Category Archives: derelict

Mecca Cinema/Residential – Kogarah, NSW

For those who’ve just joined us…

In 1920, the Victory Theatre was built to entertain the rapidly growing population of Kogarah. Just eight years later, however, the victory party was over:

SMH, Mar 7 1928

SMH, Mar 7 1928

The Victory was purchased by entrepreneur John Wayland, who in 1936 reopened the theatre as…the NEW Victory:

Image courtesy Bernie Sharah/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

Image courtesy Bernie Sharah/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

When television entered the picture (so to speak) in the late 1950s, suburban cinemas began to fall off the map rapidly. The fortunes of the Victory (named the Avon by the mid 1960s) were drying up in the face of an uncertain future, and in 1969 Wayland was forced to sell to the Mecca cinema chain, which also owned theatres in Oatley and Hurstville.

Kogarah Mecca, 1974. Image courtesy Ian Hanson/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

Kogarah Mecca, 1974. Image courtesy Ian Hanson/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

In 1971, owner Philip Doyle rebranded the theatre as the Kogarah Mecca, a name change that tied it to the Hurstville Mecca. The theatre showed a mix of cinematic releases and stage productions, the last of which was a production of Cinderella. Doyle, a would-be impresario, staged and managed the productions himself. Cinderella’s season appears to have begun in 1986:

SMH, Jan 21 1986

SMH, Jan 21 1986

…and ended in 1989, when Doyle elected to abandon the one-screen format and turn the Mecca into a multiplex. In a futile attempt to compete with the newly opened Greater Union at Hurstville Westfield, which boasted eight screens, Doyle split the Mecca into four new, much smaller screens.

Kogarah Mecca, 1990. Image courtesy Guy Warren/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

Kogarah Mecca, 1990. Image courtesy Guy Warren/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

The success of Hurstville Greater Union had also forced Doyle to close the Hurstville Mecca, which was demolished in 1995, leaving Kogarah as Doyle’s focus. Throughout the 1990s, the Kogarah Mecca became known as the cheapest cinema in Sydney, with tickets for at a flat rate of $5.

Kogarah Mecca through the ages. Image courtesy Ken Taylor/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

Kogarah Mecca through the ages. Image courtesy Ken Taylor/Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

So there you have it: a cheap cinema running cheap Hollywood entertainment owned by a cheap scumbag in the cheap part of a cheap town. What a legacy.

In 2003, the cinema abruptly and mysteriously closed…which is exactly how Andre and I found it about ten years later.

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We’d been intrigued by the taste afforded us during our last visit, and we’d gone back to test the flimsiness of that wooden door on the side. After all, they were only going to demolish the place anyway. What harm could it do to-

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Well, whadda ya know? Now there’s no excuse.

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We were initially greeted by a storage area. The door had been banging softly in the breeze, and continued to do so after we entered, providing a rough heartbeat for the clutter within. The place was a mess…but what a mess! Relics of the cinema’s history were strewn about the room:

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The room itself went right back to the rear of the building. The ducting and pylons built as part of the multiplexing stood out like the proverbial, providing an eerie atmosphere of incongruity. We both agreed there was something not quite right about the place, and it slowly dawned on us we might not be alone.

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Surprisingly, the place still had power. Near to where we’d entered, another door yawned open, and the yellow light beyond seemed very inviting. We couldn’t come this far and not continue…

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The doorway led to a creepy stairwell, at the top of which was the projection room, and another, more sinister room bathed in a red glow.

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The door to this room appeared to have been literally ripped from the wall, and the place was trashed. What had happened here?

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The evidence suggested a beer-fuelled rampage by local graffiti artists led by David Brown’s greatest enemy.

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The room was full of cinema seats, and by the look of it had perhaps once been some kind of private screening room, or a meeting room. In either case, the interest it provided was limited, and we moved on to the projection room.

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Nota bene: this guy isn’t Philip Doyle.

The projection room was somehow in worse shape than the screening room.

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What was left of the projectors had been stripped, and equipment lay everywhere. Immediately arresting was a shelf containing scores of film cans filled with cinema advertising…

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…and some cryptic words:

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It really did look as though the staff just downed tools one day and walked out. If it weren’t for the trashing, it seemed like they could have just walked back in at any minute and started rolling.

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The holes in the wall where the projectors had once shone through now provided a view down to the cinemas below…

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…at least, enough to know that was our next stop. A stairwell at the rear of the projection room provided the access.

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More violence: the door to the foyer appeared to have been forcefully kicked down. Who broke in here? King Leonidas?

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The foyer too was the scene of some pretty heavy action. Pepsi cups and popcorn littered the floor, and the door to each cinema hung wide open. In addition to the gaudy pastel art design, Doyle had named each new theatre. We started with the rearmost one, ‘The Ritz’…

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And someone had definitely put upon the Ritz. With the seats gone, the room looked a lot larger than it ever had. Enterprising graffiti artists had used a ladder to tag the screen, but apart from that this cinema was probably the least abused of the four.

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Not so the ‘Manhattan’, in which our violent predecessors had set up a kind of roundtable. A base of operations? A drinking spot?

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It certainly wasn’t to get a better view of the screen, which was no longer in existence.

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The chintzy Manhattan skyline which adorned the walls provided a sad framework for the carnage and failure we were witnessing, although the damage was very King Kong-esque.

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The ‘Palace’ was palatial as ever with the chairs and screen removed. What’s fascinating is that with the screen removed, it’s easy to see the outline of where the Victory’s grand staircase would have been.

Imagine how many films those faces must have witnessed...

Imagine how many films those faces must have witnessed…

The first cinema, ‘Encore’, was so small that it was hard to imagine it as being adequate for screening anything. I’ve seen bigger home cinema setups than this.

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Carpeting the tiny room was a thick pile of movie books, videos, photos and script pages. Some empty removal boxes nearby suggested that the cinema had been used as temporary storage during its last few years.

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Back out in the foyer, we were faced with a problem. We had to check out the ticket counter, but the door provided a clear view out to the street. We had to be careful, lest one of the civic-minded locals drop dime on us and end our tour of the Mecca.

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No, really?

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Hiding out of sight, we crept through the staff office. It was perhaps in the best condition of all of the rooms, with only one major flaw:

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The candy bar/ticket counter, when we finally reached it, was just what you’d expect. Condescending signs…

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Overpriced refreshments…

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And stacks of empty cups, silently waiting to serve their purpose. Bad luck, guys.

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I couldn’t help but notice this sign, which I found anomalous. Does Greater Union reserve this right? Does any other cinema? If I’m going to be kicked out of a place, I at the very least expect a reason.

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Our earlier fears were unfounded: no one was around. I think we’d been so caught up in the Meccapocalypse that we’d forgotten where we were – the wrong side of Kogarah’s tracks.

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Having covered everything, we made our way back to the underground storeroom via the foyer. I was struck by this feature wall. It looks as though the posters are crying, and I don’t blame them after all the hell Doyle had put the place through. If ‘faded glory’ has a visual definition, this is my submission.

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As we descended the stairwell to the storeroom, we suddenly became aware just how ornate it was.

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The stairs themselves were starting to peel, the cheap paint no longer able to disguise a more regal past.

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The stairwell, just like the space upstairs, had been carved up by Doyle in his quest to beat Greater Union at its own game. What had once been a lavish entrance was now just dank storage space for all the grime behind the glitz.

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The Celebrity Room snuck up on us. We’d breezed right past it originally, but with a name like that, how had that been possible? Had it even been there the first time?

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With hubris set to maximum, Doyle had made the Celebrity Room into his office.

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The grimy office was revolting, unkempt, and radiated an enormous sense of unease. It also hid one of the more interesting finds of the entire trip:

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If you can ignore the filth for a moment, you can see that the stairs that carried down through the above cinemas would have ended here, and then continued on to the theatre…

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But that meant that the original screen was somewhere behind us, in the storeroom. Would anything remain?

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On our way back out, we noticed the walls were speckled with (among other things) vintage movie posters. Torture Garden seems particularly appropriate.

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If only. Moving on…

At this point, we knew the cinema was deserted. Feeling more comfortable, we resolved to explore the rear of the storeroom, the area which would have sat above the toilet we’d visited last time. It didn’t take long to find the entrance to what had once been the Victory’s stage.

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Patient Kogarah audiences had had to put up with no less than four pantomimes during the Mecca years, and there was plenty of evidence of this backstage.

The show's over now, Philly boy.

The show’s over now, Philly-boy.

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The stage had been bricked over during the multiplexing, but it was all still there.

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The pulley system was still in place, though we dared not touch it.

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Dated January 1989, this sign advertises the last panto to be staged at the Mecca, and what would have been the last performance ever at the Victory. What a way to go.

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Also backstage was the Mecca’s collection of toilets. Who would need this many toilets? And in case you’re sitting there smugly thinking ‘A cinema would need this many toilets, you idiot’, just know that the room they were in wasn’t a bathroom. The room did however feature a variety of pornography featuring plus-sized models affixed to the walls, so maybe the toilets were necessary after all.

Most of the Cinderella props were still backstage, including the carriage…

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…and some very bizarre costumes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember a giant chicken or Mickey Mouse being in Cinderella.

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I wondered if this was the same stage we were standing on at that moment.

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The Disneyfied font Doyle had used for his own name, never mind the fact that he was so insistent on ‘family entertainment’, was a sickening touch. There was something not quite right about this whole place, and as we made our way back through the storeroom to leave, we passed plenty more evidence in support of that feeling:

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As I mentioned earlier, it seemed like the staff just walked out one day in the middle of work. There had been no effort to clean up the place or to scale it back, like if they’d closed for financial reasons and were preparing to sell. So what had actually happened? The truth is horrific.

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Not long after our visit, the scaffolding went up. Despite a few half-hearted protests and calls for the cinema to be revived, it was time for the final curtain.

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Flash forward to today.

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A gleaming new block of units has replaced the Victory, and all its associated stigma. As I said, there were a few last-minute calls for clemency, and yes, it’s now as bland and faceless as you’d expect, but could you honestly say you’d want to see a movie there again knowing what went on? For the sake of the victims, especially those very brave ones who spoke out, it’s better that no trace has been left behind.

That aside, I think it’s interesting that what was once the suburb’s entertainment hub has been turned into a living space. In a way, it’s a perfect microcosm for how these things work all over the western world.

Picture this: you’re the mayor of a small town or village. You need to attract more people in order to be important, as part of some desperate search for identity, so you permit an attractor: a cinema, a shopping centre, a stadium. But now you’ve built it, and they have come, so where are they going to live? You, in your stately mansion, let the problem build and build, throwing bones where you can. Let’s raze this library, let’s destroy this public pool, but hey, keep the cinema. The locals love that.

More and more people come. They start families. They open businesses. Soon, your town is a municipality, a suburb, a community. And as the towns around it grow at the same rate, your whole area is becoming something much larger than you ever imagined. Suddenly, it’s beyond your control. You were so sure you could keep it under your thumb, get it to your ideal size and then replace the cork. But what happened? Weren’t you the boss?

But the genie is out of the bottle, and he can’t go back in. It’s more than you can handle, and before long, you find yourself replaced by a team, a committee who group-think to make decisions better than you ever could have on your own. Their first decision? “Let’s demolish some of those old businesses and put in a supermarket or two. Ditch that stately manor, the land would be perfect for a car park for the train station. Oh, and knock down that crusty old cinema. We need more living space for our community.”

You really should be thankful. After all, you need a place to live now, right?

Victory Theatre – Kogarah, NSW

It’s 1920, and in the blossoming suburbs of Sydney, people are still on a high of post-war jubilance. We won! Business is booming! The fighting spirit imbued by victory in Europe had led to a bolstering of ‘suburban pride’, as you can see in this very boastful article from the Evening News:

Evening News, May 26 1920

Evening News, May 26 1920

The suburbs were taking shape at an ever-increasing rate, giving folks more and more reasons to move away from the bustle of the city. One such reason was the rise of suburban picture theatres. No longer did you have to get on a train (if your suburb was lucky enough to have a station) and head all the way into the city just to see the latest Hollywood bioscopy – now, you could just stroll around the corner to your local fleapit.

SMH, Nov 18 1920

SMH, Nov 18 1920

And so it was for the people of Kogarah, in Sydney’s south, when Mr. F. Moore and Mrs. J. M. Rainbow opened the Victory theatre in November of 1920. Not only were we victorious over the vile Hun, it was a victory for the suburbs over the cave-of-wonders-worth of amusements promised by the big city.

For those who enjoyed music, but had no way to enjoy that music at home aside from reading the sheet music, the Victory had you covered.

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SMH, March 20 1926

SMH, March 20 1926

Don’t just read about it, get down to one of your nearest nickelodeon and get wired for sound!

Of course, nothing lasts forever, and by 1936 the victorious buzz was starting to wear off. New owner John Wayland knew it was time for a name change.

ca. 1936. Image courtesy Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

ca. 1936. Image courtesy Sydney Cinema Flashbacks

Coupled with an extensive remodelling in the then-chic art deco style and equipped with a boss-ass organ sound system for the phattest of phonograph-style beats, the imaginatively renamed NEW VICTORY opened to much acclaim in October of that year.

Wayland and his New Victory entertained  Kogarahns (?) for the next thirty years, pumping out bangin’ organ-based choons and screening blockbuster flicks into the late 1960s, when it was renamed the Avon (a sign of the times). It managed to resist the lure of the cannibalistic Hoyts and Greater Union groups, which were buying and closing as many suburban theatres as they could at the time. With the advent of television (turns out you can show organ playing on TV), picture theatres were in decline all over the city, and even Wayland’s fortunes had begun to decline. The writing was projected onto the wall for Wayland, and it was time to sell up…

We’ll continue the saga of the Mecca next time, but for now, come with me to a time not so long ago, a time far removed from the glory days of John Wayland’s Victory. Let’s revisit 2012.

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Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney-ho

The Mecca, as it was now known, had seen better days. It closed suddenly in 2003, and had been left to rot ever since. Despite the neglect, its colourful yet tacky exterior was still a familiar sight to not only the locals, but travellers on the Hurstville to Bondi train line across the road. When something so prominent sits unused for so long, suspicions begin to arise, and curiosity gets the better of some people, just as it did for my friend Andre.

Andre had grown up around the area, and had many fond memories of seeing movies at the Mecca in the early 1990s, when it boasted of being the cheapest in Sydney.

“Let’s go and check it out,” Andre said. “It’s just sitting there.” Why not? I thought. At the very least, it’d make a hell of a blog entry. (Don’t know about that one… -Ed)

As a suburb, Kogarah is sharply divided by the train line. On one side, which we’ll call the good side, there are plenty of shops, houses, people, and the St George Hospital. It feels alive.

On the other side, which we’ll call entirely terrible, it’s…entirely terrible. The Nemesis of Neglect has the place entirely in its clutches. Derelict unit blocks, useless, mouldy shops, people who seem to always be on their way to somewhere nicer…and the Mecca. One wonders how it was allowed to stay so awful for so long. It was as if the Kogarah Council had completely forgotten about that part of town, and as it turns out, that’s not too far from the truth. It turns out that this part of Kogarah falls within the jurisdiction of Rockdale Council, which may be news to Rockdale Council.

With its hot-potato status between two neighbouring councils and its no-mans-land appearance, I started to wonder why Wayland had chosen this site for his pet project. After all, placement on the other side of the tracks would have put it in company with the Carlton Odeon…but maybe that was the point? Maybe he couldn’t stand the competition? Never mind that Kogarah had another theatre in Wayland’s day, the Subway. Maybe we’ll never know.

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When Andre and I got to the Mecca, it was exactly as advertised. It was just as it had been in 2003 when its staff downed tools and walked out, and it looked like they hadn’t bothered to clean up. We peered through the front window…

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“Wouldn’t it be mad to get in there?” Andre suggested. I agreed that it would, and thought of all the cool, movie-related stuff that would surely be waiting: film prints, posters, memorabilia. You know, the kind of stuff no right-minded management would leave behind. But hell, we’d never know. Southern Security Alarms had the place wired, and-

“Hey, the side gate’s unlocked!” Andre shouted.

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Well, shit.

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He pushed the gate and it swung open, revealing steps down to a path. The steps were covered in wet clumps of fur…or hair. We stepped across the threshold and immediately looked around. Had we been seen? Was someone running to a payphone right now to call the cops?

The street was deserted. The neighbouring unit blocks were derelict, awaiting demolition. And there was no payphone. I breathed out, reminding myself it was no longer 1995, but Andre was already making his way down the path.

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The path ended in a metal staircase that led up to a side door to the theatre itself. It was easy to see where the theatre’s original side windows had been bricked up, and the flimsy wooden door seemed like a late addition.

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We tried to open it, but it was firmly locked.

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Underneath the stairs, the side path continued down to the back of the theatre. Having been thwarted by the door, we manoeuvred ourselves under the steps and continued down to the rear. Although we didn’t know it at the time, it was the same rear that had in 1930 been the scene of some commotion:

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate, Feb 5 1930

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, Feb 5 1930

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The place had changed since those carefree days, but it seemed as if no one had been down there in ages.

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Strange pieces of stonework lay at the base of the building’s rear, and a sheet of corrugated iron covered what had once been a door about 15 feet above the ground. A garage had been hastily tacked onto the rear wall. Again, the door was locked.

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Around the other side, we could see the shopping complex that sat astride the train station across the road, and…that door. A small doorway covered in a tangled mess of vines.

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The gate yawned open, the space beyond too dark to see. What was this place?

We had to go in.

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The room was ancient, even by Mecca standards, and was peppered with a dissonant assortment of objects. How long had it been since someone had last entered? What had the room originally been? We looked around, confronted from every angle by a new and disturbing sight.

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Sitting beside this smashed TV was a receipt for the very same television, dated 1999. Perhaps the most disturbing find of all was this:

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Bless this house

Oh Lord we pray

Make it safe

By night and day

It was like something out of Seven.

As we explored, it became clear what the room was.

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True to its smell, it was a toilet. While we weren’t sure if it had served the patrons of the original Victory, or had been tacked on later as a kind of custodian bathroom, it was still a fascinating discovery, and one that could very easily have gone unnoticed had the theatre itself been accessible. Still…

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A hole in the roof provided a tantalising glimpse of the theatre above, and I knew that neither of us would be satisfied until we could get into the place. The creepy serial killer toilet had been a great find, but it was hardly the main attraction.

Before we left, I noticed something interesting affixed to the front window. I must have missed it in all the initial excitement of being able to spy on old popcorn containers.

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The plot thickens…

TO BE CONTINUED

Corner Shop/Residential – Merrylands, NSW

IMG_1866 Once upon a time, on the corner of Henson Street and Chetwynd Road, Merrylands, there existed a corner shop.IMG_1863All the locals would journey to the shop whenever they were out of the Big Three: bread, milk, cigarettes. For those who couldn’t make the trip, perhaps those too elderly to easily leave their houses, the shop provided free delivery.IMG_1865In the summertime, on their way to or from the local pool, or maybe just in the midst of riding around the streets on their BMX bikes, kids would stop in for ice cream, or drinks of the icy cold variety. IMG_1864In the 80s specifically, their choice would have been that of the new generation.IMG_1867None of that “Good on ya, Mum” nonsense here – strictly Buttercup Bread. Today, the name seems to have disappeared, but it lives on through the ‘Mighty Soft’ brand for those of you interested.IMG_1869Those shelves, once fully stocked to provide a community with the essentials, are now empty. If you imagine it as a metaphor for the emptiness of the concept of community in the modern age, you’ll probably wind up feeling pretty bummed out, so don’t do it.

This shop may be confined to Merrylands, but the underlying themes apply to just about every has-been corner shop in any suburb. They’re relics from another era, and one that can never be again.

A Tour of Homebush Theatre

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A common complaint when it comes to this line of work (It’s not work unless you’re getting paid – Ed) is that although we can admire these old buildings and speculate about their history, we’re forced to do so from afar. We’ve all been there: you’re standing in front of an old, seemingly derelict icon from another era, possibly from your own past. You’ve been past it thousands of times, and hell, back in the glory days you might even have gone in. Oh, to have one more look around inside…no one’s around, who would mind? It would be so easy to sneak in and spend a few hours in the past…

And then common sense kicks in, and you keep walking, only now you’re carrying the added burden of regret.

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The call’s coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!

But thankfully, Past/Lives reader “Cylonicus” took full advantage of a temporary absence of common sense and managed to get inside the forbidding Homebush Theatre/Niterider/Midnight Star et al. In an even less sensical move (but one I’m eternally grateful for), he was kind enough to send Past/Lives the photos. Of course, Past/Lives does not condone this kind of thing, nor trespassing in general…but if you just can’t help yourself, be sure to send me the pics. I have a feeling this won’t be the first time…

I’ve written about this place twice before, so if you’re in the dark you might want to bone up on its history before you step inside:

Homebush Cinema/Niterider Theatre Restaurant/Midnight Star Reception Centre/Derelict – Homebush, NSW

Past/Lives Flashback #3: Midnight Star Reception Centre – Homebush, NSW

And now, without further commentary from me, behold the fractured beauty of the Homebush Theatre one last time (before it becomes apartments). A massive THANK YOU once again to reader “Cylonicus”!

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Devonshire Street Cemetery/Central Station – Sydney, NSW

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Devonshire Street Cemetery, 1901. Image courtesy State Records NSW

“I once walked through the burial grounds on the Surry Hills, in the commencement of Spring, just as the flowers were beginning to bloom forth in all their beauty…”

Bridget Flood was in the same situation too many of us have found ourselves in all too often: stranded at Sydney’s Central train station, hopelessly late. The big difference is that she was waiting there for over 60 years.

As we’ve previously learned, 1820 was a good year to die in Sydney. Rather than ending up beneath the public piss-pot that was once the colony’s first burial ground, you could find yourself in a brand new plot freshly dug at the just-consecrated Devonshire Street Cemetery.

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Location, location, location. Image courtesy K Johnson and M Sainty.

Location, location, location. South Sydney plan, 1842. Image courtesy K Johnson and M Sainty.

Chosen for its abundance of space and central (heh) location, the area bordered by Elizabeth and Devonshire streets was chosen to replace the Old Burial Ground as Sydney’s premier final resting place. Quartermaster Hugh McDonald, 40, was the first lucky stiff to be buried there following his death in 1819. Long waiting lists…so Sydney so chic.

“It was early in the morning when I commenced rambling amongst the tombs, the dew had not yet been dissipated by the genial rays of the invigorating luminary, and the cool fragrance of the atmosphere had not yet given way to the noon-day heat…”

Bridget Flood died in October 1836 at the age of 49 and, like virtually all deaths in Sydney at the time, was interred at the Devonshire Street site. Quoth her headstone:

Pain was my potion

Physic was my food

Groans were my devotion

Drugs did me no good

Christ was my physician

Knew what way was best

To ease me of my pain

He took my soul to rest.

They don’t write ’em like that anymore. And rest she did, as did all those buried at Devonshire Street Cemetery well past its 1867 closure.

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Go home, we’re full. Devonshire Street Cemetery, 1901. Image courtesy RAHS.

Although steadily employed by the city’s dead between 1820 and 1866, the nail in the coffin (heh heh) for the cemetery was the latter year’s introduction of the Sydney Burial Grounds Act (NSW), which prohibited burials “within the city of Sydney from 1 January 1867, with the exception that persons with exclusive rights of burial at that date could still be buried on application to the Colonial Secretary who needed to be satisfied that ‘the exercise of such right will not be injurious to health’“. Phew. Just tie some rocks to me and throw me in the harbour!

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Devonshire Street Cemetery, 1901. Image courtesy Royal Australian Historical Society.

You’d think this act would be in anticipation of some kind of grand plan for the burial ground, but no. With the exception of infrequent additions to family plots as outlined by the overly wordy act (and even these ceased in 1888), Devonshire Street was largely ignored by the growing city while new sites like Waverley Cemetery and the Rookwood Necropolis served the public’s burial needs.

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Prince Alfred Park’s Exhibition Building looms large. Devonshire Street Cemetery, 1901. Image courtesy Royal Australian Historical Society.

By 1900, its advanced state of neglect and decay reflected its residents and disturbed the public:

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Illustrated Sydney News, 1878.

…although it wasn’t all bad:

SMH, January 26 1878.

SMH, January 26 1878.

“In short, it was exactly such an hour as an imaginative or sensitive being would delight to rove about, and lose himself in the regions of fancy…”

It wasn’t long before some of the more opportunistic voices began to speak out about the the site’s real estate value:

Illustrated Sydney News, 1878.

Illustrated Sydney News, 1878.

And as early as 1888 there were rumblings about how best to use the land:

SMH, March 3 1888.

SMH, March 3 1888.

It made sense, given that Central Station’s predecessor, ‘Sydney Station’, lay opposite the cemetery along Devonshire Street.

Sydney Terminal, the forerunner of Central Station, 1874. Image courtesy ARHS Rail Resource Centre.

Sydney Station, the forerunner of Central Station, 1874. Image courtesy ARHS Rail Resource Centre.

Since 1884, Sydney’s existing rail network had been under the stress of increasing traffic and a limited reach (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Sydney Station was constantly receiving upgrades and additional platforms, culminating in a messy setup of 13 train platforms and numerous tram sheds (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). The city’s railway commissioners initially struggled to decide upon a plan for the future which would provide Sydney with a central hub expansive enough to extend the rail network to the suburbs (sounds- never mind).

The planned terminus for Hyde Park. Image courtesy RailCorp.

The planned terminus for Hyde Park. Image courtesy RailCorp.

An 1897 royal commission proposed the resumption of Hyde Park for use as the central terminal and, to counter the public outrage over the loss of parkland, the Devonshire Street Cemetery would be converted into a park. For a time this plan seemed to be a go until the unexpected death of Railway Commissioner E M G Eddy (of Eddy Avenue fame) that same year. This forced a literal return to the drawing board, where it was decided that it was probably easier to resume just one giant park instead of two. Nice thinking, guys.

The new plan. Image courtesy Public Works Committee.

The new plan. Image courtesy Public Works Committee.

Preparations, December 1900. Image courtesy State Records NSW.

The undertakers size up the corpse, December 1900. Image courtesy State Records NSW.

In January 1901, the Department of Public Works served notice that anyone with relatives buried at Devonshire Street were to front up and make known their desire to have the remains reinterred at other cemeteries by train, with the cost to be borne by the NSW Government. These days, they’d just tell you to bring a shovel.

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Devonshire Street Cemetery, 1901. Image courtesy RAHS.

Unfortunately, these relatives were given a strict time limit of two months to act, and by the end of that time, only 8,460 bodies had been claimed (not among these was Eddy, who had been buried at Waverley following his death). This left 30,000 remains unclaimed, most of which were transferred to other cemeteries anyway, but due to the rushed nature of construction and given they did such a bang-up job the last time, it’s safe to say there are more than a few commuters at Central waiting for a train that will never come.

With that many bodies to exhume, you can imagine just how many creepy stories must have come out of the venture. Here’s just one:

Barrier Miner, July 29 1901.

Barrier Miner, July 29 1901.

The reason for the rush was that Melbourne had started work on their Central equivalent, Flinders Street Station, that same year. Sydney was determined to get the drop on Melbourne this time, as Flinders predecessor ‘Melbourne Terminus’ had been Australia’s first city railway station back in 1854, pipping Sydney by a year. The Devonshire Cemetery site had been completely cleared by 1902, and stage one of Central’s construction, which aimed to have the station operational, was completed in 1906. On opening day, the new station featured…13 platforms. Despite being twice the size of its predecessor, this was no improvement, and did nothing to alleviate Sydney’s transport woes (but then again, what ever does?).

Central Station, 1906. Image courtesy State Records NSW.

Central Station, 1906. Image courtesy State Records NSW.

“I directed my footsteps to a cluster of tombs on an eminence, which was thickly covered with green and blooming geraniums…”

But the unexpected fruit of the Department of Public Works’ labour was the emergence of commercial activity in the areas surrounding the new station. Its proximity to the city made department store shopping for those out in the sticks a treat, with Grace Bros., Marcus Clark, Anthony Hordern, Bon Marche and Mark Foy all within walking distance of Central by 1908. The Tivoli and Capitol theatres became entertainment meccas for those starved of entertainment in the ‘burbs.

Anthony Hordern prepares for business during Central's construction, April 1903. Image courtesy ARHS Rail Resource Centre.

Anthony Hordern awaits new business during Central’s construction, April 1903. Image courtesy ARHS Rail Resource Centre.

The station itself was hardly the thing of beauty its early designs had suggested, with the rushed development cycle omitting many intended features – least of all Central’s iconic clock tower, which wasn’t completed until 1924.

Central Station's clock tower completed, 1924. Image courtesy State Records NSW.

Always on time: Central Station’s clock tower completed, 1924. Image courtesy State Records NSW.

The construction wasn’t just focused on making sure the station would be operational before Flinders Street, though; there was particular care taken to ensure no trace of the Devonshire Street Cemetery remained, going so far as to completely eradicate Devonshire Street west of its intersection with Elizabeth. Other structures that once stood on the land now occupied by Central and its surrounds – the Belmore Police Barracks, the Benevolent Asylum, the womens refuge – have similarly been lost to time.

“I at first almost forgot the ravages of the grave in contemplating the enchanting appearance of the place.” – James Martin, 1838.

Today, nothing remains to remind commuters of the morbid nature of Central’s past. The cemetery itself was largely situated underneath today’s platforms:

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Devonshire Street Tunnel, once Devonshire Street, runs directly underneath the path once carved between the cemetery and Sydney Station, depositing Surry Hills pedestrians into Railway Square amid el-cheapo bargain shops, youth hostels and fast food joints.

Looking east toward Devonshire Street, 2013.

Looking east toward Devonshire Street, 2013.

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Looking west toward Railway Square, 2013.

Emerging into Railway Square, 2013.

Emerging into Railway Square, 2013.

Also in Railway Square is a series of plaques designed to inform passers-by on the history of Central Station and railway in NSW. The cemetery is mentioned in passing (heh).

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Revisionist history part one, 2013.

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Revisionist history part two, 2013.

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Revisionist history part three, 2013.

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Belmore Park, 2013.

The uneven terrain of Belmore Park perhaps provides us with the nearest idea of what the Devonshire Street Cemetery was like in its natural state as is possible today, although even it has a sordid and ugly past as an open gutter for the refuse of the nearby Belmore Produce Markets and Paddys Markets.

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Belmore Park, 2013.

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Gateway to limbo. Camperdown Cemetery, 2013.

Rookwood Necropolis, Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, Woronora Cemetery and many others were the recipients of many of the (not so) permanent residents of Devonshire Street, but none feature as striking and immediate a memorial as the tiny, eerie Camperdown Memorial Rest Park. Here, amongst the sombre atmosphere of tombstones and gloomy, gnarled trees lie what were once the gate posts met by visitors to Devonshire Street. These were removed along with everything else in 1901, and mysteriously disappeared from existence until 1946, when…

SMH, October 9 1946.

SMH, October 9 1946.

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It’s kinda graffiti. Camperdown Cemetery, 2012.

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It seems almost sacrilegious that thousands of commuters tread all over this once-consecrated ground every day without any kind of marker to signify what was and who mattered, even if it was nearly 200 years ago. C’mon, NSW Government! They’re even in the right electorate! Meanwhile, to the 30,000 Sydneysiders scattered to the four corners by the winds of progress, the term ‘final resting place’ has little meaning.

Finally, here’s a fascinating account of a visit to Devonshire Street Cemetery just as its demolition was beginning. It originally appeared in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner, October 1 1901.

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Ghouls. Devonshire Street Cemetery, 1901. Image courtesy RAHS.

Ghouls, not girls. Devonshire Street Cemetery, 1901. Image courtesy RAHS.