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…
In September 1993, then-NSW Premier John Fahey famously jumped for joy as Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that Sydney would host the 2000 Olympic Games. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he must have been feeling mighty grateful for 660 hectares of land which for the previous five years had been a burden on the state.
By 1988, Homebush Bay had long been associated with industry – the State Brickworks, the state abattoir and an armaments depot had all been located on the land since 1915. To the north, at Rhodes, chemical companies and paint factories had spilled toxic waste into the bay for just as long, turning the area into a dead zone not that far off from neighbouring Rookwood Necropolis.
The state’s abattoir had been originally located at Glebe Island, and had by 1902 been deemed too toxic for its proximity to the city. In 1906, an act of parliament authorised the construction of a new State Abattoir at Homebush.
Homebush had been named for a farm, ‘Home Bush’, established in 1794 by free settler Thomas Laycock in the area, then known as Liberty Plains. The farm was later sold to D’Arcy Wentworth, NSW Government surgeon, in 1808. Wentworth acquired even more surrounding land, and set up a private racetrack beside Parramatta Road. In 1841 the track was expanded and made public, and served as Sydney’s centre for horseracing until the opening of Randwick Racecourse in 1860.
The Wentworth Estate had fallen into disuse by 1906. A plan to subdivide and sell off parcels of the land had failed, the esteemed Home Bush House had become derelict, and the racetrack was long since abandoned. The choice of Homebush for the abattoir’s site made sense, as Thomas Playfair had established saleyards at Homebush in 1882, and the area was serviced by an efficient goods rail line.
The abattoir complex opened in April 1915, yet stock was not processed at the site for another year due to poor planning and bungled construction. These mistakes meant that the site was undergoing maintenance and upgrades for the remainder of its time as an abattoir. Tanneries, cold storage facilities and butchers sprung up around the Homebush area. Many remain.
In the 1940s, the State decided to decentralise slaughterhouses, and many country abattoirs were set up in the wake of the decision. Despite this, the Homebush facilities were upgraded in 1965 to handle meat export demands. In 1979, the facilities were again assessed, and found to be at the end of their economic life. In 1984, surplus land on the site was marked for use as an Advanced Technology Park (now known as the Australia Centre). The economic viability of the abattoir continued to decline until its closure in 1988, coinciding with bicentennial celebrations and a statewide spirit of reclamation and renewal.
Sydney’s bid for the 2000 games began in 1991 under then-NSW Premier Nick Greiner. The abattoir site, wholly owned by the NSW Government, was earmarked as a possible site for an Olympic park. The Moore Park showground facility was insufficient for the scale of the Olympic Games, and was by that point proving barely adequate for just the city’s showground needs.
When the Games were awarded to Sydney in 1993, full-scale redevelopment of the Homebush Bay area began, including efforts to rehabilitate and rejuvenate land poisoned by years of industrial abuse. Industrial ruins and empty roads suddenly found themselves once again at the centre of attention. Said filmmaker Susan Murphy in her 1999 article ‘Under Rookwood’ in the Journal of Australian Studies:
“Homebush Bay was several kinds of Vanishing Kingdoms in one: there was the Private Road that extended Underwood Road in a series of right-angle bends all the way around the mangrove swamps, to terminate in a series of decaying wharves. The roadway was known to petrolheads as `Brickie’, after the Sydney Brickworks site it wound past, and was used for Saturday night races, wheelies, lovers’ Lane. By daylight, it was a favourite place for driving lessons, nervous kangaroo-hopping cars executing three-point turns at the final dead-end.
Now it’s changed. Toxic soils are capped and the Olympic complex of stadia, showground halls, athlete villages is rising, shining, audacious, with Philip Cox parabolas and monumental walkways and rolled-in plantings. Surrounding this are two un-park-like `parks’ — Bicentennial Park with its federationesque follies scattered throughout the mangrove and banksia, and an industrial park, equally full of manicured grass that nobody uses.”
Susan is correct. Bicentennial Park, created in 1988, was previously a rubbish tip. It feels like the whole Homebush/Flemington area has been cursed to repeat history over and over. Before it was chosen by Laycock, it was known as ‘The Flats’, dry land sitting beside Parramatta River. Then, when it was chosen for the site of Wentworth’s estate, Laycock’s own mansion had been sitting derelict. When the time came for the NSW Government to buy Wentworth’s unwanted estate, it had long since fallen by the wayside – a decaying relic of another era sitting in the gutter of Parramatta Road. The abattoir was doomed from the start by poor planning, ensuring its place in the legacy of disuse experienced by the area. Even now, the Olympic Park has a strange feeling about it. Walking around, you get the sense there should be more people there, that there’s something just a bit off.
The bay itself was infused with blood and offal from the abattoirs, silt from the brickworks and all manner of poisons and Smylex from the chemical plants at Rhodes. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a triumph or a deep tragedy that this remediation work still continues today, particularly at Rhodes. Fishing and swimming is still prohibited in the Bay, and there’s still a heavy chemical odour. The extent of the damage to the sealife is so severe that even as far away as Sydney Harbour, commercial fishing restrictions are in place and the NSW Government recommends that no fish caught west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge should be eaten.
The Olympic site was completed on time and of course played host to the ‘best Olympics ever’, but the site’s bloody past wasn’t forgotten. The Abattoir Administration Precinct still sits amongst the neo-CBD that is the Olympic Park, and it’s quite a jarring site. Nearby are a series of bittersweet memorials to the millions of animals that were slaughtered during the abattoir’s history – former feeding troughs converted into artistic coffins, animal footprints set in cement. The abattoir’s private train station, disembarking point for those animals after being shuttled in from the country to their death, was converted rather morbidly into the Olympic Park station, disembarking point for millions of revelers hoping to witness Olympic glory, unaware of the site’s former glory.
Even before the Olympics, the site had been used as Sydney’s new home of the Sydney Royal Easter Show since 1998, replacing the ageing Moore Park site. It is ghoulish to imagine the cute, cuddly animals of the Easter Show being patted and fed by happy families on the site of so much slaughter. Other events held at the site, such as the V8 Supercars, do little to distract you from the park’s purpose as an Olympic vessel, and it’s not hard to imagine that before long, the nemesis of neglect will return to the site.
The Park’s information centre, once the abattoir’s gatehouse, has no information about the site’s history to speak of. The cheerful man behind the counter was happy to inform me that ‘there is nothing at all in here about the abattoir. There is nothing about the abattoir in this Park apart from these buildings. We have no photos or records here, we have nothing. There is no possible way I can help you, but you might want to try online.’ Thanks, I’ll do that.
The reason you’ve been assaulted with this wall of text straight up is because I feel that the images of the Abattoir Administration Precinct should stand alone, in silence. The presence of the buildings in the heart of the Olympic Park is jarring, unnatural, and forces the weight of that sour history upon you. I thought I’d do the same for you. There are some sites around Sydney, like Luna Park or the George Street entertainment strip, that are just unpleasant to be in. I’m sorry to say this is one of them.