Old Burial Grounds of Sydney

The First Christian Burials in Sydney: 1788

The earliest records of burials do not state the actual locality, but simply indicate Sydney Cove or Parramatta.   It seems that the first burials were on the ridge west of lower George Street, near the present Maritime Services building (Note 1).   Burials commenced in 1788.   It appears that this site was not long in use.   It is not shown on maps of 1 March 1788 (Note 2) or 16 April 1788 (Note 3).   However, both maps show the hospital placed on the western side of the cove, from which most of the funerals would have proceeded.

The Second Burial Ground in Sydney: 1788 to 1792


This was in the present Clarence Street, to the rear of the land on which the Military Barracks were erected in 1793.   The last burial there was apparently in 1792, and all the headstones were removed before 1845.

On an old 1836 map, this cemetery is not shown.   The Military Barracks is shown covering the area bounded by Barrack Street on the south, almost as far north as where Jamieson Street is now, to Clarence Street in the west, and York Street in the east. The Barracks faced Barrack Square which extended east to George Street (Wynyard Park now covers part of that Square).

However, in an 1821 map (Note 4), the Barracks is shown as three buildings, facing Barracks Square from the north, west and south.   The building on the north is shown as going only half way back to Clarence Street, so it may be the cemetery was just behind that building.  

The Third Burial Ground (Town Hall site): 1792 to 1820

In 1792 it was decided to erect a new barracks, so an alternative burial site was established on land formerly cultivated by the late Captain Shea, of the Marines.   This site came into use in 1793, but was closed in 1820.  

An old map of 1836 shows the "Old Burial Ground" adjacent to St Andrews, fronting George Street, with the back boundary parallel to George at the south end, then a corner cut off at Druitt Street.   On my crude map (right) the cemetery covered the area coloured light green.






On 24 March 1819 Governor Macquarie advised of Public Works in progress, including:

... a Brick Wall round a large piece of Ground, lately marked out a little without the Town for a new burying Ground, the present one being inadequate in Size and also Ineligibly and offesnively situated in the Centre of the Town of Sydney, whereby it will become Necessary to the Health of the Inhabitants to remove it altogether.(Note 4a)

The brick wall was completed in February 1820 (Note 4b).

In 1822 Governor Macquarie stated that he had built:

... A new Burial Ground at the southern extremity of the Town, consisting of four acres of Ground surrounded with a Brick Wall, it having been found necessary to condemn the old one in the Centre of the Town, which last however is now enclosed with a Brick Wall to preserve the Graves.(Note 5)

The old cemetery in the centre of the Town remained decaying until the town councillors decided in 1868 to erect a Town Hall on the site.   The building was completed in 1889.

When excavations were being made for the City Railway (Sydney City Circle, opened in 1926) some human remains were found below George Street in front of the Town Hall, so the cemetery must also have extended eastward of the Town Hall site. & During construction of Sydney Square (between the Town Hall and St Andrew's Cathedral) in 1974, a bull-dozer broke through a vaulted chamber about two metres below ground level.   Sections of the roof collapsed to reveal the remains of a wooden coffin inside. It is understood that skeletons were discovered very recently during work under the Town Hall.

Recent archeological works at the Town Hall site (in 2008) uncovered further graves.   See the   pages.

See also the ABC news story at

Old Burial Ground (Sandhills or Devonshire Street), Sydney: 1819 to 1888

NOTE:   This section owes much to a well researched article by Joseph Waugh, "The Sydney Burial Ground", The Deacon's Treasure No.25, Christmas 1998, p.24, some of which is still available on the web at Christ Church St Laurence web pages.  

This was the main cemetery for Sydney from 1820 to 1888.   It was consecrated on 27 January 1820, by Rev. Samuel Marsden.   The first person buried there was Hugh McDonald, Quartermaster of the 46th Regiment, whose funeral took place on 11 September 1819 (before the ground was consecrated).   The funeral was attended by Governor Macquarie and other colonial officials (Note 6).

The Sydney Gazette of 29 January 1820 stated:

The Burial Ground at the Brickfields having undergone the ceremony of Consecration is open for burial services.   The former Burial Ground is securely barred and locked.   A portion of the Burial Ground occupying one corner thereof, be set apart by the Chaplain for peculiar and special purposes at his discretion.   The fee for the Chaplain is 5/-, his clerk, 2/6.   The Gravediggers fee for each grave, 2/6.   The fee to be paid to the person who tolls the church bell shall be sixpence.(Note 7)

The east corner, on Elizabeth Street, had been used for a short time for executions (Note 7a).

In February 1820 the "brick wall round the new Burying Ground at Sydney for Lodges for the Clergymen and Sexton" was completed (Note 7b).   Macquarie ordered that graves be aligned east to west, according to the order established in the Mother Country (Note 7c).

Location of the Old Burial Ground, Sydney, also known as "The Sandhills" or "Devonshire Street Cemetery".

A map of 1836 shows the Roman Catholic section marked dark green in the above map.   An 1842 map shows the Roman Catholic section expanding to the light green area.   The orange part of the Presbyterian section is shown on the 1836 map, expanding into the salmon coloured part by 1842.   The Wesleyan, Congregationalist and Quaker sections are not shown separately until the 1842 map.

The original walled portion of the burial ground became the Church of England section (orange on the map) when the other denominations obtained adjacent sites in the years following 1825 (Note 7d).

Under the Sydney Burial Grounds Act 1866 (NSW) burials were prohibited "within the city of Sydney from 1 January 1867, with the exception that persons with exclusive rights of burial at that date could still be buried on application to the Colonial Secretary who needed to be satisfied that 'the exercise of such right will not be injurious to health' " (Note 7e).

By 1900 the grounds had become neglected:

A thick, disorderly, and in some places almost impenetrable scrub covers most of the ground; and tombstones lie scattered in careless confusion all over the place.   Where standing, they present grotesque attitudes like a party of drunken men crossing a field. (Note 7f)

The Devonshire Street cemetery was also a victim of progress  Many of the graves (see below) were removed to make way for Central Railway Station.

An early photo of Central Railway Station, Sydney, before the building was completed and clock tower constructed.

An eye-witness, Frank Clune, recalled:

In 1906 my home was near the Devonshire Street cemetery.   After the Government decided to extend the railway from Redfern to its present site, a tunnel was driven from Devonshire Street to George Street, through the graves of pioneers buried from 1819 to 1900.   Like my scallywag companions, I was morbidly fascinated by the disinterment of the skeletons, which though done with due respect and reverence was still a grim spectacle for crowds of onlookers.   When Central Railway Station was completed, the tunnel from Devonshire Street to Railway Square was opened beneath the railway lines.   Before that extension, steam trams from Redfern to the city crossed through Belmore Park to Castlereagh Street.   A footbridge spanned the tram-lines, on which I often stood trying to spit down the funnels of the locomotives. Since 1906 all is changed: steam trams are museum pieces and electric trams are banished; petrol buses, crowded and draughty, now pollute the lungs of the citizens of the city once called Sydney Town.

Many ... pioneers ... were buried in the Sandhills Cemetery, including Simeon Lord, merchant ; Isaac Nichols, first postmaster ; William Balcombe, first Colonial Treasurer ; George Crossley, scallywag solicitor ; Sir Francis Forbes, first Chief Justice ; and thousands of others, unmourned and forgotten, who played their part in building Australia into a grand and glorious country. May it remain so.(Note 8)

Most (but possibly not all) of the bodies were exhumed and the bulk removed to a new cemetery at Botany, provided for the purpose (Note 9).   A special tram line was built, operating from 11 July 1901.   "Steam motors hauled ballast trailers from a temporary siding in the old cemetery to the end of an extension from the Botany tram terminus" (Note 9a).     Some 33 bodies were reinterred at Woronora Cemetery (Note 9b).

An Excellent Book on Devonshire St (Sandhills) Cemetery

An excellent resource is Keith A Johnson & Malcolm R Sainty, Gravestone Inscriptions NSW Vol.I, Sydney Burial Ground, Genealogical Publications of Australia, 1973. The Introduction to this book gives a quite detailed account of the career of the cemetery, the records which have survived, and the fate of the remains. Some information is given relating to the Town Hall Cemetery as well.

Johnson & Sainty state that in 1901 the NSW Government invited descendants and relatives of those interred at the Sandhills Cemetery to relocate the monuments and remains.   However, of the 30,156 remains in the cemetery, only 13,826 were known (16,330 unknown).  Many of the 5,000 monuments had already been removed to Rookwood (Haslam's Creek), South Head, Gore Hill and Waverley before the turn of the century.  About 3,300 stones were relocated to Bunnerong Cemetery. It is these stones which are transcribed in the book.

Johnson & Sainty published a second volume, in 2001, Sydney Burial Ground 1819-1901 (Elizabeth and Devonshire Streets) and History of Sydney's Early Cemeteries from 1788.   This volume contains details from the Re-interment Register compiled in 1901 by the Department of Public Works, and also the names of persons whose remains were claimed by descendants but not recorded in the lastmentioned Register, not on the surviving stones.   The volume also contains transcripts of surviving relocated stones, done in 1969.

Other References on Devonshire St (Sandhills) Cemetery

*   A record of the cemetery, illustrated by hundreds of photographs and drawings, is held by the Mitchell Library.
*   An informative illustrated article by A.G. Foster, "The Sandhills, an Historic Cemetery, appears in the Royal Australian Historical Society Journal for 1919 (Note 10).

Note 1.   Australian Encyclopaedia, Angus & Robertson, Vol.2,p.313.
Note 2.   Map by Lt. Bradley, in Cedric Flower (ed.), The Great South Land, Sun Books, South Melbourne, 1979.
Note 3.   Map by Frances Fawkes (also known as Fowkes/Folkes/Fokes), in Capt. Watkin Tench, Sydney's First Four Years, Library of Australian History, Sydney 1979.
Note 4.   ) In Baiba Berzins, The Coming of the Strangers: Life in Australia 1788-1822, Collins, Sydney, 1988.
Note 4a.   Macquarie to Lord Bathurst, 24 March 1819, HRA, Series I, Vol.X, p.96.
Note 4b.   Macquarie to Lord Bathurst, 28 February 1820, HRA, Series I, Vol.X, p.282.
Note 5.   Macquarie to Lord Bathurst, 27 July 1822, HRA, Series I, Vol.X, p.684.
Note 6.   Australian Encyclopaedia, Vol.3, p.314.
Note 7.   Frank Clune, Serenade to Sydney, Angus & Robertson,Sydney, 1967.
Note 7a.   Joseph Waugh, "The Sydney Burial Ground", The Deacon's Treasure No.25, Christmas 1998, p.24, available on the web at Christ Church St Laurence web pages.   This is a more detailed article and is worth a visit.
Note 7b.   Macquarie to Lord Bathurst, 28 February 1829, HRA, Series I, Vol.X, p.282.
Note 7c.   Waugh, op cit, p.26.
Note 7d.   Ibid.
Note 7e.   Id.
Note 7f.   Id, p.27, citing the Citizen's Vigilance Committee.
Note 8.   Frank Clune, Serenade to Sydney, Angus & Robertson,Sydney, 1967.
Note 9.   Australian Encyclopaedia, Vol.3, p.314.
Note 9a.   Waugh, op cit, p.27.
Note 9b.   Additional information kindly provided by John Bullen, citing Michael Boyd, Woronora - Cemetery and Crematorium 1895-1995, Woronora General Cemetery and Crematorium Trust, Sutherland.
Note 10.   Australian Encyclopaedia, Vol.3, p.314.

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©   Sid Hammell 2 April 1999: last updated 12 June 2015

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