Old Sydney Burial Ground
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.
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.
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.
Inventory of burials
Records relating to the Old Sydney Burial Ground are scant. No dedicated burial register or plan for the cemetery has survived and possibly never existed. No records were kept of where burial sites were located.
Nearly 140 years later, the challenge has been to resurrect the names of those buried in Sydney's first official cemetery, and for the first time an inventory of names has been compiled by the City from historical sources.
An up-to-date inventory of burials and burial list reference information is available for download below. Featuring more than 2,000 names, it was compiled using the St Phillip’s Parish Registers and other primary and secondary sources, such as diaries, newspaper reports and government records.
Several of the names recorded by headstone transcriptions in contemporary diaries and later newspaper reports did not appear in the parish registers. A small number of Jewish burials did not appear in the parish registers.
There is some variation between sources regarding the spelling of names. The 63 people confirmed to have been buried under a headstone are marked as such. If records are too vague to confirm if someone was buried at the cemetery, then the word ‘possible’ is used on the database entry. The inventory of burials only covers burials at the Old Sydney Burial Ground in the period from 1792 through to 1820.
The History Unit is not able to advise if or where your ancestor was reburied because there are no records available.
Most of the remains uncovered during the construction of Sydney Town Hall and during subsequent archaeological works, were not identifiable. However, remains uncovered in 1869 were reinterred at Rookwood Necropolis and are marked by a memorial in the old Church of England section.
Was your ancestor once buried at another cemetery in Sydney?
For a comprehensive list of cemeteries active in Sydney in the 19th century, the best source is a book by Keith A Johnson and Malcolm R Sainty titled, 'Sydney burial ground 1819-1901: Elizabeth and Devonshire streets and history of Sydney’s early cemeteries from 1788', published in 2001.
Skull being removed from the convict grave sites beneath the Town Hall
Appendices 4 and 5 of Johnson and Sainty's book record the name of the cemeteries in greater Sydney, chronologically and by place.
If your local council library cannot provide a copy they should be able to organise an inter-library loan due to its wide availability.
Was your ancestor once buried at the Old Sydney Burial Ground?
If one of your ancestors was buried at the Old Sydney Burial Ground, the City's History Unit would be interested to receive biographical information about them.
This information will be placed on file in the City Archives to be made available to other researchers. Please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org or by post:
City of Sydney
GPO Box 1591
Sydney NSW 2001
Please note: The City’s History Unit does not carry out family history research, but encourages members of the public to contact the Society of Australian Genealogists (SAG). The society has a list of professional genealogical researchers on its website.
Last updated: Thursday, 19 September 2013