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.

 

 

 

Five hundred bodies lost: The troubling tale of gold fortunes at Arrowtown

They wanted to be buried near their families, yet 500 Chinese miners never made it home after years of hardship in New Zealand.

Now a busy, pretty tourist centre and known for its appearance in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the gorgeous little South Island town of Arrowtown became a bustling gold mining town in the late-1800s.  Chinese miners joined European miners at the invitation of the New Zealand Government, but they found it tough-going when the Europeans opposed their presence because of their success. The Chinese work ethic and mining knowledge meant they found gold in areas others didn’t.  That was seen as a threat to the other miners.

An information sign in the tourist precinct reads, “Ageing Chinese depended primarily on each other for support. Officially, they remained unwelcome immigrants and were specifically excluded from New Zealand’s Old Age Pension Act in 1898.”

Alienated they stuck together, forming their own little community. The remnants of the Chinese village along the Arrow River remain in Arrowtown. Now restored, they’re a popular tourist attraction.

A restored Chinese village greets tourists at Arrowrtown these days.
A restored Chinese village, including Chinese miner huts like this one, greets tourists at Arrowtown these days.

Yet surprisingly, a walk through the Arrowtown cemetery reveals a lack of Chinese graves. Gold rush towns in Australia contain many Chinese graves, but not in New Zealand’s Arrowtown. Many Chinese were buried in the local cemetery but they were later exhumed.

The Arrowfield cemetery has few Chinese graves
The Arrowfield cemetery has few Chinese graves, despite the town being home to many Chinese miners in the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.

Here’s why…

“Old miners longed to be buried in ancestral cemeteries, where their spirits would find rest.

“Fund-raising among wealthier Chinese enabled hundreds of elderly men to make the final journey home and provided for the dead to be exhumed.

“The last ship carrying nearly 500 bodies back to China sank off Hokianga in 1902.”

A tragic end to a tough life. 

Arrowtown remained a mining village until 1928. 

Arrowtown is now a bustling tourist precinct.
Arrowtown, near Queenstown, is now a bustling tourist precinct and proud of its Chinese mining heritage.

Lisa Herbert regularly wanders through cemeteries. She’s the author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an amusing and informative workbook for those who want to have a say in their funeral.  “Your ideas, funeral plans, and your life’s reflections will sit quietly in its pages until they’re needed.” The second edition is currently available in Australia for $18.95 delivered. Purchase here