Devonshire Street Cemetery

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

Mr & Mrs Foster in Devonshire Street Cemetery [RAHS Photograph Collection]

The Devonshire Street Cemetery, also known as the Sandhills or Brickfield Cemetery, was a widely used and indeed “notoriously overcrowded” burial ground in operation between 1820 and 1867. [1] Located at Brickfield Hill, today a part of Surry Hills, the cemetery was resumed in 1901 to allow for construction of Sydney’s new Central Railway Station. While relatives were permitted to apply for the return of their deceased loved ones, approximately 30,000 remains were relocated to Bunnerong Cemetery in Matraville. [2] The former graveyard became buried beneath the expanding city and was relegated to the corners of history – until now.

Construction works for the new Sydney Metro have recently unearthed the ruins of the Devonshire Street Cemetery. Archaeological excavations at the site directed by Dr Iain Stuart, RAHS Councillor, have so far discovered 62 grave “cuts” and 5 burial vaults, with some human remains still inside. [3] One set of remains has been identified as belonging to Joseph Thompson, a draper, congregational church elder, and father of 14 children according to an ABC News report. [4] Others remain unidentified as excavations at the site continue.

Much of the information we have about the Devonshire Street Cemetery today comes from the efforts of RAHS founding members Arthur and Ethel Foster. Prior to the burial ground’s demolition, the Fosters devoted two years of weekends to recording as many of the monuments as they could. Their photographs, sketches, and transcriptions of over 700 gravestones – 617 from the Church of England portion and approximately 100 from other denominations – take up 5 volumes in the Mitchell Library and are included in Ethel’s lantern slide collection housed at the RAHS. [5]

For Sydneysiders wishing to know more about these items, please do not hesitate to visit us at History House.

References

[1] Dr Iain Stuart, quoted in Michelle Brown, ‘Sydney Metro construction unearths 160-year-old grave of Joseph Thompson’, ABC News, 25 Jun. 2019, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-25/sydney-metro-construction-unearths-160-yo-grave/11244148>, accessed 16 Jul. 2019; ‘Government and General Orders’, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 5 Feb. 1820, p. 1.
[2] ‘Sydney Metro construction’; ‘Devonshire-Street Cemetery’, The Daily Telegraph, 13 Jul. 1901, p. 8.
[3] Dr Iain Stuart, quoted in ‘Sydney Metro construction’.
[4] ‘Sydney Metro construction’.
[5] Anne-Maree Whitaker, ‘Arthur and Ethel Foster’, History, March 2006, p. 7. 

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