I went to look at dead people today, not just any old run of the mill dead people, no, nor zombies, no, I went to that most fabulous of Sydney institutions, Waverly Cemetery. High on the hills in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, Waverly cemetery has stood guard over the sandstone cliffs south of Bronte since 1875, a final resting place for the adolescent city of Sydney and all her movers and shakers. It’s a place chock full of history and with it’s prime setting along the spectacular clifftop, and with killer views out over the booming Pacific ocean it’s a place not to be missed. Dead or alive.
There’s a lot to see here too, lots of dead people, and I suspect just a few ghosts. With over 50,000 allotments it’s probably not too surprising that a large number of the more famous, and infamous, of the residents of the city have been laid to rest in the sandy soils of the 16 hectare site, despite it’s rich history, and the large number of “residents”, it’s still a full service cemetery. Some Saturday mornings, if you book ahead, you can join a small walking tour that wanders among the old Edwardian and Victorian memorials and allotments stopping here and there to uncover a little tit-bit of information that brings the past alive. Our guide for the day, a volunteer with the cemetery trust, spends several hours weaving tales of courage, misfortune, criminal behavior and public service among the the well heeled and influential of our early citizens as we meander around the sandy paths. It’s an open air history lesson into the rich fabric of Australian colonial past. Some of the lives we touch on include the poets Henry Lawson, Henry Kendall and Dorothea Mackellar. Nearby, we spot the final resting spot of aeronautical pioneer Lawrence Hargrave, also nearby we see the very unassuming grave of one Jules Francis Archibald, founder of the Bulletin Magazine and benefactor of both the Archibald art prize and the spectacular Archibald fountain. His grave notable for it’s complete lack of pretension, quite the opposite of the man’s life.
There are many famous sports legends dotted here and there around the grounds, including swimmer and Olympic gold medal winner Fanny Durack and test cricketer Victor Trumper who died at the very early age of just 36. Trumper was known as the most stylish and versatile batsman of the golden years of cricket, Trumper was modest, retiring and generous. A teetotaller and non-smoker, his general conduct was an example to his fellow players, and he was a great favorite with the public both in England and Australia. Monty Noble had no hesitation in calling him the world’s greatest batsman, a genius without compare. His sudden health decline and death from Brights disease in 1915 saw what is still regarded as the largest funeral procession ever seen in Australia, estimates are of 40,000 people lining the streets.
As well as all the more famous characters who have been laid to rest here, there are of course many more who, during their day, were household names, only to slip into obscurity over the passing years, characters like Charles Owen Peart, who, at the time of his death in 1896 was the high diving champion of the world, his act required him to dive from a 22 meter tower into shallow pool of water, it was an act that sadly turned sour on him when he tried and failed one last stunt into his shallow pool, breaking his neck, he was 24. You can also find the impressive monument to one Augusta Dargon who died in 1902, at the time of her death she was a very popular Irish/American actress who specialised in heroic roles such as Lady Macbeth, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Lucrezia Borgia. Described as a tragedian possessed of a rich resonant voice and near perfect elocution, a world renowned actress who died in tragic circumstances while touring Australia. There is also, surprisingly, over 200 war graves, including a number of US Civil War veterans. The tour was too short, I think we all agreed, we could have gone on for ages, listening to our guide tell tale tales about notorious characters, but the end always arrives, a cemetery will remind you of that fact. It’s a truly fascinating place and well worth a few hours having a look around and learning a little about our past.
Click on an image below to start the gallery.