Discrimination in death: Why are there so few headstones in Derby?

Unidentified and unmarked graves are everywhere in Australia. In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, many of the unmarked graves in cemeteries are those of Aborigines. Buried in a strange custom and a strange country, their relatives were unable to fill their traditional mortuary rights.

“… When people were buried in the ground in a strange place it caused much more upset then the death itself.

“It was the white person’s way. Old people used to be buried in a cave. It was strange … new culture. Strange to the old people. Our people …”

Just last week saw the burial of 70 sets of indigenous remains recovered from the crumbling pioneer cemetery at Fitzroy Crossing. The whites had long been removed to safer ground, but the blacks were left to wash into the mighty Fitzroy River as the rivers banks eroded away.

fitzroy
70 sets of Indigenous remains were laid to rest in an emotional ceremony in Fitzroy Crossing WA last week. Photo: Facebook ABC Kimberley

Northwest of Fitzroy Crossing is the town of Derby. Like so many Australian cemeteries, Derby Cemetery tells a story of segregation. There are some fantastic information boards at the cemetery that aim to preserve the area’s dark history. I’ve summed them up here:

DIVIDED BY RACE AND RELIGION

The area of the old Derby Cemetery nearest the road is generally called the Pioneer Cemetery, while the bush at the back is referred to as the Aboriginal or Old Native Cemetery. Under the WA Aborigines Act 1905, anybody coming within five chains (20 metres) of a group of two or more Aboriginals could be fined 200 pound or imprisoned or both. Some people think that this segregation is the reason Aboriginals were buried separately.

Aboriginal burials were not recorded. That’s why many Aboriginal people in Derby don’t know where their relatives were laid to rest.

After the ‘yes’ vote of the 1967 Referendum, Aboriginal people were counted in the national census. Not surprisingly, more Aboriginal names began to appear in the burial register. Following the 1965 Equal Wages determination many station owners were unable or unwilling to pay equal wages to their Aboriginal workers. Up until this point, they’d been unpaid, working for just food, clothing and tobacco rations. Redundant workers sought shelter in towns like Derby, and the cemetery became more important to them, although graves continued to be unmarked.

It doesn’t look like a cemetery, does it? These Aboriginal graves at the back of the Derby Cemetery remain unidentified.

BURIALS – NO TIME TO WASTE

It’s hot in the Kimberley. A lack of mortuary refrigeration meant that burials usually happened on the same day as death. Digging a grave by hand was hard work in the hard soil. There was no on-site water supply. The oil drums that still lie in the Aboriginal cemetery were probably used to cart water to soften the ground.

Coffins were ordered from Perth and sent by steamship in sections and then assembled when they got to Derby. The Police Department held the coffins for Aboriginal burials, however Aboriginal people who died in the local ‘native hospital’ were buried in blankets.

WHERE ARE THE HEADSTONES?

The Derby Pioneer and Aboriginal Cemetery was in use for nearly 90 years, but the headstones represent only a handful of the people buried there. There are only 73 headstones but more than 500 burials recorded in the existing burial registers. There are many other graves whose names were not recorded. Most belong to Aboriginal people. A fantastic 2007 community project researched all this information and its appears on information boards at the cemetery itself. Its aim was ensure the area’s history was preserved and to make sure the Aboriginal people buried in Derby were properly commemorated. In consultation with the Aboriginal community including Nyikina Elders and Mowanjum Aboriginal community, they’ve done a wonderful job:

Project coordinator: Mandy Gadsdon.
Oral history collection: Colleen Hattersley
Historical Research: Colleen Hattersley, Kath Mills.
You’ll see clearly marked ‘white fella’ graves in Derby Cemetery, but no marked Indigenous graves.
The Derby Cemetery lacks defined graves and headstones.

 

Derby cemetery information board.
Burials were a white fella practice. The information boards at the Derby Cemetery offer a great insight into days gone by.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage.

 

REMAINS OF MENTAL ASYLUM PATIENTS BURIED IN TRENCHES

Small boxes buried at Goodna Cemetery contained exhumed hospital patients, according to former hospital worker.

A retired carpenter and hospital worker holds an important piece of the puzzle in the hunt for the remains of more than 2,000 patients of the notorious Wolston Park Mental Asylum in Brisbane’s west.

While a teenage apprentice, Mr Ferg Brindley made hundreds of small wooden boxes that, he says, were used to house the remains of patients who were exhumed from the hospital’s cemetery in the late 1940s.

About 50,000 people were hospitalised in the asylum in the 120 years between 1865 and the 1980s.  In the late 1940s, bodies in the asylum’s third cemetery were exhumed over a four-year period to make way for the development of the new Repatriation Pavilion for “mentally unbalanced” and “war-affected” soldiers returning from the Second World War.

Newspaper reports say 2,800 bodies were removed, though cemetery records have only accounted for around 200 of those which were moved to the nearby Goodna General Cemetery.

Qld Times article 29/11/46 - Mass Exhumation of Bodies
A 1946 newspaper article mentions the exhumation of 2800 bodies from the Goodna Mental Hospital Cemetery to “improve the site of a new block being erected for servicemen suffering war effects”.

In response to my research efforts to find those remains, and a subsequent blog, I’ve been in touch with Mr Ferg Brindley, who worked at the Asylum from 1948 to 1953 as a teenager.

Making boxes to fit shin bones

Now in his late 80s and living in the western Queensland town of Roma, Mr Brindley remembers the cemetery being exhumed by a hospital employee and patients. (Mr Brindley’s recollection is corroborated by Hansard’s Parliamentary record-keeping. On 11 Dec 1946, the Minister for Health, Mr T Foley, told Queensland Parliament the “work of exhumation is being performed by an employee of the hospital, assisted by four border-line patients who volunteered to assist to do the work”.)

As an apprentice carpenter, it was his job to make plywood boxes for the storage of each of the grave’s remains. Mr Brindley made “hundreds of plywood boxes, stained black, for the remains”.

“They were designed to enclose bones, so the size was about 2 feet long (to fit a shin bone), by 10 inches by 10 inches. That’s only an educated guess. They were rectangular boxes, not coffin-shaped.”

Mr Brindley can’t recall how many boxes were made but says before he started work at the asylum, there were others before him making the boxes.

“The work was quite a production line.”

He said it was his job to make the framework while an inmate put the plywood on, and the painter did the staining.

Burying remains in trenches

Mr Brindley says the rectangular boxes were buried in trenches in the nearby Goodna Cemetery, about five kilometres away.

“They were re-sited in the Goodna cemetery to the left of the shelter shed.”

“Long trenches were dug by an employee and inmates. I don’t know if any identification was placed on the boxes.”

Goodna Cemetery

The Goodna Cemetery, west of Brisbane, is one of the oldest in Queensland and is one of the few that remains community run, with a Trust overseeing its operation.

The Trust secretary is Ipswich Councillor Paul Tully who wouldn’t be drawn on Mr Brindley’s recollections.

However Cnr Tully says another former hospital worker (who became an alderman of the Ipswich City Council in later years) gave him details about the exhumations which took place in the late 1940s.

“Those who had been buried for fewer than 30 years were exhumed and re-buried at the Goodna Cemetery with a full and proper burial, with a Minister of Religion and two witnesses in attendance. These are all recorded in the official burial register.

“They were individually buried along with their original headstones. The burial area is towards the middle of the cemetery,” wrote Cnr Tully in response to my query about the possibility that hundreds of small rectangular boxes were buried in trenches at the Goodna Cemetery.

Playing with a skull

Ferg Brindley’s father was a warden at the hospital. Growing up in the nearby suburb of Goodna, Ferg Brindley remembers swimming in Woogaroo Creek, near the site of the Asylum’s original cemetery which was later abandoned because its proximity to the creek and river and subsequent regular flooding.

“The early cemetery was parallel to the creek to the left of the bridge (now gone),” recalls Mr Brindley.

“This is where we swam as kids. Some kids had a skull.

“Work on removing this cemetery was done in the early 1940s. The area became a vegetable garden. I have no way of knowing, but I believe the bodies are still there, and just the head stones were removed.”

The Asylum’s first cemetery is now the site of the Wolston Park Golf Club, a very scenic and peaceful space that is home to hundreds of kangaroos.

Golf
The Wolston Park Golf Club is now a popular spot for kangaroos and golfers alike.

Commenting on my earlier blog (Mental asylum mass exhumations and missing remains: the tale of Wolston Park’s lost and forgotten patients), ‘David’ tells me “the golf club has had numerous sonar sessions through the place to make sure there are no remains left along the bank and indeed most of the course”.

“The course and its surroundings have been checked off by the historical society as well, although in recent times like the 2011 floods (and even the 74 floods) when the clubhouse itself went 6 feet under, it’s sad to think what could have been displaced from the site.”

There were at least three cemeteries at the hospital over the years; two of which were moved to make room for hospital wards. The exhumations of the 1940s weren’t the only ones in the Mental Hospital’s history.

An article in the Brisbane Courier of June 22 1911 says “following upon the arrangement for the erection of the two new wards it has been found necessary to remove the old asylum cemetery, and the remains of 198 patients have been taken up, enclosed in new coffins, and transferred to a new cemetery”.

The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery

The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery which was closed in 1945 to improve the outlook from the new Repatriation Hospital which was opened on 26 Jan 1948.  

So the mystery remains…

WHAT WE KNOW:
Records show there were 200 patient re-interments at Goodna Cemetery. The records show and Cnr Tully says those 200 received full burials.

Newpaper reports and parliamentary records claim thousands of hospital patients were exhumed between 1945 and 1948.

A former worker says he made hundreds of small boxes for the exhumed remains which were then buried in trenches at Goodna Cemetery.

The Goodna Cemetery Trust wouldn’t be drawn on Mr Brindley’s claims.

So … where are the remains? Your guess is as good as mine. I’d like to know your thoughts.

Cement grave markers from Brisbane Mental Hospital are part of a memorial at Goodna Cemetery.
Numbers are etched into markers which stand in rows at Goodna Cemetery. The markers originally stood over graves in the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery, less than six kilometres away.  The highest number on the grave markers is 2,300.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have any information that may be able to shed light on the hospital’s cemeteries and the location of the remains of patients you’re welcome to contact me via  Lisa@thebottomdrawerbook.com.au or leave a comment on this blog.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

Goldrush murder: Assassinated Afghani cameleer rests in outback WA cemetery.

If dehydration, typhoid, a mine collapse and alcoholism didn’t get you, an assassin might.

In the back corner of  a large cemetery in the goldrush town of Coolgardie, about six hours from Perth, sits the grave of a man who was shot in the back as he prayed.

The headstone reads: “Tagh Mahomed who died by the hand of an assassin at Coolgardie Jan 10 1896 aged 37 years. His end was peace.”

Tagh Mahomet was an Afghani cameleer and businessman. Camels and their handlers played a vital role in the outback at the time, carrying supplies to sheep and cattle stations and goldfields. Tagh and his brother Faiz were local merchants and were prominent in civic affairs. They were the state’s largest camel owners.

Tagh Mahomet
Tagh Mahomet, 1890s. Image: State Library of Western Australia 186P

Tagh was shot by a fellow Muslim in a mosque on Mount Eva, on the eastern outskirts of Coolgardie. There are differing accounts of why Goulam Mahomet killed Tagh. Some believe the death was caused by ongoing feuding factions back home in Afghanistan. Goulam Mahomet claimed that Tagh has threatened him. Goulam Mahomet was hanged for the murder of Tagh at Fremantle Prison.

The Muslim section of Coolgardie Cemetery is in the back left hand corner.

Coolgardie Cemetery is a large goldfields cemetery. While the current population is under 1,000, during the goldrush, Coolgardie was WA’s third largest town, with a bustling street filled with grand hotels and even a stock exchange with 25 stock brokers!

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

Searching for gold, laid to rest under tin: a prospecting history captured in WA’s remote Menzies cemetery.

Mining accidents, typhoid, suicide, exhaustion, burns, starvation, childbirth, diarrhea, and dysentery are just some of the causes of death of those who moved to the Goldfields of Western Australia for a new, wealthier life.

A TYPHOID HOTSPOT

Menzies is a small town 130km north of Kalgoorlie and 730km north east of Perth. Poor sanitation led to a deadly outbreak of Typhoid in 1895. Twenty-eight of the 42 known burials at the Menzies cemetery in 1896 were typhoid victims.

Between 1895 and 1905, at least 105 people buried at Menzies are thought to have died from typhoid. Most victims were men aged 20-40 years old.

Men aged between 20 and 40 were the most prominent typhoid victims at Menzies cemetery.
Twenty-eight of the 42 known burials at the Menzies cemetery in 1896 were typhoid victims.

RARE TIN and IRON HEADSTONES

In all my cemetery travels I’ve never seen so many tin and iron headstones as I have at the Menzies cemetery. Trinkets, photos and crosses would be been housed behind glass in the headstones which were a much cheaper option than the traditional headstones. Many were home-made from the only materials available nearby, including kerosene tins.

Tin headstones housed trinkets, crosses and wreaths. There are no graves with the glass still entirely in tact in Menzies cemetery.
The tin and the wreaths have survived the last 90 years; the glass not so much.
There are only a few iron memorial headstones at Menzies cemetery. This is something I’ve only seen in the WA Goldfields. If you know of any others I’d be keen to hear from you. Here, this home-made memorial looks like it was made using a bed frame and a kerosene can.
Wreaths would have been housed behind the glass of this tin headstone at Menzies cemetery.
John Cunningham’s “sorrowing wife” would have erected a tin headstone before a marble one was made, often years later.

UNMARKED GRAVES APLENTY

Not uncommon in Australia’s bush cemeteries is the use of rocks around unmarked graves, identified only by iron plot markers.
Rocks and an old enamel pannikin mug mark grave 20 at Menzies.
An unmarked grave surrounded by iron at Menzies cemetery.

According to the information sign at the cemetery, the mortality rate from typhoid fever in the Goldfields was many times higher than any other place in Australia, while alcohol abuse, poor diet, and dust from mining operations contributed to lots of other illnesses. Looking for gold in one of the country’s harshest and driest regions was incredibly tough. Sadly there was also a high suicide rate.

menzies suicide carving
Prospector Peter Bremner suicided in 1902.  The signage and information for visitors to the Menzies cemetery embraces a journey back in time.

Rich in history and well-researched, the red dirt cemeteries of the Goldfields are nestled in woodlands and are part of a fantastic tourist trail in the region called the Golden Quest Discovery Trail. The once bustling mining towns are long gone, but their cemeteries remain, giving travellers like myself an insight into what it was like to live and die in the search for gold.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

 

 

 

No fowl play at Mackay toy shop offering life lessons ahead of Dying To Know Day on August 8

I’m stoked to see a popular Queensland toy shop bringing the difficult subject of death to life ahead of Dying To Know Day, an annual day of action aimed at encouraging discussion of death, dying and bereavement.

Catering for people whose lives and interests aren’t all fun and games, former school teacher and owner of Let The Children Play in Mackay, Ally Blines, said dealing with grief and death is something that’s often not talked about, with devastating consequences.

“It’s dealt with behind closed doors and it needn’t be the case. We need to be open and supportive of one another during difficult times,” said Ally.

Not far from shelves stocked with colourful toys, educational games and children’s books sits a range of reference books on subjects such as dealing with grief, parenting, autism, Asperger’s and even funeral planning.

Ally thinks Dying to Know Day on August 8 is the perfect opportunity to broach the subject with family.

Launched in 2013, the D2KDay initiative by the Groundswell Project encourages people to improve their death literacy and to get informed about end of life and death care options such as dying at home, and to be better equipped to support family and friends experiencing death, dying and bereavement.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care reports that Australia has been characterised as “a death denying society where many people are reluctant to consider their own mortality and talk with their families about what their wishes are for the end of life”.

Ally was awesome when approached to stock my book The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.  She jumped at the chance, calling it “a fantastic resource and workbook for those keen to be organised ahead of the inevitable”.

Ally Blines at Let the Children Play toy shop in Mackay
There’s more than just toys at this Mackay toy shop. Ally Blines stocks books on grief, funeral planning, parenting, autism and Asperger’s etc.

Bereavement is another potentially difficult subject catered for at the Ally’s toy shop In Mackay.

The work of Mackay widow Deb Rae is popular. She has penned ‘Getting there – grief to peace for young widows’ when her young husband passed away. It’s a book that Ally believes resonates with so many aspects of life.

“We have elderly men who lost a wife 20 years ago turning to her words.

“And one of my own children was quite ill during their key teenage years and it was only when I read Deb’s book that I realised I had been grieving for the loss of those years and my expectations for that time, even though my child was fine and had moved on.”

“Deb’s book is mainly bought by people who are buying it either directly for a friend who has lost a partner or for themselves to help them understand that friend’s experience.”

Ally said she hopes people who walk through the doors of Let the Children Play leave not only with their children’s needs catered for, but also their own.

“It’s important we all address these kind of subjects, even though it may be a little confronting,” she said.

Dying to Know Day is a good excuse to bring up the subjects of death, dying or bereavement up with people in your life. There are lots of activities planned in many parts of the country. Check out www.dyingtoknow.org for events.

I’m speaking in Bendigo as part of a jam-packed morning of activities, including a crematorium tour. Details here.  Would love to see you there.

 

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative, practical and amusing workbook for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. Your ideas, funeral plans, and life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.