Old Melbourne Cemetery

Willie, the child of James Goodman was the first person to buried in Melbourne, Port Phillip District. He was buried on 13th May 1836 at Burial Hill, today’s Flagstaff Gardens. This site was only used for about 6 burials.

Bounded by Queen Street to the east, Peel Street to the west, Franklin Street to the south, and Fulton Street (which no longer exists) to the north, the Old Melbourne Cemetery was established in 1837 in West Melbourne. The first person to be buried on this site was also a child. He was Frederick William Craig, the infant son of Skene Craig. As Melbourne grew, this site was recognised as being too small and the Melbourne General Cemetery (or new Cemetery), that we know today, in Carlton, was established by an act of the New South Wales parliament in 1850 and was opened on 1st June 1853.

The Old Melbourne Cemetery was divided into areas according to religious denominations. Two acres each were given to the Church of England, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and one acre each was given to the Jews, Quakers, Methodists and Independents. Later, half of the Quaker area was given to the Aborigines. The history of the Old Melbourne Cemetery ties in with that of the Queen Victoria Market, which was adjacent to it, and when the latter first expanded in 1878, it was the Quaker/Aborigine area near Fulton Street which it acquired first. A Crown grant was passed providing land for a general market on 4th March 1867. Today’s meat hall dates back to 1869. The next 2 grants that provided more land for the market, were dated 1878 and 1880 (see Queen Victoria Market Lands Act 1996 – Act No. 78/1996 at www.dms.dpc.vic.gov.au), and in the 1880’s legislation was passed requiring all bodies in the Old Cemetery to be exhumed.

Identification of the burial plots was made difficult because the register of burials prior to 1866 was lost or destroyed. Many graves were unmarked. Others had ‘headstones’ of red gum, which had weathered away. From 1920-22, 914 graves with identifying monuments were re-interred at Fawkner, Kew, St. Kilda, Cheltenham and the Melbourne General Cemetery. Many of the headstones crumbled when shifted. At this stage, the cemetery was in a terrible state of neglect, with very long grass. The cemetery had been closed in 1854, re-opened in 1864 for the sale of new plots, re-closed in 1867, with the final burial taking place in 1917. It was closed permanently in 1922.

As there were about 10,000 burials on the site, there still remain approximately 9,000 people buried under the sheds and car park of the Queen Victoria Market. Every time work is carried out at the market, bones are disturbed. A memorial to these people stands on the corner of Queen Street and Therry Street. In 1996, the previous Crown grants were revoked and the Queen Victoria Market Lands Act 1996 came into being.

There are several books of interest to be found on the Old Melbourne Cemetery. Marjorie Morgan’s own book, “The Old Melbourne Cemetery 1837 – 1922” published by the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies in 1982, has names of people buried there. These came from transcriptions of legible headstones made by G. P. Townend in 1913-14. As a gentleman in the late 60’s he saw the importance of making a record of these markers.

Isaac Selby wrote a book called “Old Pioneers Memorial History of Melbourne” in 1924, whilst the Royal Historical Society of Victoria’s Historical Magazine, Volume 9, No. 1, pages 40-47 has an article on the cemetery. Another book, “Melbourne Markets 1841-1979, the story of the fruit and vegetable markets in the City of Melbourne” (Footscray, 1980), edited by Colin E. Cole has material on Melbourne markets.

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