Gough Whitlam’s state memorial service was held at Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday 5 November 2014. Centennial Hall was packed to the rafters with politicians and the party faithful. But thousands more crowded in the square outside, watching the televised service on the screen for over two hours. So how have other state funerals or memorials gone down in Sydney?

State funerals were held in Australia from the mid-19th century onwards, and are typically accorded to ‘public figures’ (usually men). The traditions, pomp and ceremony of Australia’s early state funerals were transplanted directly from Britain. Many of the traditional symbols and rituals associated with these public displays of mourning and grief were based upon heraldic mourning ceremonies dating back many centuries.

State funeral service for former Prime Minister Billy Hughes, on George Street outside Sydney Town Hall, 1952 (Sam Hood, State Library of NSW, hood_25556)
State funeral service for former Prime Minister Billy Hughes, on George Street outside Sydney Town Hall, 1952 (Sam Hood, State Library of NSW, hood_25556)

Australia’s first state funeral was in Melbourne for doomed explorers Burke and Wills in 1863. NSW’s first State funeral took place on Tuesday 6 May 1873 for politician William Charles Wentworth. Although he died in England in 1872, Wentworth’s body was shipped back to Sydney for the service. Upwards of 50,000 people ventured out on to the streets to view the funeral procession, which extended from St Andrew’s Cathedral to the family home in Vaucluse, Vaucluse House. More here.

When the Catholic Archbishop John Polding died in 1877, his funeral cortege extended over three miles long.

The poet Henry Lawson was the first ‘distinguished citizen’ granted a State funeral in 1922 – previously this honour went to politicians only.

State funeral procession of Governor Sir Walter Davidson alongside St Andrew's Cathedral, on the corner of George Street, 1923 (Sam Hood, State Library of NSW, Home and Away - 7745
State funeral procession of Governor Sir Walter Davidson alongside St Andrew’s Cathedral, on the corner of George Street, 1923 (Sam Hood, State Library of NSW, Home and Away – 7745

When Prime Minister Joe Lyons died suddenly while in Sydney in 1939, there was a street procession and a state funeral was held at St Mary’s Cathedral. His body was then shipped back to his family’s home in Tasmania for burial. See more images here.

In more recent times, Aboriginal activist Dr Charles Perkins was given a state funeral at Sydney Town Hall when he died in 2000. Others who’ve been given state funerals or memorials in Sydney have included country musician Slim Dusty, eye surgeon Fred Hollows, dancer Robert Helpmann and pioneer aviator Nancy Bird-Walton. In May this year, former Premier Neville Wran’s state service was also held at Sydney Town Hall.

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