St. John’s Taphophiles

By Michaela Ann Cameron

St. John’s Online is a large scale transcription project undertaken by Dr. Michaela Ann Cameron to help preserve one of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta’s major assets—its parish register—for future generations, as well as increase public engagement with the associated heritage site by improving accessibility to those records on a non-commercial, open access platform. As such, this database is the latest in a line of significant contributions made by St. John’s ‘taphophiles’ for more than a century.

Meet the passionate individuals who have contributed to the preservation of St. John’s burial records, both those in stone and on the page, from 1834 to the present and, in so doing, became a part of the cemetery’s history themselves.

The Australian (1834)

Domestic Intelligence,” The Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 – 1848), Tuesday 25 November 1834, p. 2. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia via Trove.

The first notable (albeit less substantial) contribution was what appears to be the earliest attempt to produce a St. John’s burial transcription.[1] Rather fortuitously, this isolated transcription effort recorded the contents of a headstone that is no longer extant and for which there is otherwise no further evidence that it ever existed. The transcription, which I uncovered during my research for the Murder TaleI Am But Sleeping Here,’ was made by a newspaper columnist in The Australian dated 25 November 1834, and is of an epitaph that allegedly once graced the lost grave of Simon Taylor, who in 1799 was executed (by his own neighbour, Richard Rice, aka Richard Partidge ‘The Left-Handed Flogger’) after being found guilty of murdering his wife, Anne Taylor.[2]

While Anne Taylor’s headstone is extant, both Anne’s and Simon Taylor’s burials are absent from the parish burial register, making verification of Simon’s actual burial and the legitimacy of the transcription that much harder. However, Simon Taylor’s status as a local, the fact the cemetery was the general burial ground for all religious denominations (and, indeed, the only buried ground in the vicinity at the time), and that there is no indication Simon was either anatomised or gibetted for his crime as a post-mortem punishment raises the likelihood that he was indeed laid to rest at St. John’s following his public hanging.[3]

The epitaph published in the newspaper also has an air of authenticity, thanks to the presence of a transcription error. The 1834 transcriber mistakenly recorded ‘artailer’ in place of what seems more likely within the context of the rhyme to be the word ‘curtailer’; an error that could easily occur if one thinks of how a stonemason’s lettering would make the ‘cu’ appear to be an ‘ar’ on a weather-beaten gravestone. It reads:

Beneath this stone lies Simon Taylor,
   Who was hung by Rice the gaoler;
To hang on a tree, it was his lot,
   For knocking the bottom out of his old tin pot.
Now let no one be artailer [sic]
   For an innocent man was Simon Taylor.[4]

Despite this epitaph’s ability to tantalise readers with a tragic and utterly true story from Old Parramatta, alas, it does not appear to have inspired the 1834 transcriber to seek out more St. John’s epitaphs for his newspaper column.

Evening News (1871)

Not until 1871, soon after the American and Australasian Photographic Company photographed the cemetery, do we find another columnist spending ‘a few hours rambl[ing] through … the old graveyard’ — a pastime, he would later inform his Evening News readers, that ‘has always been a peculiar interest to me’ and ‘doubly so in Parramatta.’[5]

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

There he experienced ‘the most profound recollections,’ encountered the then-gravedigger, John Macey, and jotted down details of many of the headstones from St. John’s that were legible and accessible to him; for, even in those days, the reporter bemoaned, as many after him would, that the cemetery was ‘sadly neglected.’[6] He shared these monumental transcriptions with his readership in his article ‘PARRAMATTA REVISITED,’ and concluded his discussion of St. John’s Cemetery by sharing his hope that ‘the grounds will be put in better order, and the head-stones repaired before I again pay a visit to this interesting post, and notice many monuments I have omitted.’[7] All of the epitaphs he featured belong to headstones that are extant today, so this ‘Rambler’s’ set of transcriptions does not provide us with any rarities like Simon Taylor’s epitaph.

Unfortunately, this particular tombstone tourist does not appear to have ‘revisited’ to resume his transcription work or, at least, did not share his findings in a public forum again, and it would be decades before another enthusiast tiptoed among the tombstones, recorded their contents with such dedication and publicly shared them. We can only guess how many more headstones succumbed to either the elements or vandals in the intervening years.

William Freame, J.P. (c.1901–1933)

Photo: William Freame (1910). Courtesy of Cumberland City Council Library Service, HP0023

At the turn of the nineteenth century, William Freame, J.P. (1867–1933), a long-standing Alderman of Prospect and Sherwood Council, one-time Mayor, and undisputed taphophile, ‘devoted a large portion of his leisure hours to the study of local history,’ and ‘spent days at a time rambling over the country, making a study of churchyard and cemetery tombstones.’[8] St. John’s Cemetery was always one of his favourite haunts, with the earliest St. John’s Cemetery piece credited to him in the Nepean Times dated 29 August 1903, although given the temporal proximity of the two articles, the similar wording, and a common set of headstones that were highlighted, it seems likely Freame was the author who wrote about the cemetery two years earlier, in March 1901, for the Granville Independent and Parramatta Advertiser under the nom de plume ‘Wanderer.’

He was the cemetery’s greatest advocate in his era, preserving the pieces of the past that remained at St. John’s Cemetery and sharing some of his favourite headstone transcriptions in regular newspaper columns over four decades. His articles, which can still be read freely via Trove today, were always about ‘Notable Old Parramattans,’ a term he used liberally to highlight individuals buried at St. John’s that he considered particularly significant to Australian history more broadly. But, of course, the origin of Freame’s well-worn phrase ‘Old Parramattan’ is ultimately found in the language of the First People of Burramattagal Country. In fact, the word late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Parramattans loved to use in reference to themselves was not even coined by them from the related local Aboriginal word ‘Parramatta,’ because aside from the well-known Darug origin of the placename ‘Parramatta,’ the First Fleeter, Lieutenant Williams Dawes first recorded the local Aboriginal word ‘Paramatin’ specifically in the early 1790s and translated it as meaning ‘from Parramatta.’[9]

On one of his later visits in 1931, as he sought material for his latest article of historical interest, Freame pensively observed the remains of inaccessible, crumbling, fading headstones he would never be able to read and, worse, the empty spaces where others had once stood:

For one who was clearly so passionate about Parramatta’s history, it was probably inevitable that Freame became one of the founders of the Parramatta Historical Society, and equally inevitable that when he passed away in 1933 he was interred to the immediate right of the ‘picturesque gateway’ to the cemetery he had spent so much of his life studying: St. John’s.

Vernon W. E. Goodin, M.A. (1964)

Photo: Vernon W. E. Goodin, Schoolteacher and Parliamentarian – Portrait, (Wagga: J.J. Kelly’s Lorne Studio, Dec. 1924), P1 / Goodin, Vernon W.E./FL2150918, State Library of New South Wales.

In spite of Freame’s contagious passion for St. John’s Cemetery, decades would pass and, undoubtedly, still more headstones of unknown quantity would be lost before the Parliamentarian, Parramatta High School teacher and taphophile Vernon W. E. Goodin (1892–1971) attempted the first comprehensive inventory of extant marked graves at the historic cemetery in his 1964 publication St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta: Monumental Inscriptions and Key to Graves.[10]

It is not surprising that it was a Goodin who undertook this ambitious project: the Goodin clan evidently had a keen interest in capturing Parramatta for posterity, and there is even a vague hint that one of his forebears may have had an interest in St. John’s Cemetery specifically as early as the 1890s. Goodin’s granduncle, Standish George Goodin, was either the author of this 1898 photograph or the man captured standing on the present-day site of the Parramatta High School Oval gazing out over the town, with a corner of St. John’s Cemetery’s rear wall visible on the far left of the image and St. John’s Church serving as the focal point.

“Town View,” in Standish G. Goodin – [Presentation album of Parramatta views], (1898). State Library of New South Wales.

Judith Dunn, OAM (1991)

In 1991, Judith Dunn, OAM built upon Vernon W. E. Goodin’s work with her updated inventory of extant and / or previously recorded marked graves in The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s.[11] This work also provided extensive information about the cemetery’s surviving structures, including records of symbolism, style, materials, artisan’s marks, measurements of every stone, fence and kerb, and even memorials within St. John’s Church.

Both the Goodin and Dunn books continue to supply valuable information to family history researchers keen to discover all that can be learnt from their ancestor’s marked grave within the historic cemetery, including its precise location. For researchers with ancestors among the minority lying in marked graves at the cemetery, therefore, they will find the corresponding burial registration for them in my online database (if a burial registration for them exists) and will be directed to the Goodin-Dunn inventory for all the particulars they provide.

Michaela Ann Cameron, BA (Hons), Dip. Ed, PhD (2015–2022)

Dr. Michaela Ann Cameron’s St. John’s Online database is, therefore, a companion to the Goodin-Dunn inventory rather than a substitute, insofar as it caters chiefly to those whose ancestors lie in unmarked graves as well as those who are in the register but not buried in the cemetery at all — but more on that particular ‘quirk’ of the parish burial register in a moment! (see Part II: Quirks) The database provides such researchers with freely accessible evidence that their subject’s death was indeed recorded in the parish of St. John’s, Parramatta, but may not have taken place within the cemetery itself, and that there was either never a headstone to mark their final resting place, or if there ever was, then it has since been lost to time — and, in most cases, such as Simon Taylor’s lost headstone, probably long before Goodin began making his first transcriptions and compiling his inventory of the cemetery in the mid-twentieth century.

But St. John’s Online itself is much more than a database. It is also a platform showcasing a number of extended biographical essays written by a large number of well-known historians about some of the interesting people buried in the cemetery and / or registered in the broader parish of St. John’s. Between 2015 and 2021, these essays were generously funded by Create NSW, City of Parramatta and the Royal Australian Historical Society by funds allocated through the Heritage branch of the Office of Environment and Heritage, to the combined value of $73,290 (not including voluntary contributions by myself and others).

In recognition of a kindred spirit, one of those magnificent taphophiles of St. John’s who came before me in the form of William Freame, not only did I brand myself ‘The Old Parramattan’ a number of years ago when I first embarked on my public history adventure, I also gave the title ‘Old Parramattans’ to the complete collection of essays available on this website. Like Freame, it is my hope that by telling these stories, making them freely available online for public consumption, along with the online transcriptions in this database I completed voluntarily between 2015 and 2020 over thousands of hours, this project will engage the public fascination for this very special heritage site and, whenever possible, will generate donations to support the conservation efforts of the local community group, the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Perhaps, then, this ‘little city of the dead,’ as Freame called it, the remains of the town of ‘Old Parramatta’ itself, will receive the care so many graveyard ‘ramblers’ have long called for.

<< INTRODUCTION     ♦      PART II: QUIRKS >>

CITE THIS

Michaela Ann Cameron, “The Burial Register: Part I: St. John’s Taphophiles,” St. John’s Online (2022), https://stjohnsonline.org/burial-register/taphophiles/, accessed [insert current date]

NOTES

[1]Domestic Intelligence,” The Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 – 1848), Tuesday 25 November 1834, p. 2.

[2] Michaela Ann Cameron, “The Taylors: ‘I Am But Sleeping Here,’” St. John’s Online, (Parramatta: The Old Parramattan, 2020), https://stjohnsonline.org/bio/the-taylors, accessed 6 July 2022.

[3] For more on these grisley post-mortem punishments that the courts seemed to have spared Simon Taylor from suffering, see my piece on another Old Parramattan who was not quite so lucky: Michaela Ann Cameron, ‘A Murderer’s Banes in Gibbet Airns,’ St. John’s Online, (2020), accessed 6 July 2022.

[4]Domestic Intelligence,” The Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 – 1848), Tuesday 25 November 1834, p. 2.

[5]Parramatta Revisited. No. 1. Recollections of Old Times,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Thursday 3 August 1871, p. 4.

[6]Parramatta Revisited. No. 1. Recollections of Old Times,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Thursday 3 August 1871, p. 4.

[7]Parramatta Revisited. No. 1. Recollections of Old Times,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), Thursday 3 August 1871, p. 4.

[8]Mr. William Freame. Death on Tuesday,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW : 1888 – 1950), Thursday 21 September 1933, p. 6. One of Freame’s earlier pieces on St. John’s Cemetery (if not the earliest) was dated 29 August 1903 and can be read here: William Freame, “Old St. John’s Churchyard, Parramatta,” Nepean Times (Penrith, NSW : 1882 – 1962), Saturday 29 August 1903, p. 7. There is an earlier piece that was likely written by Freame under the name “Wanderer.” “WITH THE DEAD. AN OLD CEMETERY,” Granville Independent and Parramatta Advertiser (NSW : 1900 – 1901), Friday 8 March 1901, p. 6. Given the timing of the article, and the similarity of the wording to later articles contributed to local newspapers by St. John’s Cemetery’s greatest advocate of the era, William Freame, it seems “Wanderer” was likely a nom de plume Freame used early on.

[9] See Michaela Ann Cameron, The Old Parramattan (oldparramattan.org) (2015–2022); Michaela Ann Cameron (ed.), “Old Parramattans,” St. John’s Online (2015–2021); “Table 1. 1.: Aboriginal placenames around Port Jackson and Botany Bay from historical sources,” in Harold Koch and Luise Hercus (eds.), Aboriginal Placenames: Naming and Re-naming the Australian Landscape(Canberra: ANU E Press, 2009), p. 34.

[10] Vernon W. E. Goodin, St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta: Monumental Inscriptions and Key to Graves (Sydney: Society of Australian Genealogists, 1964). For a brief biography and details of Goodin’s time in Parliament, see “Mr Vernon William Edward Goodwin, M.A. (1892–1971),” Parliament of New South Wales, (n.d.), https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/members/Pages/member-details.aspx?pk=1529, accessed 6 July 2022.

[11] Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta: Parramatta and District Historical Society, 1991).

© Copyright Michaela Ann Cameron 2015–2022