St. John’s Cemetery Project: Digitising St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta

St. John's Cemetery, Parramatta, cemetery, burial records, history, Australian History, St. John's Cemetery Project
American and Australasian Photographic Company, “St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta, around July 1870,” (1870). Courtesy of Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

St. John’s Online (est. 2015) is a non-commercial, open access digital history project by Dr. Michaela Ann Cameron that aims to digitise historic St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta – Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery (1790) – and its assets, including but not limited to the St. John’s parish burial register. The website also features biographical essays on some of the people whose burials were registered in the parish of St. John’s, Parramatta, including those interred in St. John’s Cemetery. In addition to a large voluntary contribution by Dr. Cameron, the project has been chiefly supported by the New South Wales Government through a Create NSWArts and Cultural Grant” (Individual) specifically aimed at professional artists. The $66,290 awarded to Dr. Cameron in 2019 gave her the opportunity to hire an array of qualified historians to produce content about “Old Parramattans” for a general audience on the open access, non-commercial website throughout 2019 to early 2021. Two small grants from the Royal Australian Historical Society and City of Parramatta also assisted the partial completion of the First Fleeters portion of the project in previous years.

The cemetery was originally known as “The Parramatta Burial Ground” and is Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery. Once established in January 1790 in an old stock paddock on the outskirts of Parramatta, the land of the Darug People’s Burramattagal clan, the cemetery became the final resting place of more than 50 First Fleeters, a multitude of convicts, soldiers, pioneers and colonial elites who were immortalised in place names in Parramatta and surrounds, Governors’ wives, women and children who died at the Parramatta Female Factory, orphans who passed away at the Orphan Schools at Parramatta and Liverpool, as well as patients from the nearby convict hospitals and various mental health institutions in the colony — to highlight just a few major groups that are well represented in this historic cemetery. The cemetery is also the most likely burial place of Dicky Bennelong, the son of Woollarawarre Bennelong and Boorong, and first husband of Maria Lock.

Initially a non-denominational cemetery, St. John’s is a place of diversity that provides a more nuanced view of the early colony and the town of Parramatta specifically, with Aboriginal, Jewish, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Romani, African American, German, Dutch, and French people buried here as well as British Anglicans. This State Heritage listed site, then, is significant not just for Parramatta, New South Wales, or even Australian history, but for World History.

Nevertheless, while St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta is by no means an exclusively British, Protestant cemetery, with ethnically diverse people and many faiths represented among the formerly “general” cemetery’s permanent citizens, the fact remains: there is an inherent European bias in this European-style burial ground. For example, we find only one possible, albeit highly significant, Aboriginal burial in the cemetery: that of Dicky Bennelong who, just a few months prior to his passing, converted to Christianity at the original Wesleyan Chapel, which adjoined Centenary Square, Parramatta. And, even then, Dicky Bennelong’s grave is unmarked, its exact location unknown, due to the fact that the map for the burial plots of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta are lost to us. Other non-western burials, such as the Muslim and Chinese burials, are often also isolated cases or small rather than large groups.

By extension, then, this project likewise contains an inherent European bias in terms of the sheer quantity of opportunities the cemetery provides to tell European stories as opposed to those of non-western groups. Even so, working with such rich documentary evidence has a way of illuminating other stories, which are significant in their own right and also cast their light upon the stories we originally set out to tell. And so it was with the individuals listed below: not every one of them is buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta, yet in the process of researching and writing the biographies featured in the project, their life stories proved to be inextricably linked in some way to those who are buried at the cemetery or the broader parish of St. John’s, Parramatta. Far from being merely interesting tangential stories, though, these essays feature First Peoples and, as such, amplify indigenous experiences—particularly the long-term intergenerational effects of the First Fleet’s arrival in the lands now known collectively as ‘Australia.’ These related readings are therefore an essential part of what is ultimately intended to collectively tell a larger and more complex ‘dual history’ of that colonial encounter through individual, often conflicting, yet deeply interconnected life stories.

Dicky Bennelong

A. M. Fernando: Return to the Old Bailey

Daniel Mow-watty: The Boy Who Strayed from the Bush Path

‘No Pity for the Hunted’: The Tarlingtons, Little Jemmy and Little George