire Cemetery site had been completely cleared by 1902, and stage one of Central’s construction, which aimed to have the station operational, was completed in 1906. The construction wasn’t just focused on making sure the station would be operational before Flinders Street, though; there was particular care taken to ensure no trace of the Devonshire Street Cemetery remained, going so far as to completely eradicate Devonshire Street west of its intersection with Elizabeth. Other structures that once stood on the land now occupied by Central and its surrounds – the Belmore Police Barracks, the Benevolent Asylum, the womens refuge – have similarly been lost to time. Today, nothing remains to remind commuters of the morbid nature of Central’s past. The cemetery itself was largely situated underneath today’s platforms. Devonshire Street Tunnel, once Devonshire Street, runs directly underneath the path once carved between the cemetery and Sydney Station, depositing Surry Hills pedestrians into Railway Square amid el-cheapo bargain shops, youth hostels and fast food joints. Rookwood Necropolis, Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, Woronora Cemetery and many others were the recipients of many of the (not so) permanent residents of Devonshire Street, but none feature as striking and immediate a memorial as the tiny, eerie Camperdown Memorial Rest Park. Here, amongst the sombre atmosphere of tombstones and gloomy, gnarled trees lie what were once the gate posts met by visitors to Devonshire Street. These were removed along with everything else in 1901, and mysteriously disappeared from existence until 1946, when they were recovered.

1946 HISTORIC GATES AT CEMETERY - Two sandstone pillars, which were at the entrance to the old Devonshire Street (The Sandhills) Cemetery, have been recovered and re-erected in Camperdown Cemetery. The pillars, each in one piece weighing two tons, are of the best quality sand-stone. They had been lost sight of for about 30 years. The Devonshire Street Cemetery was next to the old Redfern (Central) railway station. It was abolished in 1901, when the present Central Station was built. The chairman of the Camperdown Cemetery Trust., Mr. P. W. Gledhill, said the historic pillars are more than 100 years old and may have been erected at Devonshire Street when that cemetery was established in 1810. It was hoped, Mr. Gledhill said, that the reorganisation of the cemetery, in accordance with the recent agreement between the trust and the Government, would be completed by the centenary of the establishment of the cemetery, in a little more than two years (253).
The Sydney Morning Herald 1946

Here is a fascinating account of a visit to Devonshire Street Cemetery just as its demolition was beginning:-

1901 A VISIT TO THE DEVONSHIRE STREET CEMETERY BEFORE DEMOLITION- A few more years and all memory of Devonshire-street Cemetery in Sydney will be completely wiped out! For, through the quiet little "garden of sleep," where so many of the makers of our city were once laid to rest, the great new railway is to pass. Very soon this old land mark, so full of memories to those who know Sydney best, will become a scene of stirring and lively activity. Years ago the Cemetery was far enough out of town; but to the younger generation it has always been known as a retired and hallowed spot in the very midst of a busy and work-a-day city, bearing a strong contrast, in its quiet seclusion, to the struggling energy of life around. The pick and shovel have already made a considerable change in the place. But the crowd now passes by unheeding, for the first novelty has passed away, and a crowd must ever have something fresh to feed its imagination! When first the work was begun, public excitement was great, and "the man in the street" had his full share of "enjoyment" out of the old Cemetery, Many poor long-forgotten bones were carefully exhumed and carried with due reverence to a new resting place. Sometimes great difficulty was found in identifying a grave, for in a good many cases age had almost obliterated name and inscription. But what matter if a friend's or an enemy's bones are wept over when they are dust? Still, it might reason-ably be supposed that the spirit of a haughty lord would rise up in wrath if his honourable bones were (even by accident) claimed plebian grandee, and laid ignominiously in his family vault. However, a rising is scarcely likely in a land whose secret motto is "Can't be bothered!" While the fever lasted, the Cemetery was in a constant state of siege ; crowds of young urchins, too, lined the fences to watch the work of desecration. The more lively and energetic, who had secured "front seats" turned back and told their envious neighbours gruesome and blood-curdling romances of sights they saw from their fine point of view. After the crowd had had the edge taken off its appetite for graves and vaults the Cemetery gates were closed against public, and it became a difficult matter to obtain an entrance. Even the magic Press ticket failed to give its usual "open sesame." I tried my luck with one, but the gate-keeper catching sight of my sketch book, calmly informed me that I looked "dangerous" whereupon I had smilingly to conceal wrath and devise another plan. Passes were issued to the favoured few who possessed friends or relations among the "dear dead," and, the unlucky person who had neither, had to view the scene from "afar off," or depend upon the goodness of a friend for a "loan." I borrowed a grandfather for the occasion, and as a dutiful grandchild passed within the gates! But once there, Australian-like, I "couldn't be bothered" to look him up, or perhaps it was "I turned my thoughts to other things." It was a dull, grey Saturday afternoon, quite in keeping with the solemn scene. The sky had a heavy leaden look, and rain clouds hung near the earth. The place was lifeless and deserted, except for a few stragglers here and there. I wandered silently, about in the gloomy old place neglected and uncared for it looked, as though year after year had gone by, and no loving hand had been at work among the beds. I raised my eyes to the scene without, the life and turmoil of the city seemed to belong to another world. I was in the land of "yesterday," and walked about as one in a dream, but feeling the silent hush of death. I sat upon a tomb and looked around me. Long lank grass grew among the graves, in some places fully 3ft. high. A grey mass of vaults and head-stones between — some half buried in the earth, some broken, some crumbling away with age. A thick rich vine crept among the stones, and hung so heavily on a neighbouring fence that it bent it forward with its weight. A few solitary trees stood out black against the grey sky, stiff and solemn. A bird chirped occasionally, or a busy insect hummed among the grass-sounds that only made the loneliness more pronounced. A little to my left an empty cavern gaped a black hole in the earth-once a grave. The spade had been to work here; the coffin and its treasure were gone. I thought of old Gabriel Grubb and his "brave lodgings for one," and wondered if the spirits of the departed ever revisited their last resting place, when suddenly behind me I heard a harsh hollow cough that seemed to proceed from one of the tombs themselves. I looked round and saw beside me an old man, grey and bent; his clothes were of the same dull grey as the stones, and had a musty and unhealthy scent. "Among the graves?" he said eyeing me intently. I nodded assent. "Beautiful spot," he said, rolling his sunken eyes about. "Fine place to spend a holiday." "A solemn one," I answered. He smiled grimly, and cast a loving glance at a distant tomb. "Know the man you're sitting on," he enquired, rubbing his hands together, as he spoke-long bony hands that made me think of a vampire. "A fine big man ; I followed the funeral—coffin over 6ft long. A bank manager; was shot by burglars, who attempted to rob the bank. His widow was inconsolable ; had to be carried away during the burial service. Trying things funerals till you're used to 'em. Lady soon recovered her spirits; she married a wealthy farmer and she is buried over yonder, in his family vault." And so he wandered on, telling me many a tale of death, "Been in yonder vault?", he continued. "No ; nor do I care to enter," I said. "Tut, tut, foolish prejudice ; come, follow me. You can at least admire the mason's work from the outside." And away he went, stepping carelessly across the half hidden graves, while I more reverently picked my way between. "Fine piece of work," he said, laying his hand affectionately on the huge block of stone. It was a great square vault, one side whitened with the sun, the other more sheltered, partly covered with a damp green moss, that clustered thickly among the crevices. The entrance had been forced open, and the stone lay broken, at our feet. I peered down into the small, dark opening (black and uncanny it was), and a decidedly unpleasant odour arose. I turned away with a shudder of disgust. "Fie, fie,'' said the old man, "You'll be lucky if you get as good a dwelling as that a few years hence. It's a grand vault that, fine and roomy—must have held full thirty coffins. It's stood a long time, and it's first freshness is gone, I'll agree; but when it was newly built a man couldn't wish for a better bed than one of its slabs. I should have been glad of the chance myself one time. Why," he said, fired by my look of dismay and scorn, "I've seen that self same vault when the slabs were so white that you could have eaten your dinner off any one of them." I was not in the humour for graveyard picnics, so I bade my companion good after-noon and passed into the adjoining ground. A scene of desolation met my eyes, tomb-stones, vaults and graves in all stages of decay-some crumbled away and fallen a prey to time, others ruthlessly hewn down to make room for the great city railway station. It was a queer sight, this of raking up the past. Hard up against this yard was an old smoke-dried terrace of houses, their back windows looking full upon the graves, with scarcely 3ft of ground between them and the cemetery fence that divided them from the cemetery. The rain was falling heavily now, making the scene more desolate and dreary. I turned to go, and as I passed into the next yard another strange picture met my eye. Two young girls, with heads bowed down, stood beside an empty vault. By their attitude I concluded that they were grief-stricken and sad, and I marvelled that death should cast his gloom upon those who were just wakening to the full glory of life. I waited where I could observe unseen. But my pity was soon turned to surprise and horror. The enterprising maidens were raking with their umbrellas for "treasure" among the decayed remains of a coffin! "Here's a find" cried one in tones of unmistakable delight. "A coffin handle!" "How beautiful!" cried her companion, as she held up the rusty piece of iron. "Hide it quickly, or they will take it from us!" Without further hesitation she wrapped the eerie thing in her handkerchief, and concealed it beneath her cloak. "I wish I could get a few more screws, the first speaker continued. "Oh," answered her companion, "I shan't be perfectly happy till I find a skull." "Ghouls," I muttered, "not girls,'' and walked away, leaving them to their raking. In a few more minutes I had left the old Devonshire-street Cemetery and all its associations far behind, and was once more playing an active part in the busy drama of life.
Clarence and Richmond Examiner 1901

Devonshire Street Cemetery 1901 (Source: Past Lives of the Near Future)
Devonshire Street Cemetery 1901 (Source: Past Lives of the Near Future)

Relatives interred in the Devonshire Street Cemetery

  • Jane Wheeler 1845-1845
  • John Wheeler 1846-1847
  • Anne Farrelly 1825-1850
  • Catherine Farrelly 1822-1855
  • Jane Farrelly 1787-1867
  • Michael Farrelly 1812-1882

Many death certificates simply state ‘Catholic Burial Ground Sydney’, such as Jane Farrelly. With the exception of her sons, Charles and Patrick, Jane’s entire Sydney family was laid to rest in the Devonshire Street Cemetery between the years 1850 and 1882. Their remains later re-interred in the Bunnerong Cemetery, Sydney in 1906.

Inscription - Miss Anne FARRELLY died 15th April 1850 aged 21 years, also Catherine FARRELLY, her sister, died 26th June 1855 aged 33 years. Also Jane FARRELLY, mother of the above, died 21st November 1867 aged 80 years, also Michael FARRELLY, son of the above and native of the city of Dublin, Ireland, died 11th January 1882 aged (-) years.

The true number of relatives exhumed from the Devonshire Street Cemetery in 1901, and reinterred elsewhere, will never be known.