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Preserving a historic Australian cemetery: St John’s, Parramatta

A local project in western Sydney is sharing stories from the oldest European cemetery in Australia to help raise community awareness of, and achieve National Heritage listing for, the site.

The historically significant St John’s Cemetery in Parramatta, New South Wales, was established in 1790. It’s home to the country’s oldest grave with headstone in situ. More than 50 First Fleeters are buried here, as are countless convicts, Female Factory inmates, highwaymen, mutineers, pioneers, and members of the colonial elite.

Here, we share our Q&A with Michaela Cameron, historian and project manager of the St John’s Cemetery Project.

IH: What makes St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta historically significant?

Michaela: St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta is Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery (1790) and is also where Australia’s oldest grave with headstone in situ can be found. The owner of that grave, Henry Dodd, was Governor Arthur Phillip’s personal servant, managed the first successful farm in the colony, and gave the colony its first public funeral. There are more than 50 First Fleeters buried at St. John’s, 17 of which have memorial plaques, and 16 of which lie in marked graves.

The cemetery is also the final resting place of Female Factory inmates, highwaymen (one of whom became the colony’s first baker), convict constables, mutineers, shipwreck survivors, soldiers, orphans, and pioneers.

Then there are colonial elites like Reverend Samuel Marsden, Chief Cleric of the colony, David Lennox the master stonemason and great bridge builder, and two governors’ wives who both died in the World Heritage listed convict site Parramatta Park, just a few minutes’ walk from the cemetery.

The headstone of John Herbert, one of the many First Fleeters buried here. Courtesy Penny Edwell and Friends of St John's Cemetery.
The headstone of John Herbert, one of the many First Fleeters buried here. Courtesy Penny Edwell and Friends of St John’s Cemetery.

IH: What are the aims of the St. John’s Cemetery Project?

Michaela: The St. John’s Cemetery Project aims to provide the local, national, and international community with accessible, high quality, searchable content relating to the cemetery in the form of an online database of peer-reviewed, edited, biographical essays.

While this is important work for history’s own sake, the even higher and more immediate purpose is to raise the profile of and increase community engagement with this State Heritage listed site so that it can get the National Heritage listing it clearly deserves.

 IH: What are some of the threats the cemetery’s currently facing? 

Michaela: Apathy. The worst thing that can happen to any cemetery is for people to simply disconnect from it (along with their own history) and not see its value.

Another big threat to the cemetery is its lack of funds. The cemetery’s wonderful convict-built wall, featuring the distinctive arrow markings, has been referred to by one reporter as “the most substantial sandstock structure remaining in Australia”, yet it has significant damage that will be costly to fix and the pressure from surrounding residential properties is something that needs to be rectified to prevent even further damage.

Then there are really very practical everyday concerns, like having the funds to supply a toilet facility to the workers from NSW Corrective Services so that they can keep doing the amazing job they are doing maintaining the grounds now that a regular maintenance schedule has been established.

Achieving National Heritage listing would improve the cemetery’s chances of securing the funding it needs to be managed and conserved in all the ways it deserves to be.

St John’s Cemetery. Courtesy Michaela Cameron and Friends of St John’s Cemetery.

IH: How can our readers get involved?

Michaela: Visit the cemetery. It’s always open with the exception of scheduled maintenance days (weather permitting. Check our website and Facebook page for dates and reminders).

Visit the St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta website  and start reading the stories we’ve published so far in our very first collection St. John’s First Fleeters. More content is being added all the time so, if you don’t find a particular person you are looking for, check back in periodically.

Purchase a copy of The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s by Judith Dunn, the Chair of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery Parramatta (details on our website). The book contains full transcriptions of all the headstones, including some that are no longer extant.

Follow us on our social media accounts: on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for news about the latest historical research being published on the cemetery website, as well as cemetery events such as tours, and lectures.

Sign up online to become a Friend of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta ($5 for an individual and $10 for a family, which covers 2 adults and all children under 16). The Friends formed in June 2016 and we are working towards better maintenance by establishing and overseeing a regular mowing schedule, running community working bees at the cemetery, getting a site-specific conservation management plan, and hosting events such as our very successful tour day in July, which attracted 250 people in morning and afternoon sessions!

Soon it will be possible for people to lodge applications with The Friends to have new plaques that meet heritage guidelines included at the cemetery as well. So simply by signing up, no matter where you are in the world, you’d be supporting The Friends’ efforts. 

IH: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about this? 

Michaela: Finally, readers should not underestimate the power they have to help the cemetery by doing something as simple as sharing a story we’ve published about someone buried at St. John’s throughout their personal networks. Every little bit helps to raise the profile of this important heritage site.


This is an extended version of a story that originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Inside History.

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