Through 150 Years

Chapter 1.  The Need for a Cemetery  
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In the 19th century, the establishment of a cemetery was essentially linked with the expansion of a locality.  For the city of Melbourne, this certainly was the case when during the gold rush of the 1850s the population increased five-fold.  While the rush to be rich was all the rage, the burying of the deceased was a problem that the authorities had to overcome and could not easily be ignored.[1] 


The Old Melbourne Cemetery (Queen Victoria Market) which opened in 1837 was the only general cemetery in Melbourne, but was ‘full’ by 1854.[2]  Agitation for a new cemetery began in 1849 when the Melbourne City Council, backed by The Argus recommended to the authorities in Sydney that legislation be enacted to establish the Melbourne General Cemetery on 28 acres at nearby Carlton.[3]  The first reading of the Bill took place on 17 July 1850[4] during the same month when the City Council sought the reservation of land for a cemetery at South Melbourne for the inhabitants south of the Yarra river.[5]  The Act - 1850, 14 Vic. No. 19 -[6] was assented in September and the first recorded interment took place on 28 May 1853 when John Alexander Burnett was buried. 

But for the inhabitants south of the Yarra, it was to be many more years of travelling hours along unkempt and dusty roads that were prone to sudden flooding before a cemetery in the area was established. 

In the files on the St. Kilda General Cemetery held by the Department of Human Services is a fragile map of rare and historic importance titled “PLAN OF PROPOSED SITE for a GENERAL CEMETERY to the East of ST KILDA”.[7]  Dated 20th November 1851, the map is signed by the steady hand of Robert Hoddle (Melbourne General Cemetery), the noted Surveyor-General who laid out the streets of the Port Phillip district in 1837.  In the centre of the map is an area of land surrounded by four unnamed carriageways and divided into seven rectangular blocks, three rows with two blocks and a separate double block.  Each block is surveyed showing the dimensions of the area and are labelled from top to bottom, “Church of England” and “Roman Catholics” (4 acres each), “Presbyterians” and “Wesleyans” (2 acres each), “Independents” and “Baptists” (2 acres each).  The double block to the south is labelled “Reserve for Extension”. 

The map of St. Kilda provides some clues into the origins of the Brighton General Cemetery.  Could it be that Hoddle’s survey for a cemetery at St. Kilda was as a result of the urgencies from the Melbourne City Council in mid-1850 and influenced by the government authorities who favoured burial grounds away from populated areas?  And did Hoddle also survey the land for the Brighton Cemetery at the same time?  There are a number of points to support the theory that both cemeteries may have been surveyed together.  Both cemeteries were located in isolated positions within the Caulfield survey[8] bordering along neighbouring boundaries far away from the town centres.  Both had areas set aside for the same identical denominations as marked on the map for St. Kilda Cemetery.  And significantly, both cemeteries had areas reserved for future extensions to the south of the land surveyed. 

Considering that it was announced at the same time that land for both Brighton and St. Kilda had been set aside, indicates that there was a level of government planning on the issue and not a hasty decision as a result of lobbying for immediate action.  But the influence from the Melbourne City Council should not be underestimated.  As the only body with enough clout to take up the issue with the government authorities, the City Council had urged the establishment of the cemetery at South Melbourne in July 1850 and may have continued to exert pressure.[9]  

To the Town Clerk, Melbourne

       21, Little Flinders Street

                February 15, 1853


Sir,- I beg to bring under your notice, with a view that you would be good enough to initiate measures for the procurement of the same, the establishment of a Southern Cemetery on the south side of the river Yarra and the immediate and most urgent necessity thereof for the use of the large and most rapidly increasing population of the parishes of Prahran, St. Kilda, and the two Brightons, the casualties of shipping in the Bay, and Sandridge &c.


It is superfluous to point out to your body the hardships arising from the loss of time and expense entailed from the length of transit of funerals through the crowded city to the new and distant Northern Cemetery of the city, along bad roads, which in winter would aggravate the evils.  Feeling that it is only necessary to bring this urgent want before the notices of the proper authorities, to insure [sic] the same being remedied,


I beg to remain,


                    Yours respectfully,


The above letter written to the Town Clerk and reported in The Argus led to the Mayor to again urge upon the need for a cemetery.  But the City Council still favoured the South Melbourne site; the government was adverse to locating burial grounds in densely populated areas.  The Colonial Secretary’s response reported by The Argus at the Council meeting on Monday 11 April 1853 was the first official public notice that land had been reserved: 

No. 2.- A letter from the Colonial Secretary, in reply to one from the Mayor, calling the attention of the Government to the necessity that existed for the establishment of a cemetery in South Melbourne, and intimating that the Government had already reserved two cemeteries at South Yarra, with one about a mile from St. Kilda, and the second adjoining the northern boundary of Dendy’s Survey.[11]

(above) Monumental Headstone to John Burnett at Melbourne General Cemetery (2000)

It is in this context - the rapid expansion of the Brighton-St. Kilda-South Melbourne-Prahran locality during the gold rush, and the difficulty of travelling the distance to the Melbourne General Cemetery - that land was set aside for the Brighton (29 acres)[12] and St. Kilda Cemeteries (20 acres). 

The site selected at Brighton was far away from the town population in a wild and desolate location on a red gum flat that extended north between Hawthorn and Bambra Roads and surrounded on both sides by heath lands.  A natural water course flowed down Sussex Street then westerly through the cemetery just south of ‘The Lodge’ towards the Elwood swamp.[13]  No population bar a few hardy souls lived in the immediate vicinity, mainly farmers on Dendy’s estate.  The nearest towns were Little Brighton to the south near Union and Mill Street (Hawthorn Road), and the timber cutters of Camden Town to the north near Glenhuntly and Hawthorn Roads.[14]  

Being located on the northern boundary of Henry Dendy’s (Walhalla Cemetery)[15]  Special Survey in Caulfield was probably due to a number of factors.  First and foremost was the availability of Crown land not less than one mile from the town population[16] that had yet been released for public sale.  The Caulfield area was an ideal choice.  It had yet to be surveyed and unlike land within Dendy’s Survey,[17] there were no legal issues surrounding the reservation of Crown Land.  It was also ideally positioned to serve the villages of Elsternwick and Camden Town.  But it remained to be seen in the decades ahead whether the future inhabitants of Caulfield appreciated a burial ground in their backyard administered under the Trust by men from another district.

(above) Monumental Headstone to Henry Dendy at Walhalla Cemetery (2000)

[1] The churchyard cemeteries of St. Andrew’s Church of England, New Street (1844-92) and St. Patrick’s/Finbar’s Roman Catholic, corner Centre Road and Nepean Highway (1848-69) were used by the district and surrounds in the absence of a general cemetery in the area.  There was also the Beaumaris Cemetery, corner Bickford Court and Balcombe Road (1855-65) for those of the Methodist faith.

[2] The Old Melbourne was eventually closed in 1922 with most of the remains being re-interred at Fawkner Cemetery.

[3] City of the Dead: A History of The Necropolis Springvale (Don Chambers) p235-37.

[4] The Melbourne Morning Herald 26 July 1850 p2.

[5] The Melbourne Morning Herald 6 July 1850 p4.

[6] Titled "An Act for the establishment and regulation by trustees of a general cemetery near the city of Melbourne".

[7] Department of Human Services file on St. Kilda General Cemetery Part I up to 1916 (93/387/121 455).

[8] Caulfield was surveyed by Henry Foot and published in 1853 and covering the areas of East St Kilda, Caulfield and East Elsternwick.  The first land sales took place 25 February 1854.  (A History of Caulfield Murray & Wells p2.)

[9] Councillors Stephen, Hodgson and Campbell were on the Melbourne City Council in 1850 and also in 1853.

[10] The Argus 2 March 1853 p5.

[11] The Argus 12 April 1853 p9.

[12] Victorian Government Gazette 5 May 1868 p884. The total area is 28.92 acres (28 acres 3 roods, 27 perches) after 13 perches (0.081 acres) of land was excised to allow for the left turning lane into North Road from Hawthorn Road (Victorian Government Gazette 8 January 1969 p47).

[13] A History of Caulfield (Murray & Wells) p86.

[14] A History of Caulfield (Murray & Wells) p111 and p104.  Camden Town was said to have been established as a result from an overflow of people from St. Kilda into the area during the 1850’s.

[15] Henry Dendy - born Surrey, England 24 May 1800, died Walhalla, Victoria 11 February 1881.  Interred at Walhalla Cemetery.

[16] The Argus 19 August 1853 p5.  The Act 17 Vic. No. 12 titled "An Act for the establishment and management of cemeteries in the colony of Victoria" was not assented until March 1854.

[17] Being the area bounded by North Road, South Road, East Boundary Road and the foreshore.

© 2004.  Extracts taken from sources held by the Brighton General Cemetery Trust is copyright material.  Permission to reproduce must first be obtained from the Trustees.

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Last Updated: 02-Dec-2018 11:41.