23 February 2017

The State of Brisbane Cemeteries in 1868

Brisbane was facing a cemetery problem by 1868. The burial grounds that had opened during the 1840s were either getting too full (Paddington) or not used at all (West End). Either way, these places were now in the centre of rapidly-growing urban centres and new cemeteries were needed. These opened during the 1870s at South Brisbane, Balmoral, Toowong and Lutwyche, and the old cemeteries were closed.

The letter below, sent to the Queenslander in 1868 by a concerned citizen, spelled out the problems with management at the Paddington Cemetery a few years before it was finally closed.

North Brisbane Burial Ground, c. 1870. (State Library of Qld)

The Queenslander, 3 October 1868


SIR: The time has arrived when a determined effort should be made to put an end to the constant fear and dread the citizens of Brisbane have been living in for years past of disease breaking out, in consequence of the general receptacle for the dead still being tolerated in their very midst.

If there is one thing more disgraceful to us as a community than another, it is undoubtedly the present condition and surrounding circumstances connected with the burial of the dead in this city. The cemetery reserve at present in use, is a long straggling piece of land chopped up into tiny divisions, and presents the appearance of a chessboard, only not quite so regular, thus divided in accordance with the various religious denominational differences existing amongst us. To any right-minded person it is revolting enough that these differences should drive men to such extremities as to make it necessary to follow it up, even to the very grave; but this might be tolerable if it resulted in good order being observed in matters relating to burials, but, unfortunately, the very reverse is the case. With but one exception there is but little regard to even decency in their management. The fences are dilapidated, the graves dug without regard to any order or proper depth, the grounds covered over with saplings, shrubs, and weeds, no pathways attended to - in fact they are in the wildest confusion. Added to all this, in the vacant spaces between the several burying grounds, night soil is frequently emptied, and dead cattle left to rot on the surface, as was pointed out only a few weeks ago by you in a local paragraph.

At times the stench from the whole combined is so bad that the wonder is that half the city has not, ere this, been swept off with disease. The knowledge of these facts is not of recent date, for they were known and legislated upon in 1865; but how it is that the then determination of the Government and the Parliament has not been acted upon is passing strange. Mr. Blakeney introduced the bill, and Mr. Herbert, in speaking on the second reading, said, in reference to the last clause, which set forth that the present Brisbane cemetries should be closed at the beginning of the following year, (see Hansard, 1865, p. 33.):
"The last clause of the bill had not been framed too soon. In the Public Health Bill which he was about to introduce, there was a general clause giving the Governor power to close cemetries when they became inconvenient to any contiguous population. This was, however, a general clause; and, under the circumstances of the present case, he thought the North Brisbane cemetries required urgent attention, and that speedy remedial measures were necessary."
A similar testimony was borne to the necessity of thus dealing with the above subject by Mr. Western Wood, in the Legislative Council, on moving the second reading. Although it was found necessary to alter the wording of the clause in respect to the early date first mentioned for the closing of the present cemeteries, from fear that a suitable site for the future cemetery might not be found, and the necessary improvements be effected by the time specified, still it was nevertheless determined that at the earliest possible date they should be closed. Why this determination has not been adhered too is a question in which the citizens are deeply interested.

Since then the sites for cemeteries on both sides of the river have been chosen. Trustees were appointed for that on the South side, who, with very praiseworthy promptitude, sought and obtained the funds sufficient to put a substantial fence round the whole reserve. The cemetery reserve on the north side has been cleared and stumped, and now only requires to be fenced, and trustees appointed to carry out the intention of the Legislature, and thus relieve the inhabitants of this city of the nuisance and cause of dread on this subject. The public having been thus led to regard the speedy closing of the present cemeteries as a thing settled, it can hardly be expected that more than the minimum of care and attention should be bestowed on them, and hence their present miserable condition. Surely sufficient has now been said to induce our city members to take the matter up and see to its final issue.


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