Camperdown Cemetery, New South Wales
Established 1849


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SERMONS IN STONES

Historic graveyard is part of an inner-city suburban parish.


[This article appeared in The Australian Women's Weekly, Wed. 23 Feb. 1966, Pages 14-15.]

As at January 2017, tours of Camperdown Cemetery were still being conducted. Contact the co-ordinator for details.

By KAY KEAVNEY


REV. GEORGE REES, Rector of St. Stephen's, and the tombstone of a gunner.


Grand tour of old cemetery's 18,000 tombs has become a tourist attraction.

THE liveliest man in Sydney lives in a graveyard.

Specifically, he lives in a rambling old rectory in what is probably the most historic graveyard in Australia.

He is the Reverend George Rees, Rector for nearly a year now of the Anglican church of St. Stephen the Martyr, just off busy King St. in the crowded inner-city suburb of Newtown.

The graveyard, high-walled, tree-filled, tranquil, was consecrated way back in 1849 and is still called Camperdown Cemetery.

The Reverend George looks on it as an integral part of his parish and a source of his Christian message, which might be roughly paraphrased as follows:

"In the midst of death we are in life."

His greatest delight is to conduct all-comers (whether singly, collectively, or by the busload) on the grand tour of the cemetery's four acres and 18,000-odd tombs.

Almost any day of the week you can find him there, a merry-eyed gingerish man in his fifties, in safari jacket, matching shirt, shorts, long socks, stout shoes, snappy beret, and, very occasionally, dog-collar.

Better still, make sure of finding him. Write for an appointment to the rectory or ring 51-1036.

Then wear, if you please, your walking shoes, and prepare for a marvellous couple of hours.

A couple of hours should be your absolute minimum.

It will take time to savour the lovely old Blacket-designed church and peep into the registries in the lodge, the sexton's cottage built in 1848, hard by the massive Moreton Bay fig, planted in 1848, which marks one of the highest points in all Sydney.

Then there are the thousands of tombs, most of them with a story.

And if there's a story, preferably offbeat, the Reverend George will have dug it out, and will recount it on the spot, with all the zest of the born storyteller, and a neat little message tucked in its tail.

Mown paths

Very likely he will announce that there is more "history" crammed into these few acres than anywhere else in Australia. "Yet the place has been allowed to be forgotten!"

(The Reverend George has already changed all that. He is also a born promoter. He has even seen to it that tourist buses now have entry and parking facilities. He has personally mown and weeded the paths to protect the stockings of female visitors. And he has gone into the highways and byways to tell the world to come and see.)

He sees "history" as the story of people—all kinds of people.

And all kinds of people lie here, from the eminent (like explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell, "the most complete man ever to come to Australia") to forgotten convicts.

There are sailors, soldiers, brewers, reporters, musicians, firemen, policemen. And there are children; many, many children, sometimes half a dozen from one family.

Infant mortality among the pioneers must have been frightful.

("Teething, measles, and fever," muses the Reverend George, who of course has researched the subject. "Those were the three most frequent causes of death among the children.")

But even tragedy has its light side. Here is just one of the verses on the tombstones, from the grave of a child called Sorrell:

"Goodbye my dearest Daddy I know I am your pet
But comfort our dear Mummy
And do not let her fret.
You thought it hard to lose me
From this wicked world of sin,
Rejoice my dearest parents
For what a better place I'm in."

(Here, to digress, is my own favourite, from the tomb of Clarey Phillips, died 1861, aged 31:

"When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotting
When this you see remember me
Or I shall be forgotten.")

Reading the verses on the headstones is one of the chief joys of a visit to Camperdown. It also gives you a chance to catch your breath and ease your feet.

In such a break you may well ask the Reverend George why the place was called "Camperdown."

His eyes will fire. He is very proud of the cemetery's association with the redoubtable Governor Bligh.

"Bligh named it," he will tell you, and make a broad gesture encompassing Newtown and Camperdown. "All this was part of a land-grant made to Bligh by his predecessor, King, for a private residence.

"Bligh called it Camperdown, after a famous naval victory in which he fought. Battle of Camperdown, 1797."

He will then sweep you of to inspect the grave of Mary, Bligh's daughter, and those of her children, grandchildren, and two husbands.

The first husband was Lieutenant John Putland. After he died she wed Sir Maurice O'Connell.

"Sir Maurice also has a memorial tablet down town, in St. James's Church," the Reverend George may tell you. "It carries a very apt quotation from Job. Very apt: 'I caused the widow's heart to rejoice.'"

And he will stride off laughing.

Racecourse

Catch him up and ask him for more sidelights on the life of this former Lieutenant-Governor of N.S.W.

It is the sidelights that bring the whole thing to a fact normally overlooked by the formal historian.

"Very fond of racing, was Sir Maurice. He started a racecourse just over there, waving in the general direction of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. "Fact, the bend in Missenden Road (where this great hospital stands) start off being the bend in the racecourse.

"Sir Maurice died, oh, 1848. Had a very big military funeral. Right in the middle of the procession a wild bull charged the military guard!"

Still chuckling at the thought of those long-ago scattering redcoats, you will be hurried across to see the mass grave dedicated to the victims of the double-disaster of 1857, the loss of the sail ships Dunbar and Catherine Adamson.

The is nothing to chuckle at here. The names of whole families are graven into the stone. And again, the names of many little children.

Almost miraculously, the Dunbar Bible was washed up from the sea. Today it is on view in a room in St. Stephen Rectory, among other historical relics which the Reverend George is assembling, all with some association with the Camperdown dead.

Some day he hopes to establish a folk-museum in the old lodge, and he welcomes all gifts.

He hopes to furnish the lodge exactly in period and would be overjoyed by any gifts that would help toward this aim.

("In fact, if you have anything historical, we'll find a place for it," he says, and as proof points out a weathered milestone he has set up in a corner among the graves.)

The Reverend George is also assembling a List of Firsts.

"Hey, Dad, did you find another First?" his three lively teenagers will cry, when he strides in from a new foray on some musty library.

The Reverend George will merely grin at his smiling wife.

Firsts are people buried in the cemetery who were the first to do something or other in Australia, and so far the list has reached the staggering total of 50.

A few firsts at random: first ironworker, first atlas-maker, first clergyman in Melbourne, first principal of Sydney University, first appointed Lord Mayor of Sydney, first casualty in Australian attempts to fly, the father of the Police Force, the pioneer of the copper and iron industry, first composer, first policy-holder of the AMP, first man in Australia to be buried with a box and dice on his chest.

Adventurer

"Dad, that's cheating," cried daughter Elizabeth when Dad first produced that last one. "William Nash was the ONLY man in Australia to be buried with a box and dice on his chest!"

"All right," smiled her father disarmingly. "Then he's GOT to be the first, hasn't he?"

This William Nash must have been a joy. After 1851 he set up in King St. as a gold-buyer. One of the nightly sights of Newtown was Nash with a rusty carbine escorting an offsider up the street with the day's purchases, trundled in an open wheelbarrow.

Grown rich, Nash went to England with a lofty ambition. He wanted to drive a coach and eight. He was told, crushingly, that only royalty could sport a coach pulled by eight horses.

Undaunted, Nash took the streets behind seven horses and a mule.

Queen Victoria was not amused.

Back in Sydney, he indulged in his chief passion—gambling. One day at the races, having lost a fat purse, he was astonished when a fresh-faced, obviously recent immigrant from England ran after him and returned it.

Nash took the purse, peering up under his eyebrows at the fresh-faced type.

"How long," he growled, "have you been here?"

"Three weeks," said the fresh-faced type.

"Get back," barked Nash, "where you came from. You're too damned honest for Sydney."

This was the colourful Sydneysider who was buried, by special request of his many cronies, with a box and dice.

Today out of his grave grows a eucalyptus tree. Someone once suggested it should be removed before it damaged the grave.

"Never," said the Reverend George. "That's nature's comment on a real character: 'By gum!'"

Another "real character" in the cemetery was Nicholas Boscha, known as the genial rogue. This fellow was official harpist to the Emperor Napoleon. He was also a devil with the ladies.

Fleeing France a jump ahead of imprisonment for bigamy, he was befriended by Sir Roley Bishop, a great English musician. He promptly made off with Bishop's wife, young opera singer Anna, and finally came to Australia with her in 1855.

He died here in January, 1856. His fine headstone was erected by the sorrowing Anna.

Musician

"He was a fine musician and teacher," allows the Reverend George. "He's credited with introducing the modern playing of the harp. What that means, I don't really know. Nor do I know what he's playing now!"

At the other side of the cemetery from the irrepressible Boscha lies Emily Donnithorne, believed to be the original of Dickens' Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations."

Jilted on her wedding day in 1852, this poor young lady shut herself in her house, the wedding breakfast still laid out in the dining-room, and never re-emerged until her death in 1886.

Other tombstones read like a roll-call of the pioneers of Australian commerce. Among many others buried here are founders of Farmers', Tooths', Fowlers' Potteries, the Union Bank, the AMP. Pioneers of districts include those who gave their names to Kurnell, Coffs Harbour, Oatley.

Culture and science are represented. There is Isaac Nathan, first Australian composer, who set to music the "Hebrew Melodies" of his friend Lord Byron, and Isaac's doctor son, the first (with two others) to use anaesthetics in Australia.

There is the Matron of Sydney Infirmary, the famous Rum Hospital, who laboured under the name of Bathsheba Ghost. Now, this lady—

But hear the story, I beg you, from the Reverend George Rees. Make that appointment to visit Camperdown and St. Stephen's. Give yourself two hours at the barest minimum.

And be sure to wear your walking shoes.