Original article: Mortuary Station/Regent Street Station – Chippendale, NSW
When you’re a 144-year-old building custom built for a purpose long redundant, excitement comes in fits and starts. A renovation here, a graffiti attack there. Occasionally you’ll have a tour group come through, but with today’s concerns, even that’s a rare treat.
And so goes the continued existence of Regent Street’s Mortuary train station.
Continually hogging the city’s rail refurbishment efforts (c’mon, Central needs some attention! It’s a dive), ‘Ol’ Morty’ sits where it’s always sat, a stranger to change and a fully functioning time warp. If you want to go and see it, it’s a safe bet to put it at the bottom of your ‘To Do’ list – this place will likely outlive you.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the curious mural that stands beside the station facing east. I mentioned this last time, and it continues to baffle me.
Florence Mary Taylor arrived in Sydney in 1884. Her father worked for the sewerage division of the Department of Public Works, and she would assist him in his work. When he died in 1899, Florence studied architecture and became a draftsman, going on to co-found the Town Planning Association of NSW in 1913 and joining the Institute of Architects in 1920. As the mural itself says, she was Australia’s first female architect.
When her husband George Taylor died in 1928, Florence continued to edit and publish three of their eleven engineering journals. She died at Potts Point in 1969, leaving behind a legacy of achievements (including becoming the first Australian woman to fly in 1909) that did much to further the public acceptance of women in industry.
Which is all fine – but I’m still not sure what she has to do with the Mortuary Station, which was completed ten years before her birth. As I’ve mentioned, the Regent Street station and its receiving end were designed by colonial architect James Barnet.
Still, using the ever eye-catching station to highlight Taylor and her achievements isn’t a bad thing at all, even if her ideas are more ingrained in Sydney’s layout than seems obvious. Throughout her career, Taylor was an advocate of, among other things, a harbour tunnel crossing, a distributor freeway in the Eastern Suburbs, and somewhat less popularly, the demolition of Hyde Park Barracks. Maybe that’s why there’s no mural of her there.
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…