In 1792 the first formal burial ground for Sydney was established on the site which is now occupied by the Sydney Town Hall. In 1792 this was deemed sufficiently far from the settlement area such that it would not affect the health of the living and it would provide a place of quiet repose for the dead.
In 1812 the cemetery was extended to include the land now occupied by the adjacent St Andrew’s Cathedral. The cemetery was never consecrated and while the Church of England clergy officiated at funerals the Reverend William Cowper recorded that “the dead of all communions were interred indiscriminately” – convicts and freemen alike, though the military had their own area within.
In 1820 the cemetery was full and was closed. It fell into neglect and soon became a resort for cads and grave robbers by night and a place for stray dogs and pigs by day, as well as an unofficial pissoir by day and night. My reader may recall from another of my reviews that Sydney’s first official public toilets didn’t appear until 1880.
Wanting to smarten up the burial area (by getting rid of it!) the City of Sydney sought to build its Town Hall on the site. Its proposal was rejected by the Colonial Government and for thirty years, until 1869 when the Government gave in to the Council, the latter held its meetings in various pubs and other buildings around town.
Between April 1869 and September 1870 all the remains that could be found, or rather that a rogue contractor wanted to find, were exhumed and moved to the recently opened Necropolis at Haslem’s Creek – now called the Rookwood Necropolis (separate review and a must visit – imho!).
This exhumation process was soon found to be a complete farce and as early as 1871 coffins were unearthed during the construction of the Deanery of St Andrew’s. More were discovered in 1888 when the main hall in the Town Hall was completed, more in the 1890s when water works were being carried out, and so on and so forth such that any major work on the Town Hall site has been, and invariably is, accompanied by newspaper reports of more coffins, tombstones and bones being unearthed.
In all it is estimated that around 2,300 people were buried in the Old Sydney Burial Ground. Of these only two have been identified one, Mrs Mary Stogdell, from an inscription on a brass coffin plate and the other, Elizabeth Steel, identified from a headstone fragment. Rather ironically Stogdell was married to a convict while Steel was a convict – typically the graves of convicts were unmarked. Steel had been transported from England for stealing a watch from an East London Gentlemen – with whom she had retired ‘upstairs to his hotel room’ – on account of his non-payment for sexual services.
Should you have the opportunity to take a tour of the Town Hall (each Tuesday 10.30am – meet on the Town Hall steps) you will most likely be taken (ask if you are not) down to the Lower Town Hall area where there is a small display containing the coffin plate and the headstone fragment I referred to above. Beside the display, the floor is rather oddly marked out with a coffin representing the location of an actual grave unearthed in work on the Town Hall. While the fragment of Steel’s headstone was found here skeletal remains in the grave were of a woman somewhat older than Steel was – hence the view that her headstone got here as a result of earlier disturbances of the graves during the years of neglect referred to earlier.
Your Town Hall guide will, most probably with the assistance of a worker who has an office here in the bowels of the building and who has seen and heard many ghosts, tell you the story a number of ghosts which haunt the Town Hall including that of a dog that has never been seen but often heard.
In the event that you can’t make it onto a tour you can still have a look at a 2003 plaque on the footpath outside of the Town Hall (on the Queen Victoria Building side of the building) which marks the site of the burial ground and notes that an unknown number of burials remain on the site.
You are left to ponder how many more bodies remain to be found under this wonderful building.
General tours, by voluntary guides, of the Town Hall take place every Tuesday Morning at 10.30 and last about 2hours. Meet on the front steps of the building. A $5 donation is expected (well worth it).
Address: 483 George Street Sydney NSW 2000