When Sydney began to run out of fresh water in 1850, having abused both the Tank Stream and Busby’s Bore in Centennial Park, consideration was given to where a new supply would come from. It took four thirsty years to decide upon a plan to build a series of dams leading to a pumping station out near Botany (beside the site of Sydney Airport). Water was pumped from the Botany site to two city reservoirs: one in Crown Street and one in Paddington.
The scheme didn’t really work out, and water again ran dry by 1862. This new crisis led to the creation of the Upper Nepean Scheme, which is still providing us with fresh water today. The Botany Station kept pumping, topping up shortages until 1893.
The great minds at the top weren’t finished with the Botany site, however. In the 1870s it became ground zero for the Botany-Rockdale Sewage Farm, Sydney’s earliest attempt at purifying human waste products in the hope of beating the repulsive sounding sanitary problems of the era. A farm was created using human waste as fertiliser, and while the crops were successful, there just weren’t enough of them to sustain operating costs. That, and this monstrosity was right next to a fresh water supply. The farm was closed in 1916 and deemed a failure, but as they say, shit happens.
All physical evidence of the farm was destroyed or removed. Unbelievably, it was decided that a better solution was to just pump all the sewage out into the ocean near Long Bay, and the current buildings here were built for that purpose. Even more unbelievable is that in this day and age, this system (known as SWSOOS, or Southern and Western Suburbs Ocean Outfall Sewer System) is still deemed the best way, because it’s still happening. This one in particular services the Cooks River Estuary and the Ascot Racecourse (now Mascot Airport). So much cement was required for this project that Australia’s first steam powered concrete mixer was imported for the job. Wow.
It’s a quick yet perilous walk from the McDonald’s (a sewage farm of another kind) on General Holmes Drive to the scene of the action, and your first port of call is this. I had the eerie feeling I was being watched as I approached, and not by the Federal Police.
When I reached the site I was greeted by some friendly bunny rabbits, who have taken up residence in this…that. Whatever that is. The bunnies appeared to be doing their best to make sure the site was still well fertilised. Some things never change.
A fact which escapes many people is that Rookwood Necropolis, located in Sydney’s west, is the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s huge. It has its own postcode. Originally named Haslem’s Creek Cemetery, it opened in 1867 as a replacement for the close-to-capacity Devonshire Street Cemetery, itself a replacement for Sydney’s old burial ground, where Town Hall now stands. For once, they chose a winner – nearly 150 years later and it’s still not full.
A visit to the cemetery makes clear that although much of it is made up of graves from the distant past, it’s still a working cemetery and there are new additions all the time. But back when cars weren’t so commonplace, the easiest way to get a corpse and mourners from point a to point b was by train, and the premier way to do that from 1867 onwards was by rail. Trains would depart from Regent Street’s Mortuary Station and deviate at Lidcombe to the Rookwood line.
Once a train entered the Necropolis, there were four stations within the grounds at which to stop (that’s three more than Castle Hill ever had), with the main one romantically named Mortuary Receiving Station No. 1. Once again designed by James Barnet (currently a Rookwood resident), this was the most ornate of the four, and was a sister station to the one on Regent Street. Crafted to be reminiscent of a church, like Regent Street, Rookwood No. 1 featured a bell that would ring out half an hour before departure so as to let mourners know to get back on the train or get left behind. Looking at both this one and the Regent Street station it’s easy to see that they fit in perfectly with the Victorian era’s fascination with death and the afterlife (not to mention trains). It’s powerful imagery – your journey ended with angels holding scrolls and trumpets as you arrived at your final destination. Can’t say that about Epping Station. Once again, the station proved to be as murderous as its twin. That, or these are just some cases of people being in the right place at the wrong time:
In 1901, the line was expanded to include more stations within Rookwood, but none were constructed with such grandeur as No. 1 (which incidentally wasn’t as grand after the expansion, as part of its waiting rooms had to be removed to make way for the through line). No. 2 featured just a timber shelter:
No. 3 was the only other station in the line to have had any kind of thought put into its design, and that’s partly because it was built from the former waiting rooms of No. 1.
No. 4 was added in 1908, when the line was at its peak (particularly on Mothers’ Day). Again there’s no disguising it’s really just a shack along the platform.
As with Regent Street, as cars became the preferred way to get to and from (or in some cases, just to) a Rookwood funeral, the train line’s usefulness declined. It’s not like residents could catch the trains to and from work. In 1948, the line was decommissioned, and in typical CityRail style wasn’t completely removed until 1965 (even now, a Cemetery siding still exists off Lidcombe Station. Nice work, fellas). The stations themselves then passed on to their next life, some more interesting than others.
The site of No. 4 has since become a bus stop. Buses replaced trains as the public transport of choice to Rookwood after 1948. I’m assuming corpses still ride for free. Neither No. 4 or No. 2, the lesser stations, appear on the current Rookwood map. It’s almost like they don’t want you to know where they were, but the truth is that there’s not much at either site, so there’s almost no point in going there. No. 2, the least impressive of any of the stations, is today just a large green curve of grassy land bordered by tombstones – not exactly a standout spot at Rookwood.
No. 3, however, is a different story. Because it actually featured a building that would require things like foundations, the site is marked on the map, and today exists outside the Catholic Cemetery Trust office and carpark. It’s fascinating:
There’s no sign or anything apart from the hint on the map to let you know what this is. It’s so nothing that you almost wonder why they bothered leaving it there, but there it is.
No, the real story behind the Rookwood stations is the fate of Receiving House No. 1.
After 1948 it fell into dereliction. A bushfire destroyed all the woodwork, it became a popular place to drink at night (why?!) and, indignity of indignities, someone pinched the bell. Now let me stop this right there; someone stole the heavy bell? Who does that? How do they do it? Did they plan it? Case the bell for a few weeks before realising that the residents couldn’t do anything about it even if they tried? Did they back up the ute and load it up? Where is it today? Baffling.
The Railway Department needed to offload this bomb, and in 1952 it went on the market. It’s a strange decision; if RailCorp suddenly decided to close, say, Croydon Station, would it appear on the market not long after? Or maybe on eBay, with the Rookwood bell? Presumably because no one had internet back then, the station still hadn’t sold by 1959, when a Reverend Ted Buckle had a brilliant notion.
The station was bought by the All Saints Anglican Church in Ainslie, Canberra, to be its new building. It was demolished and reconstructed brick for brick…well, almost. Notice anything different? First off, they had to get a new bell, but second, the bell tower’s on the opposite side. Did they just forget where it had been in the first place? Didn’t the bricks not match up? Anyway, churchgoers in Ainslie still attend Mortuary Receiving House No. 1 each week, mostly unaware of the building’s history (despite the fact that it’s discussed in detail on the Church’s website).
It looks nice, and it’s very subdued. It doesn’t look out of place in the gloomy surrounds of Rookwood, and residents no longer need to worry about the noise pollution of the trains. Happy endings all around…especially for that sicko who’s out there somewhere, gleefully ringing his ill-gotten bell over and over, laughing maniacally.
Picture this: it’s 1869, and you’re dead. The funeral’s at Rookwood Cemetery at 10am, and you’re in Chippendale. It’s 9:30am. You have no money. What to do? How will you get there in time?
At the time of its construction, the Mortuary Station was adjacent to the original Central Station, then known as Sydney Station. Despite a misleading mural beside the station on the train track side attributing its design to Florence Mary Taylor, Australia’s first female engineer and architect born ten years after its completion, it was in fact designed by colonial architect James Barnet. Barnet also designed Mortuary’s sister station at Rookwood, but more on that next time.
The sombre design is perfectly suited to the task performed by the station, and the gothic detail is fantastic. Standing before it, you can only imagine how many mourners boarded trains bound for their loved ones’ final stop. Funeral trains would depart from Mortuary Station each day for either Rookwood, Woronora or Sandgate cemeteries. By 1927 the cost of a ride was around four shillings (roughly 40c); corpses traveled for free.
And didn’t the station live up to its name! Beneath the gloomy facade was an insatiable bloodlust:
Sometimes, trains didn’t even have to be involved in the carnage:
Spooky. Gotta wonder if these guys ended up on one of the trains at the station. Speaking of spooky, it is alleged that the station is haunted. Further rumours suggest that a building across the road once operated as a mortuary itself, and that there exists a tunnel beneath the road connecting this building to the station. Evidence is pretty much non-existent, but if you know more, let Past/Lives know.
In 1875, at the height of Mortuary-mania, a junior version of the Mortuary Station was set up at Newtown to provide a starting point for mourners unable to reach the city. It was in keeping with the design of the original, but didn’t have the staying power. It was demolished in 1965.
Eventually, Sydney’s roads got to a standard that corpses could be taken to the cemeteries by car. If the roads then were anything like they are now, I’m presuming most of the deaths were caused by starvation or perhaps boredom from being stuck in traffic for so long. There became less and less of a need for funeral trains, despite complaints like these in 1925:
Overcrowded trains aren’t just a modern problem. Anyway, in 1938 the Mortuary Station closed and the cemetery services departed from Central instead until they themselves ceased operation ten years later. Not long after its closure, the Mortuary Station was renamed Regent Street Station and used for dog trains, which took dogs to races in Wollongong and Gosford. I’d like to think corpses could still travel for free.
Since 1981 the station has been restored a number of times. In 1986, it became the site of a pancake restaurant: Magic Mortuary. Four train cars were stationed beside the platform, and hosted meals, live shows and a gift shop. Thankfully, this grotesque display only lasted three years. It’s currently undergoing further refurbishment since those graffiti scallywags are always tagging it, but an optimistic sign out the front expects refurbishment to be completed by the end of 2011! Hope so!
The Mortuary Station’s a strange, jarring sight along the changing face of Regent Street – across the road lie the remains of the Kent Brewery and the empty shells of the pubs that used to surround it. It’s heritage listed, but so was the Sharpie’s Golf House sign. Nothing lasts forever, and it’s only a matter of time until the station itself goes for that last ride.
Next stop, Rookwood…
The St. George County Council was established in 1920 to control the distribution of electricity within the Municipalities of Bexley, Hurstville, Kogarah and Rockdale, and was the first of its kind in Australia. In 1939, this building was constructed for the St. George County Council, presumably as a way of showing off just how fancy and powerful the Council was. During the early years of the SGCC, it was reported that St. George residents enjoyed the cheapest electricity in the country.
By 1963 it appears that most of the county’s electricity was being distributed right to this building, what with all the neon signs. Absolute power corrupts, so to speak. The St. George County Council enjoyed its name up in lights until 1980, when it was amalgamated with the Sydney City Council, itself rebranded in 1991 as Sydney Electricity and in 1996, EnergyAustralia. Now, St. George residents pay too much for electricity just like the rest of us.
Today the building has become a branch of the Bank of China, among other things, and doubtless many electricity bills are paid here. They’ve still got the neon happening there in the bottom right, perhaps just to prove that they can. It’s for a dental clinic, not a place you often associate with neon signage. The clock is a poor facsimile of its predecessors, too; also, it doesn’t work.
It’s gotta be a kick in the tablets when you can only get the ex-Minister for Works & Local Government to unveil your building. Spooner, a Conservative, had resigned as Minister a few months earlier after publicly describing that year’s State Budget as ‘faked’. He was also responsible for regulating the appropriate cut of mens bathing suits, insisting on the full-length one-piece. Sort of like the Tony Abbott of his day, in that way.