A history of the Brighton General Cemetery

The Brighton General Cemetery is one of Melbourne’s oldest and most significant burial grounds dating back to 1855.

The earliest mention of the Cemetery was in April 1853 when The Argus reported that at a meeting of the Melbourne City Council, the government authorities reserved land for two general cemeteries south of the Yarra River – St. Kilda (20 acres) and Brighton (29 acres) on the corner of North and Hawthorn Roads.[i] Both cemeteries were within an area that was part of the Caulfield Survey which had yet been released for sale by the Crown.

Six representatives from the local churches met at the Little Brighton Hotel on 29 May 1854 to form the Brighton General Cemetery Trust. The first trustees were Archibald McMillan (Presbyterian), John Brewer (Baptist), John Simmonds (Independent/Congregationist), Henry O’Neill (Roman Catholic), Henry Mortimer Blanche (Church of England) and Charles Stone (Methodist).[ii] At the first meeting held on 13 September 1854, Simmonds was appointed first Secretary, a position he held until his death in 1860; while John McMillan was the first Sexton on a salary of £2 per week.[iii] On 16 September 1908, Phillip Blashki became the first Jewish Trustee representing the East St. Kilda Hebrew Congregation.[iv] 

The original trust office was on the premises of John Simmonds Estate Agents, on the corner of Bay and Asling Streets Brighton. After Simmonds’ death, his son, Samuel Pond Simmonds was appointed at the age of just 21 and continued as Secretary for a record 47 years and seven months. Thus, the Cemetery office would continue to operate from the premises.

The Cemetery officially opened for interments on 21 September 1855 with the publication of the Rules and Regulations.[v] The first known burial took place on 3 July 1855 before the official opening when John Alexander was interred in grave, “the place of interment will be marked on the map when prepared”.[vi] The first recorded interment occurred on 14 October 1855 with the burial of 10-month-old Johanna Wallace Manson (Meth*F*59) who was laid to rest in a solemn ceremony officiated by Reverend Bickford.

Situated on a red gum flat used by the earliest settlers for saw milling, the establishment of the Brighton Cemetery in the first few decades was not without struggle. The lack of government funds, the continual use of the two local churchyard cemeteries – St. Patrick’s/Finbar’s Catholic (1848-69) and St. Andrew’s Church of England (1843-92) as well as the inability to maintain the upkeep of the land made for a difficult period. It was not surprising that by 1862, four of the original five trustees had either resigned or died in office.

The serpentine roadways and formal symmetrical layout of the paths indicates some influence of the picturesque Victorian garden cemetery in the romantic style introduced by Albert Purchas who in 1852 laid out the grounds of the Melbourne General Cemetery. It is believed that the Surveyor’s Office laid out the area and the historically significant original tracing maps are still held in the Cemetery Office.[vii] Interestingly, the original system made no reference to the Denomination or Section – Church of England Section “S” was simply “AB”; Church of England Section “A” was “PG”. The old system was replaced in early 1861 and new right of burial certificates issued to all owners.[viii]

In April 1855, the Secretary, John Simmonds wrote to the Colonial Secretary seeking a sum of £2,500 to enable the Trust to build a residence and office, fencing of 20 acres, preparing the area, furnishing, staff wages and stationery and printing expenses. Simmonds was told by the Assistant Colonial Secretary that;

“…you have made bad calculations. There was only two thousand Pounds voted for for [sic] the Cemeterys [sic]…you have not the slightest chance of getting it or one fourth of it this year”.[ix]

Unable to proceed with their original plans, the Trustees made do with four government grants in 1855 (£400), 1856 (£200), 1868 (£75) and 1880 (£20).[x] The first grant of £400 was advanced as a loan to be applied in fencing the area with a simple post and rail fence.[xi] Awarded to Robert Williams, the fence and gates were completed around 15 August 1855 over budget and over schedule at a cost of £264-18-2.[xii] This was one of the contributing factors that delayed the opening of the Cemetery; the other was the drafting of the Rules & Regulations and Scale of Charges.  

During the early years of operation, the Trustees struggled to keep the Cemetery going. A large culvert at the entrance to the Cemetery prevented mourners accessing the grounds. This was eventually bridged after a grant from the government in May 1856 which also funded the construction of a “small room for the Sexton” of 12 square feet made out of red gum timbers from within the Cemetery. Built by Robert Hayball for £40,[xiii] the little room was still standing in 1879. 

Slowly the wheels of fortune changed. Not until the 1880s were the Trust in a position to fund well-needed conveniences for the public. There followed a single dual sex toilet constructed between October 1884-January 1885[xiv] and a Rotunda in the Church of England section built by Grundy and Williams at a cost of £49-10-0[xv] which was demolished in the early 1990s. It was also in the 1880s when the road dividing the Methodist and Roman Catholic portions was constructed “to allow of vehicles crossing from road to road where turning is now impracticable”.[xvi]

On 25 January 1892, noted architect Percy Oakden was engaged to design a residence for the Sexton.[xvii] Twenty-one tenders to construct “The Lodge” submitted plans ranging from £694-7-9 and £998-11-0 with the contract awarded to local builders Boxshall and Leonard on 8 March.[xviii] The office, boardroom and strongroom were added in 1929 while the service wing, wash house, kitchen and other modifications were completed in 1930 at a further cost of £800.[xix]

In 1902, iron gates were erected near the residence. Built by Monteath & Sons at a cost of £80, the gates were moved in 1924 to the Hawthorn Road entrance[xx] and later restored in May 2003.

With the St. Kilda General Cemetery no longer able to cater for the Jewish community, steps were undertaken to use the area set aside at Brighton. Accordingly, plans were approved for the construction of a Mortuary (Metarah) Chapel measuring 20 by 25 feet in August 1909.[xxi] The first burial was Robert Isaacs on 10 February 1909 (Jewish*G*2); there had been one interment previously, that of Alfred Soloman in January 1860.

In the years after the Great War, the area in the vicinity was developed for housing and no longer was the Cemetery isolated away from populated districts. By 1917, the local Caulfield City Council was urging the closure of the Brighton General Cemetery.[xxii] At one stage, the Council argued that the open drains were polluted from water coming from the Cemetery. When tests were undertaken by the Health Department, it was found the water from within the Cemetery was cleaner than the Council’s open drains.

The Trust sought approval in February 1919 to develop the land between the residence and North Road; drainage was the largest single expense costing £1,013-10-1;[xxiii] the first burial in the area was Charles Lyell on 16 February 1920 (CofE*ZA*1487). The development of the ‘Outer Reserve Area’ marked the beginning of the ‘Golden era’ when the Cemetery averaged 1,350 interments annually. Alterations to “The Lodge’ were made, a shelter building was constructed at the North Road entrance and a brick wall at the rear of the residence was built during this period.

The substantial surrounding brick wall was completed by August 1924 with two contracts awarded at a total cost of £6,164.[xxiv] An additional £395-10-3 was expended on the main entrance gates.[xxv] The work was substandard and extensive repairs were needed in the 1950s at an additional cost of £1,990.[xxvi] At the same time the horse trough was removed from the main drive, the era of the motor vehicle had arrived.  

The Cemetery Trust considered the building of a crematorium at its meeting on 13 May 1924.[xxvii] The proposal was years ahead of its time being three years before Fawkner and 12 years before the Springvale Botanical Cemetery both erected modern crematoriums with overwhelming financial success. Although an architectural drawing of a crematorium and chapel was drawn-up, the proposal was reviewed and defeated at a meeting of Trustees on 12 August 1924. A matter was again considered in 1931 but no action was taken.[xxviii]

The other major work undertaken was the construction of the Cemetery Office adjoining the residence. The architects were Hudson, Wardrop & Usher, the firm who were behind the design of the Shrine of Remembrance. Eric Jacobsen was the successful tenderer and the office was completed by July 1929 at a cost of £1,144.[xxix]

In 1933, the trustees realised that the Brighton General Cemetery was running out of available burial space. As a result they approached the government of the day to establish a new cemetery to continue to serve the locality. Two locations were considered, one being on the corner of Centre Road and Thomas Street, Brighton (22 acres) as well as the Tramway Heights Estate on South Road (36 acres).[xxx] The Government refused on the grounds that a new cemetery had been established in Cheltenham. In October 1944, the Trust again sought to establish a new cemetery, this time opposite the Yarra Yarra Golf Club on Warrigal Road (58 acres), but the plan was also unsuccessful.[xxxi] Subsequently, the Trust looked to use all the available land in the cemetery grounds to its maximum potential. This resulted in the establishment of non-denominational lawn areas in 1958 by following the lead of the Springvale Botanical Cemetery. The Cheltenham Memorial Park would follow suit three years later.

In November 1946, the Trust attained the highest credit balance of all Victorian cemeteries with a balance of £81,534-5-7.[xxxii]

In order to effectively maintain the grounds a Royal Enfield Motor Mower was purchased in 1949 for the princely sum of £89-10-0.[xxxiii]

With available areas now exhausted, a Discontinuance Order preventing the development of new areas was issued by the government in January 1984.[xxxiv] Variations to the closing order were permitted in recent years to allow the release of further gravesites, notably in the area adjacent to “The Lodge” residence and the work yard.

Today, the Brighton General Cemetery is recognised for its heritage significance. Many notable people have been buried within the grounds including Sir John Monash, Sir Thomas Bent, Adam Lindsay Gordon, George Higinbotham, Rev Sir C Irving Benson, Sir Frederick McCoy, Alfred Nicholas, Ada Cambridge, John Furphy, James Hardie, Rolf Boldrewood, Sir Bernard Heinze, Sir Francis Connelly, Sir Simon Fraser, William Guilfoyle, Carlo Catani, Norton Grimwade, Jack O’Hagan, Rev Charles Strong, Sir George Syme, Graham ‘Smacka’ Fitzgibbon, Charles Webb, Madam Weigel, William Trenwith, Hugo Wertheim, five members of the Boyd artistic dynasty including Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Fred McCubbin, H Septimus Power, E Phillips Fox, John Perceval, the infamous larrikin-crook ‘Squizzy’ Taylor as well as four Victorian Cross recipients.

The Brighton General Cemetery Trust was the longest running Trust in Victoria, serving for 152 years until its amalgamation with the Cheltenham Regional Cemeteries Trust in April 2007. Under the direction of the Victorian State Government, the Cheltenham Regional Cemeteries Trust amalgamated with the Necropolis Cemetery Trust to form the Sothern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust on 1 March 2010.

[i]The Argus 12 Apr 1853 p9
[ii]Victorian Government Gazette29 Dec 1854 p3098
[iii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p22
[iv]Victorian Government Gazette 16 Sep 1908 p4618
[v]Victorian Government Gazette21 Sep 1855 p2390-92
[vi]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p20
[vii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p20a and p21
[viii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p65
[ix]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p15
[x]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p17, p39a, p114 and Brighton General Cemetery Trust Letter Book “A” p8 and p154-155
[xi]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p18
[xii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p22 & p34
[xiii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p43
[xiv]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p138
[xv]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p139
[xvi]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p144
[xvii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p156a
[xviii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “A” p159
[xix]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p 289-290
[xx]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p32
[xxi]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p96
[xxii]Southern Cross10 Feb 1917 p2
[xxiii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p175
[xxiv]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p204 & p206
[xxv]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p211
[xxvi]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “C” p289
[xxvii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p214-215
[xxviii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p303
[xxix]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p260, p270 & p277
[xxx]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “B” p330
[xxxi]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “C” p151
[xxxii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “C” p181
[xxxiii]Brighton General Cemetery Trust minutes of meetings, Book “C” p238
[xxxiv]Victorian Government Gazette 25 Jan 1984 p146