When the settlement on the Clarence River was established in 1839, no one could own land. It was all vested in the Crown, and people could only occupy with a license, which had to be renewed annually.
When people died whether from accidental death or by natural causes, they were buried wherever a hole could be dug to lay them to rest, whether a family member or employee or mate. We know there were several people buried in this manner on the banks of the Clarence River, and indeed in the area, which is now Grafton. Their burial was often not reported or recorded, and after a time the grave site became unknown.
In the early years of settlement from 1839 through the early 1840’s there was not a large number of people settled in this part of the river, but with the passage of time many more settlers arrived to set up businesses in this ‘settlement’ on both sides of the river. Although there were scattered buildings throughout the area, small clusters of buildings could be found on both sides of the river. On the north side, one such cluster was where we find the end of Prince Street. Joseph Sharp had an inn and store, another was near the mouth of Alumny Creek where Thomas Hewitt had also established an inn and store. Settlers with the trades of shoemaker, butcher, and blacksmith had established businesses nearby. Thomas Hewitt had taken out a Government license on a large section of land west of Alumny Creek and Joseph Sharp had a large section east of Alumny Creek.
By early 1844 the community on the north side of the river was growing quickly and when there were deaths, they saw the need for a specific place for burials. Although we have found no specific record of any discussion within the community about the most suitable place it is quite evident that some thought had taken place about the site, which is on a higher section of land away from the main settlement, but within a suitable distance from the main Richmond River Road, which we now know as Turf Street. This became known as ‘the burial ground’ to the early European Pioneers of the valley. After the Municipal Cemetery opened in Villiers Street, it became known as the ‘old burial ground’ and now in modern times, ‘the Fry Street Burial Ground’. There was also an early burial ground on the south side of the river for those who died there.
There is little formal documentation of this burial ground in the historical records, although it is known to have served the community for about 14 years.
It’s management such as it was, was ad hoc, as it was never formally gazetted as a burial ground or cemetery, no church or denomination took responsibility for it, nor was it consecrated, or trustees appointed for its care and management.
Fry Street Burial Ground-2010
Although the Anglican, known as the Church of England at the time, and the Presbyterian ministers, resident at North and South Grafton, officiated at some of the burial services, it was normal for the ‘dead of all denominations to be interred indiscriminately’. No formal plan or register of burials was kept, although the original Church of England parish register of the Clarence River District, kept by Rev John McConnell, records the burial of ‘George Dixon’ on 27 September 1844, believed to be one of the first burials in this burial ground. However, between clergy appointments and during absences from the settlement of the clergy, burials recorded in the register were poorly maintained.
The inadequacy of the parish records can be clearly seen, in that there were no deaths recorded between 1846 and 1850, although inquest records suggest there were deaths in the area. Although some parish records from the Church of England have survived, those for the Presbyterian faith have not, and nor have any of the Roman Catholic burials.
The inadequacies of incomplete or non-existent burial records was addressed in March 1856, when civil registration of deaths was introduced in the state of New South Wales. The other sources for records concerning deaths on the Clarence River at the time were the incomplete inquest records of the Colonial Secretary’s Office and the newspapers of the date, namely The Sydney Morning Herald and the Maitland Mercury, both of which had correspondents on the river. Another source used although it may have not have been completely reliable was the memoirs of some of the early settlers such as Thomas George Hewitt.
In 1848, Surveyor William Wedge Darke was sent by Governor Fitzroy to lay out a town plan for Grafton, the settlement on the Clarence, which he had named a couple of years before, after the Duke of Grafton. During his survey, Darke noted the burial site on his map and as it was the European custom to have graveyards in church grounds, he included the land around and adjacent to these burials, as a ‘Church Reserve’. No doubt, expecting that at some time in the near future that the Crown would award the area to a church, possibly to the State Church, the Church of England. However, when the first land sales were held in Grafton, of the fertile river bank, along Victoria Street, the Bishop of Newcastle, applied for a church and school grant on the river bank. As the settlement grew the community continued to use the Fry Street site as a communal burial ground.
Meanwhile in Sydney and other large towns within the state, these communal grounds were becoming a problem in many ways, so after the General Cemetery Bill Select Committee Report of 1845, the Government decreed that a section of land be set apart for a planned cemetery with denominational sections for each major faith and a general section for all others.
Consequently when Darke laid out the plan of Grafton he included a Cemetery area out at the end of Villiers Street on the edge of the town. However, it should be noted that at this time (1848-1849), this area was covered with thick ‘brush’ of trees, vines, and undergrowth, although Joseph Sharp had started to clear the adjacent area for a ‘boiling-down works’ and farming. The community still used their former chosen site for burials.
Throughout the early 1850’s the government surveyors were kept busy surveying and preparing several sections of the valley including the town, for land sales, and the population of the town of Grafton and farming communities along the river at Clarenza and Ulmarra grew significantly. Consequently, more burials were taking place in Grafton and the surrounding area.
In 1856 government surveyor W A B Greaves was carrying out surveys in many places in Grafton in preparation for Land Sales. In his detailed survey plan of this section of the town, (where the communal burial ground was situated), he carefully plotted each of the graves and sited them on his plans. This accurate survey with plotted grave sites was invaluable to the community more than 150 years.
From March 1856 with the Civil registration of burials, we have an official record of people buried at North and South Grafton, as the case maybe. It should be noted there were also communal burial grounds at South Grafton in this early settlement phase.
During 1858-1859 there were a number of infant children in Grafton who died of Whooping Cough. A larger number of adult burials were taking place too.
Although we have found no written record, it was becoming clear to the local authorities, that they were running out of space in the ‘burial ground’. Richard Ball an early settler had settled and then purchased much of the land surrounding the burial ground so it couldn’t really be expanded.
In 1858 the citizens of Grafton had petitioned the Government to become a Municipality, which was formally gazetted on 20 July 1859. However, even before the official gazetting the citizens who had been elected as Aldermen in the first Borough Council had been approached by citizens to have something done about the burial ground crisis and it was decided that the cemetery area set aside by Darke in 1848, should be opened without delay, with each designated section for the major faiths, to be cleared and fenced.
Consequently, the first burial in the Villiers Street Cemetery took place in June 1859 in the Presbyterian Section, followed a few days later by the first Church of England burial. From that time, all burials in North Grafton were supposed to take place in the Municipal Cemetery, and in the main they did, despite many problems.
However, there is evidence that there were exceptions, which will be revealed later in the story.
As far as it is known there were no erected headstones in the Fry Street Burial Ground at that time.
The ‘old burial ground’ in Fry Street had never been fenced. Mrs. Rose Selwyn, the wife of the Rev A E Selwyn, the church of Anglican minister, noted such on arrival in Grafton in February 1853, and through the 1860’s and 1870’s Grafton Borough Council was petitioned several times to fence the ‘old burial ground’. It was also stated that it was overgrown and that horses, cattle, and other domestic animals were allowed to roam freely over the graves. However, this was still Crown Land and the citizens were reminded by the Council there was nothing they could do about the matter. It should be noted that the Municipal Cemetery was also overgrown, and religious sections were still unfenced or the fences which had been built were in disrepair, and much comment was made in the press of the day of the ‘disgraceful state’ of the town’s cemetery.
It is obvious that many citizens still held the ‘old burial ground’ in Fry Street as a sacred place, and wanted to keep it so, despite there being no church or mortuary chapel nearby.
In 1876 the Lutheran Church in Oliver Street, Grafton, was opened and the congregation thought they would be able to use the old Fry Street Burial Ground for burials. However, this was not allowed and they had to use the General Section of the Villiers Street Cemetery, or as many death certificates attest, there were many buried in the Church of England section of the cemetery. The Lutheran Church later applied for and was granted a portion in the Villiers Street Cemetery for Lutheran burials.
Throughout many towns in New South Wales by 1880, the site and use of former burial grounds were becoming an issue, particularly in Sydney, Newcastle, Bathurst and Port Macquarie, where towns had grown significantly in population, and burial practices had to be legislated for. This took place in 1880 and was gazetted in 1881. It then became a criminal offense for a minister of religion, government officer or indeed anyone to carry out a burial within the boundaries of the town without a specific license to do so, particularly in any area not in the legal Municipal Cemetery. This included churchyards. Under this new Act, the burial grounds situated on Crown Land were still under the Crown Lands Department but could be converted to Reserves for the Preservation of Graves.
The citizens of Grafton applied for this option for the ‘old burial ground’ in Fry Street, with the additional condition that the land is vested in the Municipal Council. This was gazetted in 1881.
With the site of the Fry Street Burial Ground being vested in the Grafton Municipal Council, at long last, the citizens thought they would have their dearest wish met. That was the fencing, care, and maintenance of the graves. However, the Council considered it would be a burden on the civic purse to have to take on the maintenance of this site and voted to partly fence and lease the property to the adjacent land owners, which they did. The property continued to be leased for over forty years for the pasturing of stock.
From time to time, approaches were made by elderly citizens or their families to have the ‘old Fry Street Burial Ground’, cleared, fenced and made into a suitable memorial to the early pioneers, but nothing was done.
In January 1927 the Grafton City Council received a letter again drawing the attention of the state of the ‘old graveyard’. It stated that the small area ‘held the remains of about fifty Grafton pioneers’, but at that time the area was used to grow pumpkins and was used as a sandpit. The Council was again asked to consider it being made into a Memorial.
On investigation, Council found that the sandpit was actually on the adjacent reserve, named as a Church Reserve on the map and the area was still under the control of the Lands Department.
The following year plans and works concerning the Grafton Bridge took up much of the Council’s time. Plans were proposed and accepted that sand and soil from the Fry Street Reserve should be used within the city limits for the proposed railway embankments. One would presume with the sanction of the Lands Department.
Many elderly citizens recalled how many tons of soil were dug from the reserve area for the embankments, which left the natural waterway open to severe water damage and erosion. For many years it was a swampy reedy area, which collected stagnate water, breeding mosquitoes. When the Council was looking for a site to a rubbish dump in the 1960’s this site was chosen and the whole reserve was filled and then covered with soil.
It should be stressed that it was the surrounding reserve area which was used, not the small burial ground, which sat on the Fry Street corner of the reserve. At that time the Council a full reclamation of the whole site as a reclaimed open space and it was formally gazetted as a passive Rest Park and named it Pioneer Park in recognition of the original purpose of the portion of the park.
Throughout the ensuing years, it was used in keeping with this purpose for community activities.
Fry Street Burial Ground 1963-2009
Extract from In Memoriam- Fry Street Pioneer Burial Ground, Grafton 1844-1868, Nola Mackey,2010, ISBN 978-1-875840-68-7pp 7-10.Publication available at Clarence Regional and Grafton Library.