On a hilltop just east of Perth city, nestled between the cricket ground and the racetrack, is a scruffy looking site known as East Perth Cemetery (or officially ‘Cemeteries’ ). There are no manicured lawns or neat rows of gravestones here. Some of the graves have elaborate monuments and fences, others carry a simple cross. But most lie unmarked beneath the rough grass.
The site was originally called Cemetery Hill. Governor Stirling set it aside in 1830, not long after the Swan River Colony was established. He wanted to avoid ‘indiscriminate burials and unpleasant consequences arising therefrom, in a warm climate’!
Initially the cemetery was non-denominational. Then in 1842, the Governor granted custodianship to the Trustees of the Church of England. Other denominations received land for burials over the years, thus the plural title ‘East Perth Cemeteries’. A mortuary chapel was built in 1848. It became St Bartholomew’s church after being extended and consecrated in 1871.
It’s estimated that up to 10,000 people were buried at East Perth Cemeteries before the site closed in 1899. Most were in unmarked graves. Many of the remaining gravestones date back to the 1890s. In the 1930s the land reverted to the Crown as a disused burial site. Since then, much of the original cemetery has been bulldozed for development .
The National Trust took over the care of St Bartholomew’s church in 1975 and the remaining cemetery grounds in 1994. They have done a lot of restoration and preservation work on the structures and gravesites. However, they have chosen to leave the grounds unkempt, as they would have been in the early days. As a result of never having been ‘beautified’, the site has one of the greatest levels of biodiversity in the city,
Connections with Alice Mitchell
Last November, I gave a talk in the narrow, steep-roofed church of St Bartholomew, at the invitation of the National Trust. I found some interesting connections between baby farmer Alice Mitchell and the cemetery while preparing the talk.
The rector of St Bartholomew’s in 1907, Reverend Robert Craggs, appeared as a witness at Alice Mitchell’s murder trial. He had visited her home in nearby Edward Street a couple of times. On the first occasion she called him to baptize a baby who was dying. The second time she asked him to write a note to help get a baby admitted to hospital.
Three of Alice’s own children who died in infancy were buried at East Perth, in unmarked graves. Tragically, two of them, Florence Susannah and John Matthew Sweeney, died on consecutive days in January 1884. Both were the victims of measles.
The cemetery had already closed when Alice’s mother, Hannah Eliza Hammond (nee Leeder) died in 1901, but the family obtained permission to bury her at East Perth. Presumably this was because of her pioneer status and family connections.
Most of the babies who died in Alice Mitchell’s care in the 1900s were taken by the undertakers to the new cemetery at Karrakatta. But in 1904, three-month-old Septimus Reginald Gildersleeves was buried in the Wesleyan area of the cemetery at East Perth. I haven’t been able to discover why.
His mother Mabel and her family migrated to Perth in the 1880s. They had no long-standing family connections with the site. Mabel’s parents seem to have been ordinary working class people. So it’s a mystery as to why the authorities granted permission to bury little Reg at East Perth. Also a mystery is why the family changed their name from ‘Gilders’ to ‘Gildersleeves’ when they migrated. If you have any clues, let me know!
Finding burial information
If you’re looking for information on burials in Perth’s early days, the East Perth Cemeteries site has a good searchable database. The results may include burial details, family names, date and/or cause of death and death certificate number.
The Metropolitan Cemeteries Board has an online search facility that covers Karrakatta, Fremantle, Pinnaroo, Midland, Guildford and Rockingham cemeteries, from 1899.
For burials on the West Australian goldfields, try the Outback Family History site. This covers many small towns that no longer exist, as well as the bigger cemeteries such as Coolgardie.
The National Library of Australia website has a comprehensive list of resources for finding cemetery records across Australia.
Findagrave.com has information on millions of cemeteries from around the world and is free. Billiongraves.com also has a free search engine, although it tends to direct you to paid genealogical sites to see the results.
And of course, the digitised newspapers on Trove can reveal lots of information such as death notices, funeral notices and obituaries, sometimes even for overseas deaths.