Perth, Western Australia
Nov 1, 2001
[The West Australian, Big Weekend October 7, 1995]
[Can You Help? The West Australian April 24, 1999]
The three articles quoted above typify the most recent chapter of the East Perth Cemeteries' uncertain history. In fact, the most recent article was a desperate plea for help as the latest group of 'friends' of the cemeteries struggled to stay alive.
Conservation architect Ronald Bodycoat spoke the truth in the initial quote when he said the secret to the continued existence of the cemeteries site lay in the hands of the people of Perth. As the history of the site shows, it owes its continued existence to the efforts of a few special people in each generation who had the vision and dedication to help preserve the site for those to come.
In some cases it was just a small group of 'hands-on' individuals while in others it was a select few within organisations like the Historical Society who took the battle to the Government. In each case, however, the battle outlasted the combattants and time and apathy seem to be the only constants.
Once again, a glance through the history of the cemeteries would seem to be the best way to study the struggle for survival and at same time give credit to those who have fought for the cause over the past 150 years since control of the Perth burial ground was placed in the hands of the people.
It has already been well documented that the land reserved for Perth's burial ground was allocated to various religious and cultural groups between 1842 and 1888 as their numbers grew and they pressured the government for a cemetery of their own.
Another conclusion drawn from the history of the site was that the appearance and use of the area was criticised and discussed in the Press and government circles every twenty years or so. It would almost seem that as every new generation was handed responsibility for the site a new commitment to its future had to be found.
Almost on cue on August 16, 1884, the West Australian reported that debate about closing the cemeteries had been on-going in both the Legislature and the Press.
The same debate was revived in the Press when the West Australian published two 'Letters to the Editor' on February 5, and February 6, 1892. The debate continued on and off until June 22 when the Premier-of-the-day's plans for a new cemetery site were discussed.
In each case, the 'friends of the cemeteries' won as the site was left intact and in most cases was improved. One constant throughout all the debates was the support given by the newspaper editorial staff and that continued to be the case throughout this century as well.
After Karrakatta Cemetery opened and took most of the funeral business away from East Perth, the cemeteries seemed to be forgotten until the the mid-1920s when the last burial took place and they were officially declared a disused burial ground. The next reported article in the Press appeared in the Western Mail on July 2, 1925 when a full page picture spread illustrated the state of disrepair of the site and complemented an article in the same issue entitled "The Forgotten Dead".
Interestingly, it took another newspaper article, written 25 years later during another heated debate about the future of the cemeteries, to throw some light on a group of 'friends' who were at work in the cemeteries from 1908 onwards. In the West Australian on June 30, 1952, D.C. Cowan added to the debate these parting comments:
The 'small leaflet' may not be around these days, but we can be thankful that Cowan related its contents. The leaflet told how, in 1908, the Misses Ethel Burt and Clara Clement, who worshipped in St. Bartholomew's Church in the Anglican Cemetery, decided to do something about the condition of the cemetery.
They knew many of the descendants of people buried there and got in touch with some of the relatives, and encouraged them to repair and restore the headstones. They also collected money which they used to repair and improve the area.
After the women married and left the area, Ethel's brothers, Alfred and Octavius Burt, continued the voluntary work.
Another 'friend' was Harry Tichbon who served as sexton in the cemeteries for 40 years. He died in 1921 aged 95, and had been in the colony since he was four years old. He helped identify many of the unmarked graves which the Misses Burt and Clement proceeded to mark with metal disks.
Unfortunately, Harry Tichbon's vast knowledge of the cemetery was never recorded and although Alfred Burt was said to have established an extensive burial register, it was nowhere to be found in 1934.
World War I and the Depression years were to beset the cemeteries through its next period of history and although work may have been done in the Anglican Cemetery, there is no record of similar efforts in the other cemeteries.
It was reported that the recently formed Chinese Chung Wah Association wrote to the Government in 1914 seeking permission to sell part of the unused section of the cemetery and use the proceeds to maintain the neglected cemetery grounds and by the mid-1920s other groups began to lobby the Government as well.
1926 marked the formation of the Historical Society and it has been a prime-mover in the cemetery debate ever since. With the State's centenery celebrations approaching in 1929 and so many pioneer graves standing in the Anglican Cemetery, the Government was lobbied heavily by the Historical Society, the Australian Natives Association and also the women's section of the Primary Producer's Association.
The pressure continued on into the 1930s when the voice of the Press was once again added to the debate. The Sunday Times, West Australian and the Mirror, all ran articles between 1931 and 1933 which brought public attention to the vandalism and desecration that had occured in the cemeteries.
The battle seemed to be won once again in 1934 when the various denominations handed control of their respective cemeteries back to the Government. Control of the area was given to the State Gardens Board and a permanent gardener was assigned to the site.
From that time, right through to the early 1990s, various government bodies have been responsible for the care and maintenance of the area, control passing from the State Gardens Board to the National Parks Board in 1957, the National Parks Authority of WA in 1976 and finally to the Department of Conservation and Land Management in 1985.
In case it had escaped your attention, the twenty year rule still seems to be holding. The first debate began in 1867; the second began in 1884 and culminated in 1892 with the decision to look for a new cemetery site; the ladies and their friends at St. Bartholomew's were active from 1908 onwards; the Historical Society and other associations began lobbying from 1926 onwards and got results in 1934; and the next debate began right on cue in 1949.
The late 1940s saw a renewed interest in the cemetery after Sir Paul Hasluck, whose father was buried there, expressed his concern at the neglect of such an important historical site. Sir Paul, who was also a member of the Historical Society, enlisted the aid of Herb Graham, MLA and the State Premier, Ross McLarty.
The State Gardens Board and the Perth City Council revived the notion of converting the grounds into a memorial park, however, public condemnation of the proposal to destroy the old cemeteries, as well as the high cost of the scheme, caused the Government to reconsider, and a less expensive proposal was adopted in 1952.
Once again, the newspapers played a big part in the debate, especially over the issue of converting the cemetery site into a memorial park. In 1949 the debate began when an Act of Parliament was passed to facilitate the conversion of the old Guildford Pioneer Cemetery into a memorial park. The concept was not new and was even being called for in the East Perth debate back in the 1890s.
Another 'friend' of the cemeteries appeared around this time in the guise of the Rev. Alex Bateman who was stationed at St. Bartholomew's Church in East Perth. As part of the redevelopment of the cemeteries, surveys were being made of existing monuments and the Rev. Bateman enlisted the help of E.W. Doncaster to catalogue the burial sites in the Anglican section.
There were other 'friends' at the time and "H.W.B" gave them credit in an article in the West Australian on June 21, 1952 when he wrote:
Rev. Bateman's work didn't end with the restoration of the cemeteries, however. At the same time he was generating interest in the renovation of St. Bartholomew's Church. His cause would have benefitted greatly from the Historical Society's decision to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Western Australia and its pioneers. An inaugural Foundation Day pioneer's memorial service was held in the cemetery on June 6, 1954. Later in that year, work was begun on the church.
Twenty years later, in the late 1960s, reports began to appear in the Press once again about vandalism and neglect in the cemeteries. By then, even St. Bartholomew's life hung under a cloud and it would not be long until before it would be considered for demolition.
The campaign in the Press continued on-and-off throughout the early 1970s and once again brought new 'friends' into the battle.
The National Trust (W.A.) had classified St. Bartholomew's and the cemeteries as historic sites in 1973, and by September 1973, the Perth City Council had added its weight to the National Trust and Historical Society lobby.
St. Bartholomew's was their main objective at the time, and by the end of 1975 control of the church and its driveway was officially handed over to the National Trust (W.A.) and a $15,000 grant from the National Estate Programme was used to restore the building.
Local community groups such as the Rotary Club of East Perth also became involved in the project and by December 12, 1976, the church was rededicated by the Church of England. Even the Pioneer Memorial Services were revived by the Historical Society in 1976.
Unfortunately, by the time the next twenty year anniversary came around in the late 1980s, the entire cemetery site was surrounded by a two metre chain mesh fence and was under lock and key every night. The church was neglected and vandalism had been rife.
However, the ever-present Historical Society was hard at work again, and between 1983 and 1986 a small core group of members had been re-surveying the site which had been restored with so much enthusiasm in the the 1950s. Mrs Ray Oldham was the convenor of the project and the two frontline men were Dr. James Richardson and ranger David Davies, the government caretaker for the site.
In 1991 the Press was used once again to express concern for the plight of the cemeteries and promote the call for a modification of the site. Fortunately, Perth City Councillor, Valerie Hampton's plea in the Sunday Times on May 19, 1991 backfired and resulted in the control of the entire cemetery complex being handed over to the National Trust (W.A.).
By 1995 conservation plans for the church and cemeteries had been completed and the church had been restored once again, this time with assistance from the Heirisson Rotary Club.
Other 'friends' who have been active during the 1990s are the East Perth Redevelopment Authority, and young people from the Westrek Foundation and the LEAP (Landcare Environment Action) programme.
Many school groups have assisted with weeding programmes and the History Teachers' Association of Western Australia developed a study programme designed to involve primary and secondary students in the history and conservation of the cemetery site.
Sunday, October 8, 1995 marked the day when the National Trust launched an East Perth Cemeteries conservation appeal. It was also the day that the Friends of the East Perth Cemeteries group was launched.
As was indicated at the beginning of this account, the future of the group now hangs in the balance, but every Sunday between 2pm and 4pm, National Trust volunteers still open the cemetery gates and guide small groups of visitors around St. Bartholomew's Church and the cemetery. The performance is repeated throughout the week as school groups visit the site throughout the school year.
One wonders what the story will be in the year 2010 when the next twenty year period has expired. There is increasing real estate development in the East Perth area and the National Trust's dreams for the site have not materialised as yet. It would be well worth the effort to read the West Australian article from October 7, 1995 and make up your own mind.