Sunday, 23 October 2011

What lies beneath: The forgotten souls of Moreton Bay.

A substantial cemetery...located alongside the expanding population centre of Brisbane Town, that is in time to become the capital city of Queensland...terribly neglected by both the authorities & residents for over 2 decades, until the area became virtually unrecognisable as consecrated ground for the interment of the departed...finally divided into allotments & sold at public auction to be built upon...until not a trace remained.

For those who are somewhat familiar with the history of Brisbane, you are likely expecting this week's feature to detail the destruction of a cluster of denominational cemeteries that were collectively termed the North Brisbane Burial Grounds (also referred to as the Milton or Paddington Cemeteries) from the above introduction.  If you were, you'd be mistaken - Brisbane Town's earliest history goes far deeper than the vast majority of Brisbane residents are aware of.

The Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds, or Paddington/Milton/Lang Park cemetery, was not the first resting place of Brisbane's departed...nor was it the first Brisbane cemetery to have been demolished & erased from public memory.  Prior to the opening of the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds in 1843, & Brisbane Town being declared open for free settlement in 1842, the area on which the CBD now resides was better known as the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement.  Relocated to the northern bank of the Brisbane River in early 1825 (after an initial penal station established at Redcliffe on the 14th September 1824 had failed), the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement quickly earnt a reputation for it's mortality rate - excessive floggings for minor breaches of conduct oft times proved fatal, whilst malnutrition & tropical disease delivered many more to an early grave.  Early records verify that during the penal settlement's period of operation & Brisbane Town's first 2 years as a free settlement (1825-1843), a total of 265 people perished within its borders - of which 220 were convicts.

Clearly, once prisoners incarcerated within the confines of the colony began to die, the necessity for a suitable burial ground arose.  An area was chosen suitably distant to the centre of the settlement - far enough away that the accumulating graves would not become a focal point of the overall compound, but still close enough to be easily accessible from the soon-to-be-constructed convict hospital.  Little more is known about the evolution of this graveyard throughout the life of the settlement, apart from the approximate number of souls who were interred there through the penal period to 1839 & the first years of free settlement to 1843.  However, by 1843, the population of the newly opened Brisbane Town had expanded by such an extent, that the need for a larger burial ground was imperative - hence, the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds were opened, & the previous penal graveyard became known as the Old Burial Ground.

So...where was this Old Burial Ground?  The site is closer to the CBD than most would image - as exact a location as can be given, the Old Burial Ground is bordered by current Upper Roma Street, Eagle Terrace, Skew Street (parallel to Coronation Drive) & Saul Street - beneath the 2 large grassed areas alongside the back of the B105 & Triple M building at North Quay.

So...what became of the Old Burial Ground?  With the advent of the opening of the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds in 1843 and the rapid expansion of Brisbane Town, the Old Burial Ground began to fall into disrepair.  The earliest public record of the cemetery's physical condition was published in the first edition of the Moreton Bay Courier (Brisbane Town's first media outlet) on the 20th June 1846, where it was stated "we trust our readers will give us credit for sincerity of motive in offering to their consideration a few remarks on the present disgraceful state of the old burial ground in North Brisbane.  [T]here is not even a fence to restrain pigs and other animals from rooting and roving over the dwellings of the dead.  If something be not done shortly, we may chance to witness the remains of those interred exposed to public view.  Such an occurrence, it is true, is not likely to happen; but its bare possibility should be an inducement to the inhabitants to take instant steps to secure the ground from intrusion of quadrupeds."

By 1852, the Moreton Bay Courier again reported on the 16th October, "Six years ago, nearly a hundred tablets, headstones, etc., stood in the old burial ground; now, a bare dozen can only be counted, and many of these are dilapidated and overturned.  The fence is torn down, carried away or burnt.  The records of gratitude or of affection erected to the memories of many a gallant soldier, sincere friend, or loving wife; the burial grounds which are held sacred even among the [aborigines], seem to have been strangely violated in this instance.  What hands have taken so many monumental stones away none can tell, but where many could be found might be said or written as easily as "hearths of Brisbane.""  The article, continuing, discloses a massive historical treasure - the Old Burial Ground contained the grave of Granville William Chetwynd Stapylton, a renowned Australian explorer & surveyor who was murdered whilst on an exploratory mission south of Brisbane on 31st May 1840.  Two men were captured, tried & hanged at the Tower Mill (on current Wickham Terrace) a year later for the murder - ironically, their bodies were conveyed down the hill shortly after to be buried in the same ground as Stapylton.

By the mid 1860's, the Old Burial Ground had fallen into such disrepair that authorities began to plan for the site's redevelopment.  In the years leading up to 1875, some few burials & monuments that could be identified were exhumed & reinterred at the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds where it was hoped they would be safe - unfortunately, these few relocated relics would be lost forever 50 years later during the redevelopment of the Lang Park site.  Skew Street was constructed across the site, dividing the block into 2 sections, which were in turn split into 7 allotments each and sold off at public auction on the 12th October 1875.  From this point in history on, the memory of Brisbane Town's Old Burial Ground quickly faded.  However, in July 2010 the Queensland Heritage Council added the site to the Queensland Heritage Register based on its archaeological potential - "The site has been identified as being exceedingly rare as we now have very little physical evidence of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement.  There is good potential for there to be burial remains including personal items at the burial ground as past development on the site has been low impact."

However, not all evidence of Brisbane's penal period was lost in the subsequent destruction of the Old Burial Ground & Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds.  Just beyond the boundaries of the Old Burial Ground, 4 children were interred in their own allotment overlooking the river in the first 3 years of the 1830's.  Having been located away from the burial ground itself, these graves remained after the sale of the cemetery proper in 1875.  However, in 1881 during survey work being conducted for the construction of tram lines along the river bank, the decision was made to exhume & relocate this final remnant of the Old Burial Ground.  Very fortunately, the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds had been declared closed 6 years earlier in 1875, however a new municipal cemetery had been opened at Toowong in the same year.  So, on the 5th October 1881, 3 pioneer children who had died during the earliest period of Brisbane Town's history, were again laid to rest within Toowong Cemetery's confines (1 child's remains had been irretrievable from North Quay).  These three monuments survive to this day as the oldest headstones in Queensland (as pictured at the top of this blog).

So, next time you drive over the Grey Street Bridge & onto Skew Street in the direction of Milton Road, make sure to spare a thought for the souls of convicts, soldiers, women & children of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement over who's graves you are travelling.


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