Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Forgotten Dead of the Big Smoke...

I still remember taking the Haunted Walk in Ottawa, Canada last year. It was a great experience and chance to learn about the hidden history of the city. One of the more interesting parts was exploring the city's earliest cemeteries. The first was a military site on Barrack's Hill, now referred to as Parliament Hill. That area now traversed by Sparks Street became a huge cemetery. You wouldn't know it today. All traces are covered by roads, buildings, and sidewalks. Yet construction work still unearths the occasional grave site and bones. Surely Sydney wouldn't be the same, right?

Not exactly. You won't find Old Sydney Burial Ground on any modern map. Many Sydneysiders walk right past it every day without giving it any notice. It dates back to 1792 and is situated at the southwest corner of George and Druitt Streets. Today the spot is better known as Sydney Town Hall.

The cemetery was in use until it was filled to capacity in 1820 and by 1840 had become a health hazard and unsightly place due to the haphazard burial techniques in clay soil. Interestingly enough the site was never consecrated or officially announced as a cemetery and it never had a trustee. No official records were kept though in 1845 it was estimated that some 2000 souls (both free citizens and convicts) were buried in these two acres of land.

As early as 1842 there was talk of removing the bodies and building a town hall. It wasn't until April 4, 1868 that the first foundation stone was laid on the new building. At the same time, the long process of exhumation began. Most graves were badly deteriorated. The bones and headstones that were uncovered were moved to  the Church of England cemetery at what is now Rookwood Necropolis. Unfortunately for these early dead people of Sydney's history many were left in the ground beneath the growing building.

Since 1871 when the Town Hall was being completed bones and headstone fragments have been routinely unearthed at the site. Even as recently as 2007 grave sites have been discovered and excavated. Of course, this isn't the only place in Australia hiding an old cemetery. There's Cathedral Park in Newcastle, Victoria Market in Melbourne, Canberra's Lake Burley-Griffin, and several others. While the dead have been forgotten and neglected they don't always rest in peace. It's no wonder that there are rumors that the ghosts of Sydney's former residents haunt Town Hall to this very day.

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