By Judith Dunn
St. John’s Cemetery, the oldest surviving European cemetery in Australia, was established as a general burial ground for all denominations in an old stock paddock on the outskirts of Parramatta, the land of the Dharug People’s Burramattagal clan. The first burial was that of James Magee, the child of First Fleet convicts, and occurred on 31 January 1790 — considerably earlier than the Old Sydney Burial Ground under Sydney Town Hall (est. 1793), the Devonshire Street (Sandhills) Cemetery under Sydney’s Central Station (est. 1819), and Rookwood (est. 1868). The first marked burial and eleventh interment at St. John’s was that of First Fleeter Henry Dodd, the Superintendent of Convicts at the Government Farm, who grew the first successful wheat crop in the colony. Dodd’s death gave the cemetery two important firsts: the earliest memorial in situ in Australia and, as his funeral was reportedly ‘attended by all the free people and convicts at Rose Hill,’ the first public funeral in the colony.
Two early town plans of Parramatta trace the establishment of the cemetery. The first titled, ‘The Town of Parramatta’ c.1791 shows an ‘Inclosure for Cattle’ and the second plan, an enclosure to Governor Macquarie’s dispatch of 7 October 1814, shows the same site as the ‘Burying Ground.’ The cemetery at that time extended to Pitt Street, but there is no evidence that this section was ever used for burials as the earliest known photos of the cemetery show no memorials in the additional section of land.
A government order published in the Sydney Gazette in 1811 noted that any death should be notified to the District Constable and nearest Resident Chaplain in order that the latter could attend and perform the funeral service. It further ordered that consecrated burial grounds be enclosed by either a good wall or ‘strong Pallisadoes.’ A total of 82 pounds, four shillings and seven pence was raised by public subscription, donated by people of all denominations, and a ditch and fence enclosure was completed by January 1812 on which date the subscription list was published.
By the early 1820s the ditch and fence had fallen into decay and Governor Brisbane gave instructions for a brick wall to be built in its place to keep out wandering stock. A letter published in The Australian newspaper in 1824 noted the wall was slowly being built. This remarkable wall with many of its bricks impressed with government arrows was also built by public subscription and, as ‘the most substantial sandstock structure remaining in Australia’ is a very significant feature in the cemetery landscape. Two major repairs to the wall were carried out in 1988. A Camphor Laurel tree gradually pushed a section of the south wall until it collapsed into the cemetery. This section was repaired with financial assistance from the Australian Bicentennial Council and dedicated in January 1988. On Saturday 30 April 1988, following weeks of heavy rain, the north eastern corner of the wall was breached by water accumulating behind the wall to a height of two metres. Many bricks were flushed into the stormwater system and an estimated $25,000 was needed for urgent repairs. On the recommendation of the Heritage Council of NSW, government money was forthcoming once more for restoration of this most important element.
The lychgate, built by Parramatta Rotary in 1982, is a modern copy of James Houison’s 1856 entry gate. Lych is the ancient English word for a body, therefore the “lychgate” is the entry used to bring the deceased into the cemetery. The English prayer book of 1549 required the priest to meet the deceased at the entrance to the burial ground and there conduct the beginning of the burial service. A roofed lychgate provided rest and shelter for the bearers while they were waiting for the priest and all who were officiating in the early part of the service. Once the funeral party was ready to move on, the parish bier was fetched and used to convey the body to the graveside.
Date of Grant
Vernon W. E. Goodin made a valuable contribution to St. John’s records when he transcribed the cemetery in 1950. In his work he noted, ‘with the advent of Archdeacon Scott in 1825, the cemeteries passed under the control of the Church of England.’ St. Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery was already in existence by 1822 and one by one Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational cemeteries were also granted in Parramatta, leaving St. John’s exclusively Church of England. The actual deed for St. John’s Cemetery was not granted until 22 December 1857 when, ‘3 acres one rood and twenty perches were given for the interment of the dead’ with Francis Watkins, Edward Rowling and Andrew McDougal as trustees. All three are buried in the cemetery.
James William Macey was receiving a wage as sexton of St. John’s from the time of the grant in 1857 and continued until his death in 1876. Samuel Cook was evidently the next sexton as when he died in 1925 it was noted he had served in that capacity for 50 years. Macey’s salary had been £4 per year in 1857 and Cook was still receiving the same amount per year in 1911. This amount was supplemented by two shillings and sixpence for digging a grave and various amounts for chipping and clearing, painting the wall, clearing scrub and repairing the burial ground wall.
Maintenance of the cemetery from then on was, and still is, problematic. Grass grows rapidly in summer but sometimes cannot be cut for weeks due to summer rain. Trustees continually struggled to keep the walkways and walls in good repair. In 1895 the Trustees set up the St. John’s Cemetery Endowment Fund to pay for alterations and repairs as they should see fit. Though there were donations amounting to £355, 17 shillings, and sixpence, at about the same time the cemetery became full, cutting off the only other source of funding – buying burial plots and erecting memorials.
The heavy burden of maintenance fell to the Trustees and in 1936 the first of many working bees was called. A deserving unemployed man, C. Bell of Aird Street, undertook the heavy work and, over the years, volunteers from The Kings School, Apex, The Scout Movement, Rotary and Howard’s Engineering have laboured freely.
General deterioration and direct damage to St. John’s Cemetery’s wooden gates in early 2017 led to The Hills Men Shed undertaking the task of replicating the cemetery gates, with funds provided by the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta.
Proposed Change of Ownership
Parramatta Council’s Town Clerk approached the Trustees in 1946 to discuss the possibility of closing the cemetery to further burials. All Parramatta cemeteries were originally established outside the boundaries of the town but due to development were now surrounded by residential areas. Council now regarded this as a health hazard. In 1959, therefore, it was announced in the Sydney Morning Herald that the cemetery had been rezoned as open space parklands. The article noted:
‘The Parramatta City Council’s engineering department is anxious to turn the cemetery into a public park….preserving all headstones which will be arranged in rows on the outer boundaries of the ground.’
The church authorities and the descendants of pioneers, however, noted that they were even more ‘anxious’ to have the site maintained as a Christian burial ground.
Historic Graves Committee
An Historic Graves Committee was formed in 1970 to work towards the restoration of the site and several major memorials were restored. Negotiations for Parramatta Council to take over the site were again rejected. Their plan to disengage the stones from the burial plots was deemed unacceptable, as it would break forever the links of family connection in burial plots.
Definitive Book Written
Parramatta and District Historical Society, under the authorship of Judith Dunn, determined to transcribe the cemetery again, recording not just information of genealogical value but everything on each memorial including the artisan’s marks. Every stone, fence and kerb was measured and materials noted, symbolism recorded and sketched or photographed if elaborate or unusual. Finally, each name was cross-referenced with the burial records. Some individual stones in poor condition took literally days to read and the whole cemetery took three years to record as a spare time activity. The Parramatta Cemeteries – St John’s, one of a series of six books which fully record each of Parramatta’s cemeteries, was published in 1991.
Online Project Launched, July 2015
On 8 July 2015, Dr. Michaela Ann Cameron, founded what was then known as the St. John’s Cemetery Project, and sought funding for a collection of biographical essays on St. John’s First Fleeters with memorials. Funding for a portion of the outlined project was secured from the Royal Australian Historical Society with funds allocated from the Office of Environment and Heritage. This prompted Dr. Cameron to seek further funding from City of Parramatta to fund the majority of the remaining essays for the collection. These funds were secured in early 2016 and the collection was delivered the same year. The collection featured original research by Dr. Cameron, Judith Dunn, Penny Edwell, David Morgan, Dr. Danielle Thyer and Dr. Ben Vine. Any of the seventeen First Fleeters with memorials that were not covered by either the RAHS or City of Parramatta funds were subsequently completed and donated by Dr. Cameron on a voluntary basis between 2017 and 2018.
New Committee, June 2016
On Saturday 25 June 2016 the Friends of St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta was formed to guide the cemetery into the future. The Friends are working towards better maintenance, checking new memorials, repairs to the wall, a site-specific Cemetery Maintenance Plan, National Heritage Listing and raising the profile of this very important site.
Major Create NSW Grant Secured for Online Project, December 2018
In late 2018, Dr. Michaela Ann Cameron applied for and secured funding from the New South Wales government through a Create NSW Arts and Cultural grant for professional artists, totalling $66,290. The grant assisted the production of a major collection encompassing some of the notable Old Parramattans buried in the cemetery and/or registered in the parish of St. John’s, for the St. John’s Cemetery Project website, by then renamed St. John’s Online. The collection was delivered over a two-year period and featured new, original research by a number of historians, including Dr. Cameron, Dr. Matthew Allen, Caitlin Adams, Dr. Sarah A. Bendall, Dr. Alexander Cameron-Smith, Dr. Elizabeth de Réland, Dr. James Dunk, Dr. James Findlay, Dr. Catie Gilchrist, Dr. Jennifer McLaren, David Morgan, Dr. Briony Neilson, Dr. Danielle Thyer, and Dr. Ben Vine.
Judith Dunn, “The Significance of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta,” St. John’s Online, (2017).
- Cash Book, 1838-1853 (pew rents, tombstones, disbursements), St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia
- David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. I, (London: T. Cadell jun., and W. Davies, 1798)
- Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta, N.S.W.: Parramatta and District Historical Society, 1991)
- Vernon W. E. Gooden, St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta: Monumental Inscriptions and Key to Graves, (Sydney: Society of Australian Genealogists, 1950)
- Parish Records, Textual records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia
- Trove (http://trove.nla.gov.au/)
 Judge Advocate David Collins wrote that the cemetery was “a large spot of ground which had been inclosed for the preservation of stock…” David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol.I, (London: T. Cadell jun., and W. Davies, 1798), p.148 accessed online 8 November 2016
 The first burial ground in the colony was in the vicinity of The Rocks near the Dawes Point Barracks, referred to by David Collins. Their situation, (the proposed officers’ quarters) being directly in the neighbourhood of the ground appropriated to the burial of the dead, it became necessary to choose another spot. This site, together with the Old Sydney Burial Ground established in 1793 on the site of the present Town Hall, appears to have been the place of interment in Sydney for many years after the foundation of the settlement. After The Rocks burial ground there can be no doubt the burial ground at Rose Hill (Parramatta) was the next to be established. “Progress” has since destroyed The Rocks cemetery leaving St. John’s, Parramatta as the oldest existing burial ground in Australia. Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta NSW: Parramatta Historical Society, 1991), p.15.
 David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol.I, (London: T. Cadell jun., and W. Davies, 1798), p.148 accessed online 8 November 2016
 The earliest known burials with marked memorials are in section 4 (the earliest section) and section 2, which has several memorials dating from the 1790s. Henry Bathurst, William Bligh, Lachlan Macquarie, Plan of the Township of Parramatta in New South Wales 1814 [cartographic Material] / L. M[acquarie], (1915), accessed online Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, 7 March 2017
 “Classified Advertising: Government and General Orders,” Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Saturday 11 May 1811, p.1
 “Classified Advertising: Government and General Orders,” Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Saturday 11 May 1811, p.1
 “List of Subscribers for Inclosing the BURIAL GROUND at Parramatta, which is now compleated [sic],” Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Saturday 4 January 1812, p.1
 The first arrow marks appeared in the early 1820s as a result of the Bigge Report into the administration of the colony.
 “Save Cemetery for the Nation,” Advertiser (Parramatta, NSW: 1844-1995), Thursday 13 August 1970, n.p.
 Lych is the ancient English word for a body, therefore the “lychgate” is the entry used to bring the deceased into the cemetery.
 Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St. John’s, (Parramatta NSW: Parramatta and District Historical Society, 1991), p.22
 Vernon W. E. Gooden, St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta: Monumental Inscriptions and Key to Graves, (Sydney: Society of Australian Genealogists, 1950)
 Lands Department, Deed of grant.
 Both James Macey and Samuel Cook are buried in the cemetery.
 Cash Book, 1838-1853 (pew rents, tombstones, disbursements), St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia
 Parish Records, Textual records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia; W. J. Gunther, “St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta: TO THE EDITOR OF THE HERALD,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), Saturday 16 July 1910, p.4
 These concerns were raised as early as 1890. See, for example, an article about St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta from 1890 that discusses cemeteries as being hazardous to public health and the possibility of turning “disused cemeteries into parks and ornamental gardens….Of course the sentiment respecting the dead must always give way to the requirements of the living, and where the march of progress requires the resumption of a cemetery the sentiment that is in danger of degenerating into an unreasonable prejudice must not be allowed to stand in the way. But there are old graveyards out of the way of progress, with historical associations of their own that cannot be replaced. The cemetery of St. John’s at Parramatta is one of them, and there ought to be sufficient liberality among the people to whom it belongs, and those who are interested in the spot on other grounds, to rescue it from desolation.” “No title,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), Monday 19 May 1890, p.4; The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate entered the discussion five days later stating, “We are at one with the S. M. Herald in thinking that St. John’s Old Cemetery might advantageously be turned into “a beauty-spot sacred to orderly quiet.” No more burials within it should be permitted; while its area should be converted into an ornamental garden in the four corners and centre of which might be placed monuments, commemorating all the several obituary data now mouldering away on decaying tombstones. Eh?” “Topics,” Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950) Saturday 24 May 1890, p.4
 Sydney Morning Herald, 1959.
© Copyright 2017 Judith Dunn and Michaela Ann Cameron for St. John’s Online