Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Public Estate Improvement Fund: Paddington Cemetery's Executioner...

The Paddington Cemetery grounds, cleared & fenced, published on
page 13 of The Brisbane Courier on the 27th of June, 1914.
In last week's article on the Paddington Poltergeist/Possum, we touched briefly on the destruction of the North Brisbane Burial Grounds at the hands of the Public Estate Improvement Fund.  Admittedly, by the time the Paddington Cemeteries Act was passed on the 30th of November 1911, the site was nothing more than a dilapidated atrocity perched on the doorstep of Brisbane's expanding CBD...the majestic South Brisbane Cemetery overlooking the banks of the then-pristine Brisbane River had been in operation for 41 years, with its sister Brisbane General Cemetery at Toowong, nestled at the base of One Tree Hill (Mt Coot-tha), having been in operation for 36.  Few residents cared for the pioneers interred at Paddington, who had paved the way for the expansion of Brisbane so many years beforehand.  Viable building land encroaching on the cemetery borders was being snatched up, & new landowners were desperate for usable recreation reserves & amenities in their neighbourhood...thus, it was decided that the neglected & mostly forgotten cemetery had to go.

As we touched on last week, the Paddington Cemeteries Act of 1911 allowed for the area's resumption for public use.  Brisbane residents were duly notified of the decision to resume the cemetery precinct by the Lands Department - relatives of those buried within the confines of the cemetery were given until the 1st of December 1912 to make application to have remains & monuments exhumed & re-interred elsewhere at the expense of Government. Almost instantly, encroaching residents who were previously in support of transforming the area, publicly voiced their concerns through letters to the newspapers, fearing exhumation of corpses laid to rest in the mid-1800's could unleash a new wave of since-eradicated diseases on the surrounding population.  However, by the end of 1912, only 100 applications for removal & re-interrment had been received by the Public Estate Improvement Fund.  Exhumation work began in the early months of 1913.  The vast bulk of graves earmarked for removal were destined for Toowong Cemetery, with The Brisbane Courier reporting that remains were being re-coffined & reverently re-buried at a rate of about 20 per was estimated that the entire process would take about 8 weeks to complete, at which time the remaining headstones & monuments could be removed to their designated area alongside Christ Church.

As we know from last week's article, 505 unclaimed headstones & memorials were removed & relocated as a part of this process, after which time all physical evidence that the area had once been a cemetery was stripped until only local memory remained...or so the Ithaca Shire Council & Lands Department hoped, in an effort to convince newcomers to Brisbane that their weekend picnics were being held on virgin turf rather than atop some pour soul's final resting place.  One councillor at the time went so far as to mention that the new recreation reserve would be ideal for lounging & reading...although the reading of works of fiction & ghost stories should be discouraged in case the subject content dredged up memories of the site's prior use.  Multiple newspaper articles following the site's clearance reported that "all remains" had been removed, however this spin-doctoring couldn't have been any further from the truth - from historic records we know that approximately 40-50 privately-funded exhumations occurred at Paddington cemetery, for removal to South Brisbane & Toowong, in the few years proceeding its closure in 1875...coupled with the 100 exhumations in 1913, the number of burials removed from the site totalled approximately 150.

The greatest surprise comes when the total number of exhumations is put into context - in the dying days of 1912 & opening of 1913, the Lands Department undertook a physical survey of the cemetery in order to discern the total number of graves present...their estimate closed at 4,643 burials.  More recently, Dr Rod Fisher of the University of Queensland's School of History, Philosophy, Religion & Classics, estimated the number at closer to 10,000.  Depending on which total you hold as true, at the time of Paddington Cemetery's erasure, an amazingly meagre total of 1.5% - 3% of the cemetery's interred souls had been re-interred elsewhere...leaving an unbelievable 97% - 98.5% of interred souls on site!  It was clear that both the Council & State Government hoped that not a single coffin left beneath the site would ever see the light of day after the site was converted to public land, an occurrence they managed to avoid for 14 years...however, come September of 1928, Paddington's dark secret was again dragged to the surface...

In mid-1928, the decision was made by Council to replace an open brick drainage channel known as the Milton Drain that ran along the southern extremity of the previous cemetery - the channel had been constructed in 1886 in order to help drain the lower area of the cemetery grounds which was renowned for its boggy nature.  The new drainage system would exist as an underground sewer pipeline, necessitating the excavation of a trench through the southern section of the now Lang Park Recreational Reserve...unfortunately, against the best efforts of Council & Government to obscure the origins of the land, the trench was to run through the southern section of the previous Church of England Cemetery portion.  In order to best understand the fall-out, an article on the 4th of September 1928 in The Brisbane Courier sums up the spectacle best -

"Workmen who have been making a sewer trench across Lang Park have been digging up coffins and skulls and human remains. In the early days of Brisbane Lang Park was a cemetery.  Yesterday afternoon, at the moment that a "Courier" reporter arrived on the scene, the skull of a woman was brought to the surface in a bucket from a depth of about 11 feet.   Human bones, crumpling with decay, and a skull which had been smashed by children, were in big tins alongside some of the shafts.  Groups of small boys stood at the top of the shafts watching the men at their gruesome work.  Pieces of old coffins were strewn around the shafts.  The stench was nauseating.  On Friday the workmen approached the foreman for 10/ an hour while working among the coffins. They complained that the coffins and the bones were falling on top of them, and that the vitiated air down below was almost unbearable."

The above exposé in The Brisbane Courier forced an immediate investigation by both the Council & Health Department - not surprisingly, both bodies played down the incident.  Mr R. A. Fraser, Chief Inspector for the Health Department, made a public statement in The Brisbane Courier 4 days later on the 8th of September, stating that he, "examined the relics to which newspaper reference has been made, & submitted whatever appeared to be of human origin to Mr Heber Longman, Curator of the Queensland Museum, who very courteously, at my request, identified the fragments as human, probably of European race...[T]he bone & other fragments brought to light are few in number, & are being held for re-interment on the completion of the drive during the next few days."  City Council followed suite, as reported in The Brisbane Courier on the 18th of September - "The few human relics that were found while a sewer was being constructed through one section of Lang Park (old Paddington Cemetery) were reverently reinterred at Toowong Cemetery on September 13, 1928, in the presence of an officer of the Water, Supply & Sewerage Department."  The initial independent report from The Brisbane Courier & subsequent statements by both Health Department & Council differed markedly...& all parties involved likely hoped the topic had finally been laid to rest...

The Paddington Cemetery "Trench"...published in The Worker on the 12th of September 1928.

Which it was, for a further 6 years.  In July 1934, Lang Park & it's underlying history again hit the media...on the 17th of July 1934, the now Courier Mail published an article regarding earthworks being carried out above the former cemetery.  According to the article, "Portions of human skeletons & the crumbling remains of coffins have been discovered by relief workers engaged in levelling a small rise alongside the Queensland Amateur Athletics Association's oval in Lang Park, Paddington.  Both bones and coffins fell to dust immediately they were disturbed, preventing their interment in another grave.  With the surrounding soil, they were merely removed to another portion of the park, and covered.  Dark patches in the yellow clay where the men are now working indicate where coffins have been.  The formation is quite clear, but scarcely more than perhaps a splinter or two of the woodwork remains.  A few days ago a portion of a shin bone was unearthed during blasting operations to remove the roots of a large tree, and even pick and shovel work on the face of the hillock barely 2ft below the surface has produced part of a skull and several small bones."

On publication of this news, memories of the prior Paddington Cemetery were pulled to the forefront of Brisbane's psyche, & one very poignant questions surfaced -  what had become of the 505 memorials & headstones that no longer stood beside Christ Church??  On the Brisbane City Council website, it's stated that, "The remaining memorials were removed in the 1930s when relief works were undertaken in Lang Park to improve the drainage and sporting facilities. Unfortunately the register was not updated to record the removal of these memorials and as a result, no trace remains of what happened to them." Similarly, "Jack" Sim had a ridiculous bash at guessing where the missing memorials ended up, in his 2011 edition of The Ghosts of Towwong Cemetery: Brisbane's Necropolis - "During the Great Depression hundred of gravestones were broken up and used as road base on Hale Street.  Motorists do not realise what is under their tyres.  For a mile from the river a foot thick band of this rubble remains under the asphalt."  Where the current Brisbane City Council & haunted historian "Jack" Sim failed in pinpointing the location of the missing monuments, the Haunts of Brisbane steps in yet again to set the record straight...

In the 17th of August 1934 Courier Mail article, the final paragraph stated, "[T]he area was frequented at night by undesirable persons, and was unsightly, and, finally, three or four years ago, the headstones were sent to Toowong Cemetery."  The very next day in the Courier Mail, on the 18th of August, a further article was published, stating, "It was learned from official sources yesterday that the gravestones which, about 23 years ago were removed from the old Paddington cemetery to the adjacent memorial reserve, and later transferred to Toowong, were used for filling up a gully in that cemetery.  Interest in the whereabouts of the monuments has been revived by the discovery recently of additional human remains by workmen levelling a portion of Lang Park, the site of the old cemetery.  [I]t was stated yesterday that these stones were in a badly dilapidated and broken up state when received at the cemetery, and that the inscriptions could not be deciphered."  Hence, the 505 monuments & headstones that remained after the 1913 cleansing of Paddington Cemetery, which had laid unclaimed, were finally transferred to Toowong Cemetery in approximately 1930 & broken up as landfill.

In 2001, as a part of the redevelopment of Lang Park (Suncorp Stadium), a further 397 burials were excavated from the site prior to the stadium's expansion - many of which were re-interred again at Toowong Cemetery.  In addition to the 150 prior 1913 exhumations, & taking into account the Lands Department & Rod Fisher's total interment estimates, between 4100 & 9450 souls still reside below the hallowed turf we celebrate every year as the NRL's State of Origin is played in Brisbane...& it is only a matter of time before one of Brisbane's pioneers surfaces during earthworks to remind us of the price we've paid for Brisbane's premier sporting ground...


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  4. I have a comment regarding a statement quoted in your 2nd last paragraph. The quote was "[I]t was stated yesterday that these stones were in a badly dilapidated and broken up state when received at the cemetery, and that the inscriptions could not be deciphered."

    National Archaeology Week activities were held at Toowong Cemetery between Thursday, 24th May - Saturday, 26th May 2012. They excavated and recorded some headstones from the Milton/Paddington Cemeteries which were moved to Toowong Cemetery and buried early last century.

    I was in attendance on the dig and am able to give a first hand account about the state of the headstones excavated that yes they were in broken pieces but that there were more than 100 pieces with decipherable writing on them unearthed in the dig. There was even one whole and undamaged headstone. There were several instances where whole headstones were able to be pieced together from the broken parts.

    1. Thanks for sharing that information, Joy - I have always suspected that many of the headstones removed from Paddington to Toowong were in far better shape than the public were lead to believe in 1934. The 1934 Courier Mail article you refer to above, which contained the statement regarding the "dilapidated and broken up state" of the headstones, claimed the information was gleaned from Official Sources - I can only imagine this would have been the Brisbane City Council. Hopefully the Council will now make funds available to either display these recovered headstones at Toowong Cemetery, or to have them reinstated in the small grounds behind Christ Church at Milton with the other surviving Paddington monuments.

    2. Ironically it might be that burying these soft sandstone headstones has been what has preserved the writing on them to this day.

    3. For the sake of those who have traced their ancestors to Paddington Cemetery, are you able to shed light on the area in which the Paddington Cemetery headstones were dumped in Toowong Cemetery, Joy? Whilst the vast bulk of the interments were left in-situ in Paddington, I'm sure many descendants would appreciate knowing the possible resting place of their ancestor's headstones?

    4. Well Liam, I don't know how to describe the location other than by giving the name on a nearby headstone. At one stage I was having a rest on the side of the grave of one Matthew Adam McLean.

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