In 1820 the Old Sydney Burial Ground was closed and in 1867 Devonshire Street Cemetery was also closed, though some burials did occur there after that date. Both cemeteries were deemed full.
By the mid 19th century Sydney had run out of space for both the living and the dead. Something had to give. The living won out and by 1901 the dearly departed in both city cemeteries mentioned above had been exhumed and found new homes in more distant cemeteries making way, respectively, for the current Sydney Town Hall and Central (Railway) Station.
Rookwood Necropolis opened in 1868 to house the increasing number of dead emanating from the city of Sydney. It has since grown to be the largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere. This is in no small measure due to the fact that it had its own railway station (in fact three) used to receive funeral trains from Sydney. In fact Rookwood would not have been a viable cemetery, located where it was some 15 kms distance from the city, were it not for the funeral trains. These funeral trains left the city from a specially dedicated station which was incorporated into Central Station.
I refer to Mortuary Station later renamed Regent Street Station but today again called Mortuary Station.
This small though very ornate 13th century Gothic style station, mainly in sandstone, was designed by James Barnet, New South Wales Colonial Architect, and not Florence Mary Taylor, as a large billboard on the platform would have one believe. Ms. Taylor, Australia’s first female engineer and architect was born, in England, ten years after the station’s completion in 1869.
While Mortuary Station and Cemetery Station No. 1, also called No.1 Rookwood Receiving Station, at Rookwood, also designed by Barnet, both had a very ecclesiastical look with sandstone carvings of angels, cherubs, acanthus leaves, gargoyles and stars neither station was ever used as a place of worship, in-situ.
Interestingly, however, is the fact that the Cemetery Station No. 1 was subsequently dismantled stone-by-stone and re-erected in Canberra becoming All Saints Anglican Church in the suburb of Ainslie. A must visit if you are in Canberra.
As you might imagine special funeral trains with purpose built wagons to hold coffins were used to carry Sydney’s dead from here to their final resting place. While coffins travelled for free mourners had to buy a ticket which in 1927 cost a rather hefty four shillings for a wooden seat in a classless and oft overcrowded carriage. Paupers were also allowed to travel for free. The hearse carriages came in two sizes, those carrying 10 and 30 coffins. It is hard to believe that so many funerals would occur in one day but they did.
When the trains arrived at Rookwood coffins would be carried from the train using ‘wheeled hand-propelled litters’ – stretchers on wheels. These were often used to carry drunken mourners back to the train for the return trip later in the afternoon!
By the 1930s Sydney’s roads had developed and funeral trains gave way to motorised hearses such that less and less use was being made of Mortuary Station. The station was closed for funeral trains in 1938 though a very limited cemetery service continued, from Central Station, until 1948 when the cemetery line to Rookwood closed. Post 1938 Mortuary Station, renamed Regent Street station, was used for dog and horse trains, which took dogs and horses to races in Wollongong and Gosford. It was subsequently used a parcel office before finally closing in the early 1980s.
After a major refurbishment, in 1986 four train cars were stationed beside the platform and the now heritage listed station became a pancake parlour – the Magic Mortuary, if you will! This abomination thankfully only lasted three years (into a fifteen year lease) and the station was again closed.
Since then, apart from hosting the odd special/private function the station has rarely opened for public access.
I have been wanting to get in for a look for a number of years now and finally got my chance on 1 November 2015 when it opened for a day as part of the annual Sydney Open (day), run by Sydney Living Museums. It was actually the most visited of the 50 buildings open on that day with near 4,000 visitors passing through in the six hours it was open.
While you can view the exterior of the station from Regent Street, if you can avail of an opportunity to get inside I thoroughly recommend that you do.
Having read so much about the station it was rather a surreal experience to actually walk along the platform and see the ticket office and waiting rooms. The sight of a ticket office and waiting room did bring a wry smile to my face as I pondered the dearly departed lining up to buy a ticket and then having to wait for his or her last ever late running train as neither heaven nor hell could even entice Sydney’s trains to run on time.
Address: Regent Street, Chippendale