This weekend is Newtown Festival; for over 30 years this festival has been staged in the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park, a beautiful green oasis in the middle of the crowded inner west suburb of Newtown.

How did the suburb manage to save such a large area for a park when there is so much pressure for housing?

Well in a way there is quite a large population already living there, because the rest park is the resting place for almost 18,000 souls (17,962 actually).

In 1848, in response to a need for additional burial space and sick of waiting for Government to allocate some, the Anglican Church established a private company, the Sydney Church of England Cemetery Company.  This company acquired about 12 acres of land in Newtown, bounded by Church, Federation, Lennox and Australia Streets and opened a new burial ground.

Camperdown Cemetery c1920 looking towards Church Street

The first internment came soon after with a number of rules and regulations to maintain a standard.  Inscriptions and headstones had to be approved, wooden surrounds would be removed if not kept in repair and only wooden coffins were permitted in common graves but no monumentation was allowed.  If you could afford a headstone you could afford to pay for a grave site.

The cemetery was laid out to the latest cemetery design fashion from England, with winding pathways and plantings.  A small lodge was built near the gate for the cemetery office and a church was planned.

The cemetery attracted both the rich and the poor.  Many famous colonial Sydneysiders are buried in the grounds, from Sir Thomas Mitchell the Surveyor General, to the Tooth Family and the Macleays.  Others are almost famous such as Eliza Donnithorne, once thought to be the inspiration for Charles Dickens Mrs Havisham.  The recovered bodies of Sydney’s worst maritime disaster, the wreck of the Dunbar were interned here.  Their funeral procession moved through the streets of Sydney in seven horse drawn hearses, flanked by mounted police and watched by thousands.

But the place was also for the poor.  Communal graves for paupers were located in the north west corner fronting Federation Road.  These graves were often left open over several days to allow them to be filled before closure.

By 1867, just 18 years after opening, the cemetery was just about full.  An average of 1100 burials had taken place each year, or about 21 every week.  By the mid 1860s the problems of bodies close to the surface, open graves and seeping water saw a growing agitation for its closure.

Neighbouring businesses complained of maggots and blowflies coming from the cemetery.  After heavy rain, the ground appeared to disgorge maggots-a stark reminder of the mortality humans and the corruption that followed death and an indication of the shallow depth of some of the graves.  On cold mornings a sickly damp mist hung just above the ground, while on hot summer days you could barely walk past it without a cloth over the mouth and nose.

In January 1868 burials ceased at Camperdown, save for those who already had plots.  At the same time the Company was wound up and the cemetery passed to a trust.

In 1871 a grand new church was built inside the grounds.  Designed by Edmund Blacket, the Gothic Revival sandstone St Stephens church is considered one of Sydney’s finest.  Placed close to the entry gates, the Church suited the site well and has the appearance of having always been there.

With no further burials after the early years of the twentieth century, pressure soon came to bear on the land.  Twelve acres in an overcrowded suburb was a tempting prospect.  The trustees pushed back, starting a remembrance week for relatives, publishing histories of the cemetery and its famous residents and undertaking restorations of some of the graves.  However increasingly, newspapers described the site as overgrown, drab, melancholy and a wilderness.

However it was another tragedy that caused its demise.  In June 1946, the brutal murder of 11 year old Joan Ginn in the cemetery shocked Sydney.  Lying undiscovered in the overgrown cemetery for days after her death, Joan’s plight lead to the resumption of the cemetery by the Government.

Just before the end. Camperdown Cemetery in 1951 with St Stephens in the distance.

Of the 12 acres, four were enclosed in a high sandstone wall.  Grave markers and headstones from the remainder were removed and placed around the walls inside the wall or taken away.  Those families that could afford to move their relatives did so, but most were left where they lay.  The cemetery was transformed into a park, Camperdown Park and the long term residents remain, just under the ground.

So tread lightly at the Festival, lest you wake them.