Right, where were we?
Back in the 80s, a bunch of pissed blokes ran some boats aground in Sydney Harbour, much to the consternation of the locals.
Hooning around the Tasman in a tub’s nothing new, but this particular incident was deemed momentous enough that the city named a suburb after it.
Ever been to Golden Grove?
If so, congratulations: you’re the oldest living human. A few years after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, a suburb in the blossoming (or metastasising, depending on your point of view) city of Sydney was named for the Golden Grove.
Built in 1780 as the Russian Merchant, the ship’s name was changed five years before its departure for Botany Bay It was a prescient move – even back then, Russian collusion wasn’t something to make public. Known as “Noah’s Ark of Australia” (sorry, Rusty), the Golden Grove carried a bunch of animals to a wild, inhospitable place unprepared for the subsequent chaos of colonisation.
Despite the fleet’s lasting legacy being in evidence literally everywhere in the colony of New South Wales, someone thought a suburban tribute was a good idea. Thus, Golden Grove was born in the approximate location of today’s Darlington, at the uni end of Newtown.
It didn’t stick. Today, all that remains of the gilded thicket is the name of the street that once bordered the suburb…
…and a healing ministry centre on nearby Forbes Street. According to the centre, the name was chosen because the Golden Grove carried the first chaplain to New Holland. From a whisper to a scream, right?
I tried to get close for a taste of that healing (God knows I need some) but a stern sign suggested I take my troubles elsewhere. The view from the fence suggested a colour a lot less golden than I’d expected.
An infinitely more peculiar legacy of the Golden Grove has been written about before, but was too good not to share again. Score one for Noah’s Ark:
As for the ship itself, it shared the same fate as its namesake suburb – it vanished from the records just a few years after its moment in history’s spotlight. A Sydney Harbour ferry’s carried the name since 1986, but let’s face facts: ferries are no substitute for the real thing.
“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.
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.
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!
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.
By 1900, its advanced state of neglect and decay reflected its residents and disturbed the public:
…although it wasn’t all bad:
“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:
And as early as 1888 there were rumblings about how best to use the land:
It made sense, given that Central Station’s predecessor, ‘Sydney Station’, lay opposite the cemetery along Devonshire Street.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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?).
“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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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…
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.
Since 1991, the Museum of Contemporary Art has enthralled, inspired and confused Sydneysiders and tourists of all kinds. Established through a bequeathment of money from Australian artist John Power (who died in 1943, making it one very long inheritance battle), the MCA has recently undergone a much publicised redevelopment during which ruins of a colonial dockyard were discovered underground. But contrary to what you might think, their art deco building wasn’t just an attempt by the MCA itself to be trendy – they weren’t in there first.
It’s funny that despite the expensive and lengthy redevelopment process, they missed this little clue. In fact it appears it was covered up by another sign for years and only recently disturbed. As you can see, it reveals that the MCA’s building was once the site of the MSB. This is apparently common knowledge, but what was the MSB?
It makes sense that the Maritime Services Board was established in and housed at the Rocks. 90 years of confusing yet important Sydney port control laws and services were consolidated into one administrative entity, the MSB, in 1936. In 1949 construction began on the building, which was completed in 1952, so even by art deco standards it was late to the party. The MSB itself relocated in 1989, leaving behind the building for the art world to work its magic on and in. It’s just that you missed this spot, guys. Then again, knowing the MCA, maybe it’s actually one of the exhibits and I just don’t get it.
As you crawl along Parramatta Road, past the Vita Weat building, the Strathfield Burwood Evening College, the Homebush Racecourse, the Midnight Star, the Silk Road, the Brescia showroom and Chevy’s Ribs, you might notice these forbidding gates peeking out from behind a near-impenetrable wall of bushes. On a road full of head-turners and eye-catchers, a true time warp awaits the hand of progress to seize it by the overgrown scruff of its neck and haul it into the 21st century.
It can wait a little longer while we take a look. After all, it’s only existed in its present state for over 150 years.
The unusual name of Yasmar originated in 1856, when Haberfield landowner Alexander Learmonth erected his home on the estate, which he had inherited through marriage to the granddaughter of ubiquitous Sydney property tycoon Simeon Lord. Learmonth named the house Yasmar after his father-in-law, a Dr. David Ramsay. Surrounding Yasmar House was a magnificent garden, designed in the Georgian fashion to gradually reveal and present the house.
Very gradually, clearly.
In 1904, the property was leased by Grace Brother Joseph Grace, and became his Xanadu. Fittingly, Citizen Grace died in the house in 1911. The estate fell into the hands of the NSW Government in 1944, who promptly proceeded to establish a centre for juvenile justice on site.
When it dawned on the powers-that-be that years of horticultural neglect had created the Alcatraz-style escape proof prison seen today, the estate was turned into a juvenile detention centre, which lasted from 1981 to 1994, when the Department for Juvenile Justice relocated, presumably using machetes. From then until 2006, the grounds housed NSW’s only female juvenile justice centre, and since that time, politicians have argued back and forth to have Yasmar made available to the public.
These days, it appears that Yasmar is used as a government training facility. The entrance is around the side in Chandos Street, giving visitors a sense of the sheer scale of the site.
Seeing as the gate was open, I went right in, ignoring the deterrent magpies perched threateningly in nearby trees.
Yasmar’s gardens are huge, but much is now taken up by the training and detention facilities. The open day held in late July allowed visitors a rare look around the grounds and inside the house. What’s that? You didn’t make it? Lucky for you I was there. Read on…
It’s believed that this may have been Australia’s first ever swimming pool, but a more common theory is that it acted as a sunken garden. Either way, it had long since fallen into dereliction by the time I got to have a look.
The view from the inside. There have only been a handful of open days held here since the early 90s, and this year’s was the first since 2007, so this isn’t a view many people get. It’s…great.
Through the thick foliage you can see the various detention and training facilities located around the grounds.
A better view of the house itself. It’s not all that impressive on the outside. I was expecting something grander. Inside, however…
…it’s still just an old house. No, it’s actually fascinating in its own ancient way, and the weight of history here is pretty hefty. Many of those visiting for the open day were former inmates. One hadn’t lost his rebellious nature at all over the years, ducking under the ‘do not cross’ tape to venture deeper into the house before being shouted at by the supervisor. The system doesn’t work.
You wonder just how much they cared about child welfare back then.
Out in the courtyard it’s pretty bleak. Though they did have one great feature I’m consistently a sucker for:
Yes, that’s right. The door to nowhere.
What’s also notable is the nearby Yasmar Avenue, further adding to the sense of entrenchment of the estate within the Ashfield area.
Although neglected and misunderstood like so many of its inmates, Yasmar, Sydney’s Mayerling, exists as a unique example of a 19th century estate virtually unchanged since its establishment. While governments and councils have fooled around for decades over Yasmar’s fate, the estate itself has become an integral part of the Parramatta Road experience. In its current state, it is to Parramatta Road what that ancient expired carton of milk is to your fridge – an indicator of just how bad a housekeeper you are.
For more on the illustrious history of Yasmar, check out Sue Jackson-Stepowski’s excellent write-up here.