East Perth Cemeteries
East Perth Cemeteries were Perth’s first official burial grounds, and operated between 1830 and 1899. Records of the earliest days of the cemeteries are sparse, but the first person we can name who was buried there was John Mitchell, a private of the 63rd Regiment. Aged just 22, he died on 6 January 1830.
Space in the cemeteries for Perth’s various religious denominations were gradually allocated in the ensuing years, including the Roman Catholic Community, Congregationalists, Methodists, the Jewish community, and the Chinese Community. In 1870, architect Richard Roach Jewell commenced work on a small mortuary chapel, St. Bartholomew’s, which was consecrated by Bishop Mathew Hale in 1871.
As East Perth grew in population, public concern increased over a burial ground so close to residences, and the authorities decided to establish a new cemetery on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. A bushland site was chosen near Claremont and Karrakatta Cemetery opened for burials in 1899. As a result, East Perth Cemeteries was designated as a Disused Burial Place although family burials in existing vaults were to be permitted for some time after this.
Throughout its long existence, East Perth Cemeteries has been neglected at times, usually to public concern. Various attempts to restore it have had differing degrees of success, but today it provides a vital link to the early days of the colony and a memorial to the lives of a people from a diverse range of backgrounds and occupations.
Establishing a burial ground on what was then the fringes of Perth was one of the early tasks in the new Swan River Colony. This was undertaken on 26 November 1829, when East Perth Cemeteries came into being. A notice was issued in February 1930, explaining that the health risks from bodies in the Western Australian climate had forced the government into limiting burials to certain places, and during certain times:
“The Lieutenant-Governor directs it to be notified that to prevent indiscriminate Burials and unpleasant consequences arising therefrom, in a warm climate, a Burial Ground will be set apart in Every Township or Parish; and that interments must take place in them only.
All Burials by the Chaplain must take place as soon after sunrise as possible, or an hour precisely before sunset; and at no other time, unless circumstances should render it absolutely necessary.”
Records of the earliest days of East Perth cemeteries are sparse, but the first recorded interment was that of John Mitchell, a private of the 63rd Regiment. Aged just 22, he died on 6 January 1830 and was buried by Archdeacon Thomas Hobbes Scott, who was visiting the colony at the time. However, Mitchell’s burial was probably not the first, but the fourth, the names of the three earlier internments having been lost to us. It is likely they were either colonists who came in the Parmelia or crew of the escort ships, the Challenge and the Sulphur.
The seventh burial is also interesting, being an unnamed Aborigine, simply described as a ‘Christian’ and an ‘employee’ of a Mr Tholler. The earliest surviving headstone in the cemetery belongs to Louisa Jones, who died on 23 December 1830. The first burials were marked with carved wooden crosses, many of which were consumed by fires.
Cemeteries for Perth’s other religious denominations were gradually allocated, as required, in the ensuing years. In November 1848, an area was set aside for the Roman Catholic Community, while Independent Congregationalists and Wesleyan Methodists were allocated cemeteries in 1854. The Jewish community received space in 1867. The last group to be allocated space at East Perth Cemeteries was the Chinese Community in 1888.
As early as 1865, there were calls for a chapel to be erected at East Perth Cemeteries. All Church of England burial services were held in either St. George’s Church or in the deceased’s regular place of worship. In 1870, colonial architect Richard Roach Jewell commenced work on a small mortuary chapel, St. Bartholomew’s, which was consecrated by Bishop Mathew Hale on 16 February 1871.
As East Perth grew in population, public concern increased over a burial ground so close to residences, and the authorities decided to establish a new cemetery on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. A bushland site was chosen near Claremont and Karrakatta Cemetery opened for burials in April 1899. As a result, on 12 July 1899, East Perth Cemeteries was designated as a Disused Burial Place although family burials in existing vaults were to be permitted for some time.
In April 1920, Perth City Council became responsible for East Perth Cemeteries. Following this, there was public pressure demanding action about the run-down state of East Perth Cemeteries. In 1931, a journalist from the Sunday Times claimed the cemetery was so neglected that bones were scattered around:
“When a representative of this paper visited the cemetery yesterday he found a skull almost intact, leg and arm bones, and other parts of poor mortal remains. These were lying on the rank green grass close to a bricked hole leading to the vault. From the ground above, the rest of the bones could be plainly seen.”
Another account described how the fencing had been torn away, headstones pushed over, graves ripped open and bones scattered over the ground. Iron railings had been stolen and sold to scrap iron merchants, while cattle browsed around the graves. In response, the 1932 East Perth Cemeteries Act placed the site under the control of the State Government. A full-time caretaker was appointed and the Cemeteries were tidied, gravestones re-erected, trees planted, and fences and paths repaired.
During the 1940s it was proposed to turn East Perth Cemeteries into a memorial park, but this idea was not popular with the public. Instead, in 1952 the government refurbished the site, although land on which the Presbyterian, Jewish and Chinese cemeteries stood was given to the Education Department and the headstones relocated. East Perth Girls’ School, which had been allocated land formerly occupied by the Chinese and Presbyterian Cemeteries, began constructing tennis courts in 1958. There was public outrage when newspapers reported that bones and pieces from coffins had been exposed by bulldozers but the work continued anyway.
During the early 1970s, St. Bartholomew’s Church was threatened with demolition due to its deteriorated condition. Homeless men living in St. Bartholomew’s House, who attended weekly services at the church, started to save money for restoration works. The National Trust was successful in securing a grant for urgent restoration works for the church and, together with money from Perth City Council, repairs included the vandalised stained glass window. However, vandalism continued to be a problem, and in 1986, for the first time, East Perth Cemeteries were enclosed by a mesh fence and only open during the day.
More conservation work was carried out during the 1990s, including signage for visitors and, after a brief closure, the site was formally re-opened on 17 April 1994 by the Minister for Heritage, Richard Lewis. One of the prominent changes was the dedication of a Chinese memorial to the Chinese pioneers who were buried in East Perth Cemeteries, since none of the original headstones had survived.
Currently, East Perth Cemeteries is open to the public on Sunday afternoons, and it provides a vital link to the early days of the colony and a memorial to the lives of a people from a diverse range of backgrounds and occupations.
Ronald Richards, ‘East Perth Cemeteries: Conservation Plan’ (1992)
‘Correspondence.’ Perth Gazette 19 May 1865
‘Local Church News.’ Inquirer 1 March 1871
‘Graveyard Scandal’ Sunday Times 24 May 1931
‘No Longer a Libel on Decency’ Sunday Times 28 June 1936
‘A Sanctuary of History: The Storied and Neglected Cemetery at East Perth’ West Australian 20 May 1950