As modern as an online database may be, the St. John’s Online database is still a transcription of a Georgian and Victorian-era parish register, and would fall well short of its objectives if some of its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ‘quirks’ were omitted. I have sought to strike a balance between providing a faithful transcription and a user-friendly resource; thus, there are a number of ‘quirks’ the database user must bear in mind.
Quirk No. 1
There is no map illustrating the location of each grave plot within the cemetery, as the original was destroyed by fire in the 1930s.
Due to the loss of the cemetery plot map, there is no way of locating within the cemetery the unmarked burials recorded in the parish register. We cannot even point in a particular direction, as there was no designated area of the cemetery for unmarked graves. While many cemeteries also divide up the burial ground according to faith, St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta has no such faith-based divisions, so even knowing a specific individual’s religion does not help to narrow down the probable vicinity of their unmarked grave. In fact, as the next ‘Quirk’ reveals, the individual may not have been buried in the cemetery grounds at all.
Quirk No. 2
Not everyone who appears in the parish burial register is buried within St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta.
This online database offers transcriptions of burials registered in the broader parish of St. John’s, Parramatta: it is not limited, therefore, to burials that occurred in St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta specifically. Again, for those with a marked grave, there is no question of where their resting place is located: they are verifiably at rest in the cemetery. But for those without an extant headstone or, alternatively, a sketch of a headstone, as in the case of John Colony (d. 1795); a photograph of a lost headstone, such as the one capturing John Donohue’s headstone and held in the St. John’s Cathedral Archives; a transcription of an epitaph, like Simon Taylor’s, or the mention of a burial occurring at the cemetery in a colonial newspaper, such as Female Orphan School pupil Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Lees, it cannot be said with complete certainty that the individual in an unmarked grave is definitely buried in the cemetery itself.
On the one hand, it is true that, for the majority of cases, most burials written in the parish register’s pages would have occurred at the cemetery, since ‘The Old Parramatta Burial Ground,’ as it was once known, was the general cemetery for all religious denominations in the settlement’s earliest years. However, one of the great virtues of handling the entire burial dataset myself is that it quickly became apparent that there were a number of burials registered in the parish of St. John’s, Parramatta that we know for certain occurred elsewhere, yet the parish burial register is silent on the matter. Were you to look at either my transcriptions of those burial entries or the original page whence they came at this very moment, there is nothing to indicate there is anything different about those burials to any of the numerous others, marked or unmarked, that did occur within St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta.
The burials of First Fleet convict Eleanor McCabe, also known as Eleanor Magee, and her young daughter Mary Magee, for instance, are two better-known examples. Their shared marked grave is on the former Magee property at Camellia, overlooking the Parramatta River that stole their lives away in January 1793. This mother-daughter Magee burial, therefore, occurred within the broader parish of St. John’s, Parramatta, but certainly not within the cemetery itself. And the Magees were by no means exceptional in the earliest years of the colony in their preference for being buried ‘within a very few feet of [their] own door’ over the propriety of a burial in a cemetery. In a penal colony consisting mostly of convicts, where, as Reverend Samuel Marsden ranted, Parramatta especially was a ‘scene of everything immoral and profane…where everything decent, moral, and sacred seemed totally obliterated,’ it must be said, ‘propriety’ was probably never much of a priority.
Turning the pages of the burial register to the following year, 1794, (or, alternatively, clicking this thoroughly modern link to my transcription), we find another prime example of a burial that nevertheless occurred beyond the cemetery — that of the emancipated First Fleet convict Simon Burn. Much to the chagrin of the recently arrived Reverend Marsden, not only had Simon’s nearest and dearest taken swift possession of his body following his post-mortem at the General Hospital to be interred ‘in a corner of his own farm’ rather than the cemetery, they deliberately neglected to inform Marsden of when the interrment was to take place so they could also ‘celebrate … the funeral rites … with orgies suitable to the disposition and habits of the deceased, his widow, and themselves.’ Those ‘orgies’ were the traditional (pre-Christian) coineadh (Irish keening rite). But, again, the parish burial register gives none of this away: simply looking at the entry, one would conclude Simon Burn is somewhere in an unmarked grave at St. John’s Cemetery, when in actuality he went off in true Irish style and lies somewhere still on the land that was once his farm on the ‘Northern Boundary’ of Parramatta, where a number of other emancipated Irish convicts, including George Barrington and the doomed duo Anne and Simon Taylor were attempting to make a go of it on their farms in the 1790s. But even later on, we find examples of burials on private properties. In an uncharacteristically revealing moment, the parish register divulges that six-year-old drowning victim William Pincham who died in January 1823 was ‘buried upon the farm.’
First Fleet convict and surgeon John Irving is another interesting example. For many years, his appearance in the St. John’s, Parramatta burial register led all to believe he was interred at St. John’s Cemetery somewhere in an unmarked grave, presumably in Section Four where ‘many of the earliest burials occurred.’ However, as Alexander Cameron-Smith writes in his biographical essay “John Irving: ‘The Best Surgeon Amongst Them,’” Cathy Dunn has recently unearthed an essay by early twentieth-century local and church historian Henry William Hemsworth Huntington, in which Huntington included a transcription of a headstone for John Irving that, he asserted, once stood at the Old Sydney Burial Ground. As Dr. Cameron-Smith acknowledges, this could explain why Irving’s burial registration in the St. John’s, Parramatta parish records occurred a good ten days after his recorded death date: an unusually long time between death and burial for the days before refrigeration and embalming. Perhaps, as the first convict ever emancipated in the colony and a Parramatta landholder and surgeon who worked at the Parramatta General Hospital, Irving’s death may have simply been too significant to Parramattans for the St. John’s parish clerk to ignore, even though his interment apparently happened miles away, in Cadi (Sydney).
Yet these are only a few non-cemetery burials in the register that we know about, because of the mere chance that some evidence survives beyond the parish burial register, informing us of where these people really lie for all eternity. For the overwhelming majority of people who appear in the burial register and do not have a marked grave within St. John’s Cemetery’s convict-built walls, in the absence of supplementary evidence we can only guess at their final resting place. For this reason, in the section entitled “Burial Location” on each burial entry in this database, if the person’s grave is unmarked and there is no additional evidence beyond the register verifying that their burial occurred at the cemetery, the closest we can come to a location is “Buried in an unmarked grave, exact location unknown, parish of St. John’s, Parramatta.”
Quirk No. 3
The parish register is an incomplete dataset, so not everyone who has a headstone in St. John’s Cemetery appears in the parish of St. John’s burial register.
There are years in the first couple of decades of the parish register that are suspiciously low on entries. Of course, the European population was smaller than it would go on to become, so the burial figures should not be expected to align with those of later times; therefore, it may be the case that these were simply good, healthful years in the European settlement of Parramatta that resulted in lower morbidity and mortality rates, and the entries for those very sparse years are accurate. Nevertheless, there are telltale signs that the individuals responsible for registering the burials at the time may not have been overly devoted to maintaining these important public records and neglected to log a few burials here and there. The years 1799 and 1800 confirm the suspicion, as burials are missing from the parish register, even though there are a number of extant marked graves from both years in the cemetery, proving that burials did occur but were simply not recorded for some reason.
In the process of constructing the parish burial database and bringing it into alignment with the Goodin-Dunn inventory of marked graves, it was actually not uncommon for me to find an individual who had a marked grave in the cemetery yet lacked an entry in the parish burial register. There are multiple examples besides the burials of 1799 and 1800, but Jane McManus’s daughter Martha Poole’s burial immediately springs to mind. Although my defined task has been to transcribe rather than correct the parish register, in these instances, I have opted to reconstruct such missing parish burial entries by extracting the basic details of their burial on their extant headstones, whilst noting that the entry does not exist in the register itself, if only to give myself a more accurate set of statistics of known burials within the broader parish of St. John’s, Parramatta.
Quirk No. 4
The parish register does not provide consistent details about the departed across the dataset.
The parish register was the work of many hands spanning the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during which time there were different ideas about the importance of these public records and reasons for keeping them, as well as different policies in force about the quantity and quality of information they should record for posterity. The late eighteenth-century burials of St. John’s, Parramatta were mostly recorded on a blank page with names and dates huddled up close together, presumably to save paper. Since there were no directives about what information the parish clerk should record, most entries provide little more than the date and name of the deceased and whether a ‘Convict,’ a ‘Soldier,’ an ‘Infant’ or ‘Child.’ In some cases, due to the lack of lines on the page, it can be difficult to align the recorded name with those extra details, leaving us with uncertainty about a particular individual’s status. A minority of deaths that struck the scribe as noteworthy may have prompted him to provide a brief additional remark, such as ‘Murdered,’ ‘Executed,’ ‘Killed by the falling of a Tree,’ ‘Speared by Natives,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Burnt,’ but this was not prescribed and was completely idiosyncratic; it was therefore not adhered to with any consistency even by a single scribe from one entry to the next.
On Saturday 15 September 1810, a Government Order was issued from Government House, Sydney, commanding that ‘regular Accounts … of all Births and Deaths … should be kept in the different Districts and Parishes throughout the whole of the Territory,’ so they could be compiled into quarterly returns by Samuel Marsden, ‘the Principal Chaplain at Parramatta,’ and ‘transmitted annually to England’ to reflect ‘the exact State of the Population of the Colony.’ The Government Order made a particular note that these ‘regular’ accounts ‘kept by the several Chaplains, and by the Magistrates or Commandants (where there are no Chaplains)’ should also be ‘exact and correct Registers … in future’ — implying that prior to 1810 they had been anything but!
At St. John’s, Parramatta, the odds of achieving this higher level of precision and the standardisation of the information gathered for each entry was better than it had been formerly, as the parish register book of this era already boasted a pre-filled template directing parish clerks to populate entries with specific details pertaining to the deceased person’s life and death. Beyond the obvious inclusions of name, death date and age at death, the later entries usually also stated whether the deceased was ‘of the parish of St. John’s, Parramatta,’ their status, ‘convict’ or ‘free,’ and whether a recent arrival per a certain ship, or ‘born in the colony.’ Even these templates of information changed slightly over time, with additional spaces later provided for ‘Quality or Profession’ and ‘Remarks,’ wherein the scribe could take the opportunity to say more about the deceased: whether they were a ‘Lunatic’ or an ‘Idiot’ (in the harsh parlance of the day), died in a specific local government institution, or died a suspicious or unusual death, such as ‘Poisoned by eating a Toad Fish.’ The scribe could also use these spaces to harken back to the days when a parish register recorded the worst of local gossip and even passed a certain amount of judgement; including notes that a child was the ‘illegitimate’ bairn of a ‘spinster,’ a man died ‘of excessive intoxication,’ or another individual died violently by their own hand.
The records did improve over time, providing the researcher with far more genealogical details about the individual and thereby improving our ability to positively identify the subject. But, even then, we find instances of burials entered out of chronological order, sometimes pages away from where they should have been. Where Female Factory burials are concerned, the names and gender of children are sometimes completely obscured when their mother’s name is recorded instead: the result is a non-record that can only be rectified with extensive research beyond the burial register, cross-referencing multiple sources in an attempt to positively identify the individual in question.
And for a final surprise, there is a quirk within this quirk: as time went on and new people took on the responsibility of the parish record-keeping, the records that had improved on the whole in the first half of the nineteenth century then deteriorated to such a degree that they were worse than ever. By the 1880s, some burials are missing from the register entirely, as evidenced by the existence of marked graves with no corresponding burial registration, while those entries we do have are barely legible, out of chronological order and sometimes frustratingly offer only the slightest information such as a surname. Perhaps this is because many of the burials in this period do appear to have been more middling sorts with headstones: their existence had been successfully memorialised in stone, reducing the importance of the burial register’s role.
Quirk No. 5
The parish register is notoriously error-ridden and, as a transcription project, this online database faithfully reproduces the register “warts ‘n’ all.”
The aim of this online database is to provide researchers with a transcription of exactly what was in the original source, minus the hard-to-decipher scrawl, blotchy ink, faded pencil, and stained and torn pages. The aim is not to correct the factual details of the parish register and provide all the genealogical material that is known on the individual — that is another project for another day.
Thus, ship details recorded for a convict are often incorrect, with some not merely recording an altogether different ship of arrival but names that have never adorned any ship, well…anywhere! A particular favourite is ‘Lady Tambareen,’ which one can only hazard a guess is most likely the comical result of the scribe mishearing the First Fleet ship Lady Penrhyn.
People’s names did not fair much better. It seems feasible that the scribe may have been labouring with a mild hearing impairment at times, but non-standardised spelling of names or simply a limited knowledge of the variety of designations beyond the more common Christian names also clearly played a part. For example, the feminine given name ‘Phoebe,’ a Titaness of Greek mythology, proved too much of a challenge in Marsden’s era, with it repeatedly rendered as ‘Phebe’ and even ‘Febe.’ There is also evidence of the various scribes over the years struggling to contend with a multitude of thick accents in the ethnically and linguistically diverse penal colony. As an aural historian, part of the joy of reading these primary sources is that I can hear some of those accents captured in ink on the page, thanks to the scribe’s desperate attempts to record these names phonetically: we find ‘Peter Fitchjarral’ instead of Peter Fitzgerald, ‘Ellen Nocton‘ for Ellen Naughton, and ‘Cammarin,’ which I could instantly tell was not a real name, did not match any colonial records, and perplexed me for longer than I care to admit; for only upon reading aloud did it dawn on me that ‘Cammarin’ may have been the scribe’s attempt at spelling my own surname ‘Cameron’ after hearing it from an informant who had learnt it from the deceased, who likely had a thick Scottish accent! Then we find h’s being dropped from where they ought to be and added to where they ought not be, like the aspirated ‘Hogden’ and ‘Hellam’ instead of Ogden and Ellam.
We also find the scribes pushed to the limits of their spelling abilities when trying to deal with details of deceased people from more far-flung places than the British Isles and vicinity: for example, ‘Acber: A Mahomtan from India’ rather than ‘Akhbar: A Mohametan from India.’ And when it came time to bury one adult male of Castle Hill in April 1826, Marsden could only record ‘A Chinese Man,’ either because he could not begin to attempt to record the name provided, or because no one living knew it in the first place. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, we continue to find a couple of anonymous Chinese people described simply as ‘A Native of China, killed by lightening [sic] at Railway’ in November 1857, and ‘Native of China name unknown’ in December 1881; however, we also find ‘Ja, a Chinaman’ in June 1856, ‘Hong Ping, A Chinese’ in July 1867, and ‘Wa Hing Chinaman’ in February 1882. In July 1836, the recorded name ‘Thomas Williams’ belies his origins: only as we look at his recorded ‘Quality or Profession’ do we learn there is much more to this individual: ‘A Hindoo [sic: Hindu], Cook at Mr. Marsden’s,’ aged ‘about 50 years.’ Could this be the ‘old male servant of the Rev. Samuel Marsden…whose great desire was to be laid at rest within the grounds of the parsonage’ and who became the subject of Cedars schoolgirl ghost stories, only to be exhumed and reinterred metres down the road at the neighbouring St. John’s Cemetery when the Francis Greenway-designed Parsonage was demolished in 1909? We know Mrs. Elizabeth Marsden’s faithful companion and servant, the widow Mrs. Susannah Priscilla Bishop lies in a marked grave at St. John’s Cemetery, so the Marsdens’ Hindu cook’s grave may be unmarked now only because it was obliterated along with St. John’s Parsonage in 1909. We will probably never know for sure, but even as the register keeps such a basic fact a secret, we are unexpectedly gifted with a rich detail in the selfsame entry, because the identification of ‘A Hindoo, Cook at Mr. Marsden’s,’ be it at the parsonage or at one of his other properties, is indicative of the complex sensory delights the Marsden family and their guests may have been regularly smelling and tasting up until the mid-1830s.
At the very least, if a spelling error has been detected in the course of transcription, a ‘[sic],’ meaning ‘thus was it written,’ has been included to indicate the error or non-standardised spelling of a word or name was not a transcription error but appeared that way in the original record. In cases of people’s names, if the correct name is known without resorting to additional research (which is, as noted above, beyond the clearly defined parameters of this specific database), then the more common or standard spelling of the person’s name has been provided.
Quirk No. 6
As a database of transcriptions, these online burial entries are not the parish register itself, but merely one person’s interpretation of it.
Just as meaning can be ‘lost in translation’ when translating from one language to another, it is every bit as likely that some truth can be lost in the process of transitioning from the original handwritten burial entry to the transcribed, typed burial entries you can now view within this database. These transcriptions are not unfiltered remnants of the past delivered directly to you: they are one transcriber’s interpretation of what she saw in a particular moment in time when she deciphered them in the original handwritten source of the parish register. While the entire dataset you now access has been handled by me personally as much as eight times for the purpose of obtaining the most accurate transcriptions, the fact remains that human errors do occur, and alternate interpretations of the original handwritten words are always possible.
<< PART I: ST. JOHN’S TAPHOPHILES ♦ CONTENTS >>
Michaela Ann Cameron, “The Burial Register: Part II: St. John’s Quirks,” St. John’s Online (2022), https://stjohnsonline.org/burial-register/quirks/, accessed [insert current date]
 Maarama Kamira, Māori Trade & Relations in Parramatta, (Parramatta: City of Parramatta Council, 2016), p. 10.
 Regarding the sketch and description of John Colony’s lost headstone and the photograph of John Donohue’s headstone, see Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta: Parramatta and District Historical Society, 1991), p. 190. For the verification of Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Lees’s burial within the cemetery, despite her lying in an unmarked grave, see Michaela Ann Cameron, “Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Lees: Departed Innocence,” St. John’s Online (2021), https://stjohnsonline.org/bio/elizabeth-lees/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 Judith Dunn, “The History of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” St. John’s Online, (2016), https://stjohnsonline.org/history/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 Michaela Ann Cameron, “The Wretched, Rascally and Depraved Magees, and the Story of St. John’s First Burial,” St. John’s Online (2019), https://stjohnsonline.org/bio/the-magees/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 Samuel Marsden, “Rev. S. Marsden to Governor Hunter, Parramatta, 11 August 1798,” in F. M. Bladen (ed.), Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. III.—Hunter, 1796–1799, (Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1895), pp. 439–42. See also Michaela Ann Cameron, “The Killing and Keening of Simon Burn,” St. John’s Online (2020), https://stjohnsonline.org/bio/simon-burn/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. I, (The Strand, London: T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, 1798), p. 393. See also Michaela Ann Cameron, “The Killing and Keening of Simon Burn,” St. John’s Online (2020), https://stjohnsonline.org/bio/simon-burn/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 Narelle McCoy, “The Quick and the Dead: Sexuality and the Irish Merry Wake,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Vol. 26, No. 4, (August, 2012): 615–624; Breandan Ó Madagáin, Keening and Other Old Irish Musics: Caointe agus Seancheolta Eile, (Conamara, Indreabhán: Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2005); Michaela Ann Cameron, “The Killing and Keening of Simon Burn,” St. John’s Online (2020), https://stjohnsonline.org/bio/simon-burn/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 Judith Dunn, “The Significance of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” St. John’s Online, (2017), https://stjohnsonline.org/significance/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 Alexander Cameron-Smith, “John Irving: ‘The Best Surgeon Amongst Them,’” St. John’s Online (2019), https://stjohnsonline.org/bio/john-irving/, accessed 6 July 2022; Cathy Dunn, “John Irving, Convict, Lady Penrhyn 1788,” (2019), HMS Sirius, https://hmssirius.com.au/john-irving-convict-lady-penrhyn-1788/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 J. T. Campbell, “Government and General Orders. Government House, Sydney, Saturday 15th Sept. 1810,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Saturday 15 September 1810, p. 1.
 St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Burial of PHEBE TOMLINSON,” https://stjohnsonline.org/burials/year-1807/bur18070130/, accessed 6 July 2022; St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Burial of PHEBE PEAT,” https://stjohnsonline.org/burials/year-1792/bur17921208/, accessed 6 July 2022;St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Marriage of BENJAMIN CURSLEY & FEBE PENDORICK [sic],” https://stjohnsonline.org/marriages/year-1795/mar17950331/, accessed 6 July 2022; and one of the witnesses listed in St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Marriage of LAZARUS GRAVES & SARAH BURLEY,” https://stjohnsonline.org/marriages/year-1796/mar17960912/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Burial of PETER FITCHJARRAL [sic],” https://stjohnsonline.org/burials/year-1792/bur17920221/, accessed 6 July 2022; St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Burial of ELLEN NOCTON [sic],” https://stjohnsonline.org/burials/year-1831/bur18311130/, accessed [insert current date]; William Cammarin, which may be William Cameron, see St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Burial of WILLIAM CAMMARIN,” https://stjohnsonline.org/burials/year-1792/bur17920503/, accessed 6 July 2022; St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Burial of SARAH HOGDEN [sic],” https://stjohnsonline.org/burials/year-1804/bur18040919/, accessed 6 July 2022; St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Burial of DEBORAH HELLAM HERBERT [sic],” https://stjohnsonline.org/burials/year-1819/bur18190626/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Burial of A CHINESE MAN,” https://stjohnsonline.org/burials/year-1826/bur18260428/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 St. John’s Online, (stjohnsonline.org), “Burial of THOMAS WILLIAMS,” https://stjohnsonline.org/burials/year-1836/bur18360716/, accessed 6 July 2022.
 To learn more about how the Francis Greenway designed Georgian parsonage became a Victorian mansion and Ladies’ College before being reduced to Edwardian rubble, see the four-part publication: Michaela Ann Cameron, “Lost Landmark: St. John’s Parsonage,” St. John’s Online (2020).
 See Michaela Ann Cameron, “Editorial Policies,” St. John’s Online (2020) for further details.
© Copyright Michaela Ann Cameron 2022