The first burial ground in Grafton or ‘The Settlement’ as it was known in the early 1840s was a section of the ‘Church Reserve’ in what is now known as Fry street. The first burial in this cemetery was about 1843 and is believed to have been a young child. The second burial was in September 1844 of George Dixon. When the Church of England was built in 1854 it was built on a section of land on the river bank which had been purchased from the Crown by the Bishop of Newcastle. The Church Reserve in Fry Street was never used for its intended purpose. Although some form of memorial stones or crosses were probably placed on some of the approximately forty burials there, only one headstone remains on the site. See the story of this cemetery here
The Grafton Cemetery in North Grafton was incorporated in the Grafton Town Plans in 1848 drawn up by W W Darke. It was located at the northern end of Villiers Street and was bounded by Villiers, Kirchner, Duke and Crown Streets. Due to the thick brush in that vicinity and sufficient space in the Church Reserve Burial Ground, it was over ten years before the first burial took place in the ‘new’ cemetery in 1859. An extract from the reminiscences of the late Allan Cameron:
” About Grafton Cemetery- Uncle Donald (Cameron) was the first buried, and Uncle Duncan, Donald Gillies, Alan McLean and myself dug the first grave. There was a young publican in Grafton present at the funeral, and that day three months (later) he was buried in the Church of England Portion. So these were the first funerals in the cemetery. His name was Reuben Pate. He went to the Casino races, got a chill, and that was the finish of him.” (A headstone purchased by public subscription, stood over Pate’s grave for over a century before it fell and was broken into several pieces. No fragments of this headstone now survive.)
There were a number of burials in this cemetery between 1859 and 1870 according to the death registrations at the Grafton Court House.
In April 1870 a brief notice in the local paper The Clarence and Richmond Examiner read: “Crown Lands dedicated to Public Purposes…section 135, town of Grafton, 10 acres as a general cemetery…” Although a Municipal Cemetery, the plan drawn up, showing various sections for the various religious groups in the town, including Church of England, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, and Jewish. Each church was responsible for the clearing and management of each section of the cemetery. Various Church Trusts were set up to manage the cemetery.
The Presbyterian Church appointed a committee to collect subscriptions for the “clearing, stumping and fencing the Presbyterian Section of the cemetery, with a five feet paling fence on the street boundaries.”
Various dedication ceremonies may have taken place for all the denominations but the only one reported in the newspaper was for the Roman Catholic section. “The consecration ceremony was performed by the Bishop, assisted by the Very Reverend Dean Lynch, Vicar General, and the Rev M Keogan, in the presence of a large assemblage”. The Lands Department maps show the dedication as 15th July 1871, while the newspaper reports give the date as 9th July 1871.
Later further areas were dedicated for the Baptist, Salvation Army and Lutheran faiths.
It is likely that the early graves had wooden crosses and or picket fences erected over them, but these haven’t stood the test of time and disintegrated. All the headstones erected between 1860 and 1870 were of sandstone. These would have been purchased in Sydney and brought to Grafton by ship.
The earlier burials in each section seem to have been rather haphazard and in general, were in family groups. Most of the headstones faced due east, however, I did find two headstones, with foot-stones, facing west. I can offer no explanation except perhaps the symbolism as the setting of the sun setting in the west signifies the end of life of the day the headstone facing west signifies the end of the life of the body.
In the early 1870’s George Cook opened a quarry on his land at Whiteman Creek. This was a sandstone quarry and the stone was brought by barges pulled by boats from Moleville to Grafton for the building of the new premises for the Grafton Post Office and Commercial Banking Company of Sydney and the Bank of New South Wales. These were built by William Kinnear. William Coulter a Master Stonemason came to Grafton to work on these buildings.
In 1876 Coulter with partner James Keen opened a ‘Cemetery Works’ and stone yard in Pound Street, Grafton, next to the Commercial Hotel(now the Clock Tower Hotel). It is very likely that Coulter worked some of the local sandstone in his monumental works although no stones bear his name.
Some of the large sandstone and marble monuments came from the large Sydney firms. An extract from the Clarence and Richmond Examiner- “an obelisk of white marble, is placed in the north Grafton Presbyterian Cemetery over the grave of the late Mr. Angus Cameron of Argyle Villa. The inscription is inlaid metal letters, and the work is an ornament to the cemetery in which it stands. The erection was carried out by Mr. Coulter of Pound Street…the monument was supplied by Messrs Hanson and Lewis of Sydney from their stock and the works in execution and design do them every credit.”
General View of Section of Villiers Street Cemetery Grafton – 2018 – Copyright
By the mid-1870s with the Denominational Trusts administrating the cemeteries, the burials became more ordered in the form of rows. The plans of plotting of such burials are reputed to have been kept in a grave diggers hut in the cemetery ground. This hut was destroyed by fire in the late 1920s, including any records of the burial plots, which might have been kept. One firm of Undertakers which served the district over three generations had a tremendous oral history to the burial of many people, especially where there were no headstones. Much of this was lost on the death of the last member of the firm.
In 1922 the Church of England section of the cemetery had new work completed with the erection of a new fence and a gatehouse, after the style of the English Lytch-gate. However, this building is much larger allowing for a vehicle to pass through. Whereas in the English villages the Lytch-gate afforded a place for the pallbearers to rest the coffin, while they awaited the mourners to catch-up before moving to the burial place in the churchyard, the Grafton gate-house may have afforded a resting place for the hearse in the shade while the mourners in carts and buggies could suitably hitch the horses and the pedestrian mourners to catch-up with the burial party before moving into the cemetery. There are no chapter houses or chapels in the Grafton Cemetery, nor is there a Cemetery Office.
Gatehouse Grafton Villiers Street Cemetery
In 1928 the state government amended regulations for the management of cemeteries in New South Wales and the cemetery church Trusts of the various denominations were required to keep better records of the burials.
Like everywhere else in the state the numerous church trusts for the Grafton cemetery found it difficult due to lack of funds and authority to keep the cemeteries in good order and it was left to families who had people buried in the cemetery to keep the graves weed and grass free.
Throughout the 1930’s to 1960’s there were numerous campaigns with letters to the press urging the State government to put all cemeteries in the hands of the local councils and allow them to levy in the city rates for funds to keep the cemeteries in good order.
That finally happened in 1964, but it wasn’t until 1968 that it was gazetted and Cemetery Trusts were dissolved and local government authorities were made responsible for all cemeteries and burial grounds in their area. Cemetery Trusts were to hand over all records of burials in their cemeteries. In most cases, these records were very basic and not complete. Few maps of actual burials survived.
Due to the poor state of the Villiers Street Cemetery at the time, from major flooding in 1967 as well as years of neglect, the Grafton Municipal Council closed the site for burials.
A new burial site was opened on flood-free land outside town limits and is known as the Clarence Lawn Cemetery.
The Council called on the community to supply any information on burials in the Villiers Street Cemetery to help them with the documentation of this large and century-old city cemetery.
Although the Council has continued to seek information, many gaps remain in their records.
Family Historians looking for burials in this cemetery will find the following resources useful.
- Clarence Valley Council Cemetery Register at
The Council Office also hold ‘constructed’ maps of burials compiled from a number of sources to assist people to locate graves.
2. Cemeteries Australia Index at https://austcemindex.com/
3. Newspaper references at https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/