Stories from the city’s forgotten burial grounds

EARLY ON: The Charles Street general cemetery, pictured here in the 1860s, is now the Ockerby Gardens at the Launceston General Hospital. Picture: Archives Office of Tasmania
EARLY ON: The Charles Street general cemetery, pictured here in the 1860s, is now the Ockerby Gardens at the Launceston General Hospital. Picture: Archives Office of Tasmania

Most of the 6000 people buried in Launceston’s Charles Street general cemetery are still there.

To the naked eye, one would not know that Ockerby Gardens, adjacent to the Launceston General Hospital, was home to many of the city’s early residents.

Some would be surprised, and perhaps even unsettled, to learn that many of the streets they traverse, parks they frequent or even houses they live in, are built on old burial grounds.

Marion Sargent and Dianne Cassidy have spent years researching the “forgotten” cemeteries of Launceston.

Ms Sargent is the president of the Launceston Historical Society, and Mrs Cassidy spent more than five years combing long forgotten records to publish a book that details those persons buried in the Charles Street cemetery.

Through their research, they believe the city’s first cemetery sat on the corner of York and High streets, very close to where the Launceston School for Seniors sits today.

The exact date of its establishment is not known, but Ms Sargent believes it must have been built very close to Launceston’s settlement date of 1806.

Ms Sargent said, on early maps of the city dated 1826, it is identified as the “old burial ground”.

One of the city’s other early cemeteries was in Cypress Street, Newstead, and belonged to the Anglican church.

It was consecrated in 1823, and closed in 1906.

The tombstone of Michael Fahey's at the Catholic cemetery at Connaught Crescent, Glen Dhu. Picture: Archives Office of Tasmania

The tombstone of Michael Fahey's at the Catholic cemetery at Connaught Crescent, Glen Dhu. Picture: Archives Office of Tasmania

In contrast, the Charles Street cemetery opened in 1841, and took its final body in 1925. 

It’s believed about 30,000 people are buried at Cypress Street. Today, it’s used as a sports ground for Launceston Church Grammar School.

It was the norm in this era for religious denominations to have their own cemeteries, and there were many segregated graveyards around the city.

The Monash Reserve on Invermay’s South Street sits on the site of a former Jewish cemetery.

“Listed, there are about 12 people buried there, but we know there are (more). So we are not sure of the final number … yet, ” Ms Sargent said.

The former Quaker or Friends cemetery in Pedder Street, South Launceston, is one of the sites that holds the most interest to Ms Sargent.

“There are 11 people buried there, and they’re still there,” Ms Sargent said, and added that a house now sits on the land.

Other notable former cemeteries around the city include the Presbeterian Scotch Cemetery on High Street; a Catholic cemetery off Connaught Crescent, which has since been partially built over by a lawn bowls club; and the convict cemetery on Rose Lane, off Westbury Road.

It is commonly thought that all prisoners who died in Launceston were buried at the convict site, but Mrs Cassidy said this wasn’t exactly true: “Some who were hung were sent out to Evandale and dissected.”

There are 21 cemeteries in the Launceston area, but only one remains in use today: Carr Villa at Kings Meadows.

When cemeteries closed down, or fell out of use, living relatives could arrange to have the headstones, even remains, moved to free plots at Carr Villa.

It was an offer not seized by many relatives – Mrs Cassidy has found that of the 6000 people buried at Charles Street, 36 headstones were transported to Carr Villa, and just two exhumations were performed.

In some circumstances, the choice of exhumation wasn’t there, such as at the small pox cemeteries at Barclay Place, Mowbray, and Techno Park at Kings Meadows.

The bodies were, Ms Sargent explained, still infected with the disease.

Some people might consider researching former cemeteries a morbid past time.

But for Ms Sargent and Mrs Cassidy, it was a natural progression from their research work at the Launceston LINC.

After following up many genealogy requests from community members, they found that many of the records listed for burial sites were wrong.

The Charles Street general cemetery in transition to becoming Saint Ockerby Gardens, next to the Launceston General Hospital. Picture: Archives Office of Tasmania

The Charles Street general cemetery in transition to becoming Saint Ockerby Gardens, next to the Launceston General Hospital. Picture: Archives Office of Tasmania

“It’s just fascinating, we just kept doing it and kept digging out more information,” Ms Sargent said.

“You start researching something, and it just gets in your head,” Mrs Cassidy added.

Mostly, their work focuses on recording the names of Launceston’s early residents and their resting places.

They prefer to leave the stories of the deceased for their relatives to discover.

However, along the way, they cannot help but find out some interesting back stories to the names that were once etched on the gravestones.

Mrs Cassidy shared one of her favourite tales, which begins with one of the city’s most notable madams, and ends with an execution.

“Ellen Sneezewell was shot and killed by a guy called George Braxton, who was the last man to be hung in Launceston, and he was buried in Cypress Street,” Mrs Cassidy said.

It was 1822, and Braxton shot Sneezewell inside her York Street brothel.

She was 34 and he was 60, and newspaper reports from the time indicate that they had a relationship that had turned sour.

“Poor old Ellen, she was pretty much an invalid but she was still running the brothel,” Mrs Cassidy continued.

“During the autopsy, the doctor noted that he could not find the bullets in Ellen because she was so fat.

“And during the trial, George had snuck a cutthroat razor into his boot, and cut his own throat there in the court room.

“Doctors came in and patched him up. Then they hung him the next day.”

Ms Sargent said one of the sadder stories that she had discovered did not have a head stone at all.

In the Catholic cemetery on Connaught Crescent was a large memorial for the McIver family, and it held the parents and three sons of the family.

It was erected in tribute to Mary McIvor, she said, who died tragically at the age of 24.

“She fell off (early Bass Strait ferry) the Black Swan,” Ms Sargent said.

“She was a soprano singer, and was travelling to Melbourne to sing at the opening of St Patrick’s Cathedral. A big wave took her overboard. She had a young boy on her lap, too.”

The boy was Edward Joseph Lowe, aged eight, and neither bodies were recovered.

Aside from a small plaque here and there, or the remnants of a headstone, most of the early cemeteries are visibly forgotten.

Carr Villa was opened in 1905, and has an interesting history of its own; Ms Sargent said the site used to be a farm, a school for girls, and an orchard.

With the opening of the new cemetery, the city centre’s burial grounds were meant to wrap up by the end of 1905, but it was a slow process. Carr Villa was out of the way – three miles from the city, and there were no cars in those days.

Launceston’s old cemeteries were finally put to rest themselves in 1925.

In the 1930s and 40s, the cemeteries fell into heavy disrepair. Their churches no longer had the funds to maintain them, and they were a target for vandalism.

Slowly in some cases, quickly in others, they were transformed into parks, or sold as residential plots.

Legislation has since been passed that prevents former cemeteries being built on, but it is too late for some of Launceston’s early graveyards.

The city really is built on its early residents.

  • After this article was published, Mrs Cassidy received an increase in demand for copies of her book Charles Street General. She will be reprinting the book in December. Orders can be made by emailing Mrs Cassidy on penders10@gmail.com