Sydney’s dead centre exposed in new book

Dead and Buried author Warren Fahey AM. Photo: supplied.

John Moyle speaks with author and cultural historian Warren Fahey about Dead & Buried Fahey’s fascinating new book about Sydney’s cemeteries and burial grounds.

Over 200 years ago Benjamin Franklin wrote the phrase, “In this world nothing can said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

During the two years of Covid restrictions, which for many meant less taxes, cultural historian Warren Fahey turned his research to discover how the growing city of Sydney dealt with the dead, eventuating in his book Dead & Buried: A curious history of Sydney’s earliest burial grounds.

Far from being a straight history, Dead & Buried unfurls the cultural shifts in the practice of burial that are interwoven with the gruesome, macabre and often humorous ways that people make their way to their final resting place.

“The story of burial in Sydney is very much the story of the expansion of Sydney,” Warren said.

“When the settlement was first in The Rocks they did basic burials, everyone got a Christian send-off, but they soon realised that you can’t keep bodies where the settlement is so they moved to a small burial ground near where York Place is today.”

As the settlement grew, the burial grounds kept moving to its outskirts, with a spot near St Andrew’s Cathedral soon being relocated further out to an area known as the sandhills along Devonshire Street, near where Christ Church St Laurence now stands.

For many years Devonshire Street was Sydney’s main burial ground, containing the remains of some 22,000 of the city’s chief justices, explorers, bushrangers, Aboriginal leader Bungaree and his wife Cora Gooseberry, and ordinary citizens.

With the discovery of gold in 1851, Sydney’s population swelled to such a degree that ten years later a new reserve was found at Haslams Creek, the halfway point on the Sydney to Parramatta rail line.

When local residents at the new location complained about their suburb being associated with the cemetery, the necropolis underwent a name change to Rookwood.

There were three receiving houses on the grounds, all built in elaborate Gothic Revival style, one for the Roman Catholics and two for other denominations.

One small corner of the vast Rookwood Necropolis. Photo: supplied.

An equally grandiose structure was the main mortuary station, still in existence at Regent Street, Redfern, from which the bodies in caskets were packed onto dedicated funeral cars with the mourners jammed into carriages upfront of the train that carried a sign saying ‘funeral’.

With the closure of Devonshire Street cemetery, the families of the interned were given the opportunity to have the remains moved to Rookwood, Botany or Camperdown cemeteries.

“The only problem was that the workers were in such a rush that they jumbled up the remains and the headstones and nobody knew what was what,” Fahey said.

Where Dead & Buried really shines is in the profiles of the many famous and even more so, the infamous, covering the gamut of the early colony from the winner and losers, the good and the crook and the downright evil, which make for the most salacious reading.

“There are many accounts in the book of the last days of these criminals and how they approached the gallows to be despatched by the state hangman,” Fahey said.

The story of John Knatchbull (1793-1844) is one of the most brutal and conniving that Fahey has included in Dead & Buried.

The son of an English baronet of some distinction, Knatchbull used his connections to fast-track a career in the Royal Navy, before embarking on a career in mutiny, forgery, swindling and murder in the colony.

Newspaper reports of the day report that a staggering 10,000 people turned out at Darlinghurst Gaol for his execution.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing is that of bushranger Captain Moonlite, AKA Andrew Scott (1845-1880).

Captain Moonlite and his lover James Nesbitt who were reunited in death. Photo: supplied.

In the profile headed ‘A Bushranger’s Romance’, Fahey concurs with the now popular opinion that Scott was indeed in love with his sometimes brother-in-arms, James Nesbitt, who was shot dead near Wagga Wagga in 1879.

Scott openly mourned his dead comrade and went to his own end at Darlinghurst Goal wearing a ring woven from Nesbitt’s hair on his finger, and giving his final request to be buried in the same grave.

This request was a step too far for the colony of the day but was finally granted in 1995 when Scott’s body was exhumed and reburied next to that of Nesbitt’s at Gundagai.

If evil has a shining moment, it is in the story of Sarah Makin (1845-1918) and John Makin (1845-1893), known as the ‘Baby Farmers’.

Their story started in the suburb of Macdonaldtown and later, Redfern, Glebe and Chippendale, and was a case that truly shocked even the most hardened of the police who investigated.

Sarah Makin would take in babies or young children for a fee, usually dumped by parents which could not afford or did not want them.

Alerted by neighbours complaining about the smells coming from the backyard, John Makin firstly claimed that he had recently buried a dog.

Digging at Macdonaldtown and later at other properties where the Makins had resided, recovered 13 bodies, with police suspecting there were probably more to be found.

Of all the tales of malfeasance by the criminal class, none is more shocking than that known as the ‘man-woman case’, which had so many twists and turns that at the time it became equivalent to tabloid fodder around the world.

Eugene Falleni (1875-1938), born in Italy and one of 22 children, migrated to New Zealand at age two, before coming to Australia.

Assigned female at birth and named Eugenia, he later started dressing as a male to get work.

Regent Street Railway Station (AKA Mortuary Station) and funeral train. Photo: supplied.

“Eugene was married twice after he supposedly killed his first wife, and his second wife said in court that he hadn’t realised that he was a woman,” Fahey said.

“I can’t imagine what they were doing.”

Falleni was acquitted due to lack of evidence and spent his final years running a boarding house in Paddington before being killed when stepping in front of a car on Oxford Street.

After having around 30 titles published by the ABC or HarperCollins, Dead & Buried is printed by Bodgie Books, Fahey’s own imprint, which he has also used for two previous volumes about the 2011 postcode and Potts Point.

“Self-publishing is not for the faint-hearted. It is problematic to sell to retailers, and I don’t think that the City of Sydney has bought more than one copy for their archives,” Fahey said.

Fortunately for Dead & Buried, it has a chance of life as Rookwood Cemetery and the Catholic Cemetery have bought enough copies to cover Fahey’s set-up costs and he is now using various Facebook cemetery sites to further promote it.

Rookwood is the largest cemetery in the southern hemisphere and is regarded as the world’s largest Victorian-era resting place with over one million bodies buried there, representing more than 200 ethnic groups.

Dead & Buried can be bought directly from Warren Fahey at bodgieproductions@gmail.com.

Paperback is $35 plus $10 postage and limited hardback at $45 plus $10 postage.

It is also available as an ebook on Amazon Kindle at $US8.35

John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.

For further news, features, interviews, opinion, reviews, podcasts and more, visit https://sydneysentinel.com.au. You can also like/follow us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.