This year marks the 150th anniversary of Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney’s west. This is a place with a rich history: Rookwood is Australia’s most multicultural cemetery, the largest necropolis in the Southern Hemisphere, and the oldest operating Victorian cemetery in the world.
But the exciting line-up of events coming up at Rookwood Cemetery show that it’s not all about the past here. History lovers will be most excited by the HIDDEN Sculpture Walk, opening this Sunday 26 August, and the Open Day on 24 September which will feature historic tours, talks, displays, grave-digging and stone masonry demonstrations and much more.
Here, we chat to some Rookwood Cemetery staff to get the lowdown on what’s on at Rookwood and why its history is so significant.
IH: This year Rookwood Cemetery celebrates its 150th anniversary. How did the cemetery come to be established?
Rookwood: In 1792, Sydney’s first burial ground, known as The Old Burial Ground, was established where Sydney Town Hall now stands. In 1820, the Devonshire Street Cemetery was established where Central Railway now stands. By the early 1840s this cemetery was becoming overcrowded.
In 1860, the Colonial Secretary for Lands, John Robertson, announced the search for a new cemetery and two years later the government purchased 200 acres of the Liberty Plains Estate at Haslams Creek, just 30 minutes from Sydney CBD and within the vicinity of the Sydney to Parramatta train line which had opened in 1855 as the first New South Wales railway line.
In 1867, Haslams Creek Cemetery was consecrated to coincide with the closure of Devonshire Street Cemetery. Areas were set aside for various religious and non-denominational groups.
The Rookwood mortuary train, a branch of the Sydney to Parramatta line, commenced with the consecration of Haslams Creek Cemetery. Twice daily services ran from Sydney’s Central Station No. 1 collecting corpses and mourners along the way. Return passenger tickets were one shilling, whilst corpses travelled free.
In 1876, residents of Haslams Creek began campaigning for a new suburb name in order to remove the association with the cemetery. As a result the local railway station and suburb were renamed Rookwood.
Today, 150 years on from its consecration, Rookwood Cemetery offers over 130 culturally specific and non-denominational monumental and lawn areas, and a mausoleum, all boasting their own unique aura.
IH: What makes Rookwood so significant in terms of our heritage?
Rookwood: Rookwood Cemetery is the most multicultural working cemetery in Australia and one of its oldest working cemeteries, and the largest Victorian cemetery in the World. It is and is valued as a physical manifestation of the rich social and cultural tapestry that forms our nation today.
IH: Could you tell us about some of the notable people buried at Rookwood?
Rookwood: At 150 years old and with a total area of 290 hectares, Rookwood is the final resting place for more than a million people. In its history, many famous, and sometimes infamous, people have been interred at Rookwood.
Renowned suffragette and newspaper proprietor Louisa Lawson was a pioneer ahead of her time. Louisa was the mother of Henry Lawson, noted Australian short story writer and balladist. She was a well-educated, creative woman who also wrote poems and short stories. (See a short film on Louisa Lawson here.)
Mei Quong Tart was a Chinese businessman who became the darling of Sydney society operating six outstanding tea rooms, and who contributed to Sydney in so many colourful ways. (See a short film on Mei Quong Tart here.)
Legendary retailers David Jones and Anthony Hordern each established department store chains that dazzled the colonies when they opened their doors for trade in the first half of the 1800s. At one stage Anthony Hordern’s Sydney emporium offered over 54 acres of retail space and sold everything from “a needle to an anchor”. (See a short film on Jones and Hordern here.)
HIDDEN and Rookwood Cemetery Open Day
IH: This year the HIDDEN Sculpture Walk, from 26 August to 24 September (sunrise to sunset), will have a special focus on Rookwood’s history. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
Rookwood: This year HIDDEN has artworks that were inspired by Rookwood Cemetery’s 150th anniversary including works which reference celebration (such as Jayanto Damanik Tan’s Offerings) as well as connection to the number 150 (Allyson Adenay’s Bricks and Mortals and Rox de Luca’s 150 drops, (for Eva Hesse)).
IH: What are some of the themes explored in HIDDEN this year?
Rookwood: In addition to our 150th commemoration, HIDDEN also responds to themes surrounding the Rookwood site, such as history, culture, remembrance and love. This includes grief, loss, mourning, spirituality, the environment, and different cultural beliefs around burial and memorialisation.
IH: What’s the process behind selecting/commissioning sculptures for HIDDEN?
Rookwood: Earlier this year artists were invited to apply for HIDDEN by responding to our callout and addressing the themes above. We had over 100 applications to review and our final artists were chosen by our Selection Panel — consisting of our Curator Cassandra Hard Lawrie and two external judges John Cheeseman (Manager of Cultural Services at Mosman Council, Director of Mosman Art Gallery and the President of the Regional and Public Galleries of New South Wales) and Sarah Gurich (Curator at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery).
IH: Do you have a personal favourite piece this year? If so, could you tell us a bit about it?
Rookwood: Every year HIDDEN promotes wonderful discussion amongst our artists, staff and the public as to their favourite works. This year we are again offering a $500 People’s Choice Award and new this year is a $250 RGCRT Staff Award. So stay tuned for those winners…
IH: What do you hope people will gain from visiting the HIDDEN Sculpture Walk?
Rookwood: The purpose of HIDDEN has always been to enable the greater community to explore Rookwood Cemetery — the largest and most multicultural cemetery in Australia.
HIDDEN is a platform for community engagement, and while it remains respectful of its purpose and place, it aims to demystify some of the misconceptions surrounding cemeteries as dark and intimidating settings.
IH: Could you tell us a bit about the Rookwood Open Day?
Rookwood: This 150th commemorative event, held on 24 September 2017 from 10am to 3pm, showcases Rookwood and all the amazing things it has to offer. The open day will officially open with a special ceremony and grand parade at 11:00am. The day invites the local community and beyond to discover Rookwood’s superb landscape, fascinating history, evolving communities and unique services.
Activities will include historic tours, talks and displays, crematoria and mausoleum tours, grave-digging and stone masonry demonstrations, family history research, horse and cart rides, live entertainment and kids’ activities, and of course HIDDEN – A Rookwood Sculpture Walk.
IH: What should people know before they come to visit Rookwood?
Rookwood: Rookwood Cemetery is larger than the Sydney CBD in size, spanning over 283 hectares. We, being the Rookwood General Cemeteries Reserve Trust, is responsible for two-thirds of the site, the remaining one-third is managed by the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, the Rookwood Memorial Garden and Crematorium, the Office of Australian War Graves and the Rookwood Necropolis Trust. We have a map available to download or print from our website and we also have maps available at our reception, and our research facility Village Research at Rookwood.