East Perth Cemeteries
Perth, Western Australia

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Nov 1, 2001
Grave Surround

Like antiques, every burial ground is a treasure of the past, which needs to be protected and preserved. In our vast State there are hundreds of old cemeteries and thousands of lonely graves - all landmarks in the development of our country. Conservation is better than restoration.

[Western Australian Burial Location Index, Yvonne & Kevin Coate, Perth, 1996, p.105]

Elaborating on that statement, the Coates go on to explain that cemeteries can qualify as significant heritage sites in many different ways. Apart from possibly containing the sole surviving trace of many pioneers, they can also help shed light on how their communities lived.

Their monuments can portray a past community's social and economic development; its multi-cultural mix; and at the same time present examples of the craftsmanship of local tradesmen.

In many cases, the cemetery is the sole piece of land within a community which best resembles the natural habitat of the area before the area was settled, making it a treasure trove for naturalists.

The Coates contended that every feature in a cemetery could be of value. They produced a checklist of the heritage potential of cemeteries and in answer to the question: 'What can we learn from a cemetery?' they wrote:


  • Direction they face
  • Number of graves in the cemetery
  • Those with a monument or metal numbering marker
  • Sections and layout of each denomination
INSCRIPTIONS - biographical and genealogical information - details of life and death
  • Name of person buried there
  • Date and place of death
  • Date and place of birth or age
  • Cause of death
  • Next of kin
  • Occupation
  • Name and address of monumental mason
MONUMENTS - as with buildings, architectural style relates to a particular area and time.
  • Material used in construction
  • Design or shape - some have foot stones
  • Symbols and decorative carving or moulding
  • Materials used in construction
  • Enclosure fence protecting the grave
  • Kerbing or outline
  • Grave cover - slab, quartz stones, etc.
  • Statues, vases or immortelles
  • Layout and vegetation
  • Fencing and gates
  • Drives and paths
  • Shelters
OTHER FEATURES OF SIGNIFICANCE - chapel, lichgate, bell tower, seats, etc.

Grave Surround

As with every heritage site, a cemetery is not expected to meet every criterion on a checklist of its significance, and that would most certainly apply to the East Perth Cemeteries as they stand today.

In their case, they have survived a rather tormented existence and bear the tell-tale signs of numerous administrative styles and agendas. In fact, that was one of the first hurdles that the current custodians had to overcome - which period of the cemeteries' history was to become the benchmark, and should restoration work remove all trace of other periods.

Since its 19th century period was found to be the primary significant feature at East Perth, what could be reversed of the renovations carried out since the 1950s was done. The same also applied to the restoration of St. Bartholomew's Church, although it presented an interesting case study all of its own. Features like the internal mural, which were left intact during the 1976 restoration, were removed during the restoration work of the 1990s.

The church had also been extended in 1900 and that was taken as its cut-off point, meaning that the metal roof which was added in 1910 had to be replaced with wooden shingles once more. As is often the case with heritage projects, such modern conveniences as electric light fittings and modern drainage systems, have also proven to be out of place and a headache to deal with.

Apart from reversing some of the changes made during the 1950s, heritage professionals also hoped that such 'out of place' monuments as those installed by the descendants of Abraham Morgan and Sophia and Thomas Hester in 1978 and 1979 would not continue to be added. Even though they seem to have been stopped, however, recent additions to the site have been a Chinese Memorial in 1994 and most recently, a grove of cyprus trees in September 1999.

One wonders how the 1995 announcement of a cultural heritage package incorporating an 'interpretation centre, computerised archives, toilets, coffee shop and a book shop' will fit in with the Cemeteries' conservation plan. What is more surprising is the fact that it was announced by Ron Bodycoat, the man who produced the conservation plan.

Grave Surround

As was outlined earlier in the introduction, the overall East Perth site was found to be significant on many levels and a brief summary would be in order at this point.

The site's prime feature is its historic nature and its rarity. Original pioneer cemeteries elsewhere in Australia, especially in captal cities, have fallen prey to the pressures of urban sprawl, but in this case, the surviving section of the cemetery is the original burial ground set out in the first few months of the Swan River Colony's existence.

Not only that, the cemeteries were in operation for virtually the entire colonial period and not just the pioneering years. Their active history spans the formative, convict and boom years of the colony and even tells of periods of plague and epedemic.

Even though the site appears as one cemetery today, it originally incorporated seven individual denominational cemeteries which came into existence progressively throughout the latter half of the 19th century - each one being fenced off and, in most cases, separated from the others by a system of public roadways.

The cemetery complex also houses St. Bartholomew's Church which served as a burial chapel and parish church for nearby residents since 1871 and 1888 respectively.

The surviving gravesites, memorials and grave surrounds are significant as historic artefacts and relics associated with 19th century burial customs and practices in Western Australia. They were also found to be significant for the records which were inscribed on them and as examples of the nature of nineteenth century monumental craftmanship in Western Australia and elsewhere. The memorials are also significant for their association with numerous prominent public figures and the first generations of settlers in Western Australia.

The historic trees on the site are representative of cemetery and street tree plantings in Perth in the late nineteenth century and are significant as landscape elements and as potential propagating stock.

Grave Surround

Classification of a heritage site is only the first step though, and the management of the site and implementation of the conservation plan is another matter.

The National Trust's plans for the site have been outlined ealier but their attitude to conservation management was only touched on.

The chairman of the cemeteries' management committee, Ron Bodycoat, is a conservation architect and was responsible for preparing the 1992 conservation plan for the cemeteries. In the West Australian in October 7, 1995, he was quoted as saying:

"...[The cemeteries] nearly didn't survive, ... but it has survived, enough to be clearly an important cemetery. We ought to take that on board and say, 'OK, if you're that tough we'll help you'." ... Many of the 1950s alterations have recently been reversed.

"... Cultural tourism is a huge growth industry and visitors increasingly expect cultural attractions to be properly presented. People who are managing [these sites] realise that if you've got a resource ... you've got to preserve that site. You've got to allow people to have access to it without destroying it."

... An adopt-a-grave scenario would have the public providing for the upkeep of a particular grave site ... but before any work begins, there'll be a scientific study. Misguided fix-it-up enthusiasm can be dangerous. "We've had perhaps to make ourseleves a bit unpopular with some people, to say: 'Let's hold off - we don't know the best and right way to go'."

Progress has been much slower than Mr. Bodycoat envisaged but there is still a positive attitude in the air. The site is still kept under lock and key at most times and when visitors are admitted, there is always a guide close by to make sure the site is cared for.

For those who are confused about all the fuss and caution surrounding the restoration of the various gravesites, Western Australian Museum's materials conservation department specialist, Carmela Corvaia, would seem to be the right authority to consult. In the same newspaper article she described what was causing most concern:

... Degradation is the tombstones' relentless enemy - slate splits, marble acquires texture, sandstone is abused by the wind. "A lot of the detailed inscriptions are being lost because of the wearing away of the surface of the stone."

"... The ingenuity of nature's assault is impressive. Salt, for example, is carried up a wet stone, then, dried by the sun and wind, it crystallises and expands - "tiny little explosions" break up the stone's surface." ... Then there are the more dramatically damaged stones which have fallen, or been pushed, and broken.

Grave Surround

A quarter of a century earlier it is debatable whether as much care and consideration was given. The cemeteries were the haunt of vandals and derelicts and St. Bartholomew's Church was in such poor condition that it was being considered for demolition.

On October 2, 1971, the Weekend News carried and article which explained all:

Two weeks ago, 22 headstones were pushed over - and 12 were badly cracked ... the gales of the past week have also taken their toll damaging other ancient headstones ... both vandalism and wind damage are not without precedent at the East Perth cemetery ... vandals damaged 20 headstones two years ago and about the same time spring gales caused further destruction ... fortunately recent developments of industrial glues have made repair work easier, but the current damage is expected to take about three weeks to rectify.

Would the conservators of today be as quick to hand over their work to recently discovered industrial glues? It is more likely that they would take their time and test for long-term side effects before carrying out their repairs.

And what would they have had to say if they witnessed the scenario outlined by the Premier of Western Australia when he announced plans for the redevelopment of the cemeteries in 1951? This is how the West Australian of September 28, 1951, reported Mr. McLarty's announcement in the Legislative Assembly:

... several hundred graves would be renovated and repaired, seven public memorials would be completely restored, the existing fences would be repaired and painted, roads and footpaths would be provided, the whole area would be grassed and graded and a reticulated water supply would be provided.

The Premier was only talking about the memorials which were able to be salvaged. The illegible ones and those which were beyond repair were destined for destruction.

Seventy years ago, in October 1930, P.E.C. de Mouncey explained to the Historical Society that even at that time, very few original monuments remained at East Perth, especially from the early days, and that it was debatable that the earlier ones were the original monuments anyway:

... Few memorials are to be seen marking the last resting places of early pioneers. Marble is little in evidence on the earlier graves in the older cemeteries, timber, slate, and limestone appear to have been mostly used. The timber panels, although much weather worn, ant eaten and burnt, have otherwise lasted nearly a century. A memorial in marble in the East Perth cemetery to the late Louisa Jones, and dated 1830, is to be seen, but it is too new in appearance to be over 100 years old. It has probably replaced an older tombstone. A marble slab to the memory of Richard Wells, and dated 1838, shows the name of the mason as "Daniels, Highgate, England." A lime stone memorial to the children of Captain Frederick Chidley Irwin and showing the dates, 1847 and 1853 gives the name of the mason as "Bates, Pinjarrah." Few epitaphs are to be seen on the early memorials, but biblical quotations are noticeable on most of the headstones of later and more recent years. Local granite of a grey colour is now used rather extentively, and to a lesser degree pink granite, as memorials in cemeteries, and is capable when polished, of a surface like glass.

In the same address, Mr. De Mouncey also mentioned that a group of St. Bartholomew's parishioners had been actively caring for the graves in the Anglican cemetery from 1908 onwards and that many descendants of the people buried there had been encouraged to refurbish the degraded gravesites. Maybe that was when the new "memorial in marble in the East Perth cemetery to the late Louisa Jones" was installed?

In a 1980 publication entitled The East Perth Cemetery, Len Easton expanded on this theme by explaining that apart from timber markers on the earliest graves, up till about 1850 the graves were marked by upright stones with hemispherical tops. Unfortunately, he added that the earlier markers were made of sandstone blocks which eroded quickly and it was only then that harder materials like quartz, Toodyay slate and Armadale granite were used.

It was not until late in the 19th century before ornate headstones, some over ten feet tall, were commissioned by the wealthy families of the city. About the same time, a few locally-made iron headstones also began to appear.

Taking this into consideration, one wonders what is really being preserved at East Perth today. It is debatable if many original memorials from the pioneer days remain and those that are original are most likely to date from the late 19th century and represent the wealthier families from the period. It is most likely that many paupers graves were never marked and if they were, it would not have been with a monument that would stand up to the ravages of time.

If, as Carmela Corvaia explained, salt and the elements can attack the best stone monuments, what hope did softer stones like sandstone have, let alone timber which was so prone to attack by termites, bush fire and even people looking for firewood during times of financial hardship?

Fortunately, the main heritage significance of the East Perth Cemeteries rests in their physical location and their place in the history of Western Australia. Regardless of whether the monuments are original or not, or memorialise the earliest pioneers, the site is truly unique and historic and worthy of preservation.

As a final thought, and taking into consideration the opening quote from Yvonne and Kevin Coate, spare a thought for the heritage organisations in other places who are trying to discover where their old cemeteries were located. Consider the dilemma that the Northern Territory Genealogy Society was presented with. June Tomlinson explains:

To overcome the lack of known cemeteries and the fact that only one Burial Register existed for any of the Northern Territory's pioneer cemeteries, the Genealogical Society decided to try and reconstruct the last resting places of our pioneers.

.. the Northern Territory Registrar of Birth Death and Marriages agreed to the Society indexing the early BDM records. It was agreed that the years would cover settlement of the Territory from 1870 to 1902.

... the Society was firm in that it needed to know the place of death. This was considered an ideal way in which to capture places, which would reveal to us, by the number of deaths occurring in any one location, the possibility of an old cemetery site ... a sort on the "place of death" revealed many potential places ... what was previously thought to be a lone grave became one of several in a particular area.

Once it was established ... that we actually had areas that were potential cemeteries we approached the Lands Department to see if cemeteries had actually been gazetted ... Unfortunately in many cases the burial grounds were not surveyed and were not officially reserved as a cemetery.

Other areas of interest ... were the Police Journals that contained deaths not necessarily recorded with the BDM's ... deaths appearing in the newspaper of the day ... the Northern Territory Probate Index, the South Australian Government Gazette and the South Australian BDM Indexes. Information has also been found in family records that detail events of that time.

The collation of records from all the sources mentioned have helped in the reconstruction of many Northern Territory cemeteries and have assisted family historians in locating graves of their ancestors. The Society's work has been used in papers for Government as well as Tertiary Institutions.

Grave Surround

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