Early Days In Newcastle
Little is known about the burial places of Aboriginal people in the Newcastle district prior to the arrival of Europeans in the early years of the 1800s. Neither is it known where the earliest European burials took place but by about 1820 land on The Hill where the commandant had built a church became the established place. After the passing of the convict era, this church and grounds became the property of the Church of England. As the population grew in number and diversity, Presbyterians, Methodists and Roman Catholics sought their own burial places and about 1840 they were granted allotments of land at the western end of Newcastle near Cottage Creek.
As the mining townships were established and grew in size, the mine owners in those localities provided cemeteries for example at Minmi (from the 1860s), Old Wallsend (from 1863), Wallsend (from 1896). A cemetery was provided at Dudley, another mining community. Other burial places include Mayfield’s St Andrew’s Churchyard, which was used for burials from 1862 until 1902. Burials began in Stockton Cemetery about 1890 and this cemetery is still in use.
Concerns for Public Health
The Anglican Christ Church and graveyard was situated on a hill. During times of heavy rain, water seeped from the hill to the low ground where many of the people lived and obtained their drinking water from wells.
At times, the people experienced epidemics of serious infectious diseases and a Newcastle doctor, Richard Bowker, was one who realised that it was unhealthy to drink water that had seeped through a burial ground. Dr Bowker was an alderman on Newcastle Municipal Council, so he was able to influence the council about good public health measures. He was able to have a regulation introduced that prohibited intramural burials, that is, the burial of persons within the town boundary. Of course, Christ Church graveyard was not the only cemetery located within the town boundary but the others did not pose such a health risk.
From about 1870, the growth of Newcastle as a great coal mining and exporting region made the need for a spacious general cemetery for its deceased inhabitants a matter of importance and urgency. The requirements for a new site were threefold: accessibility especially by the rail network, suitably deep soil or sand for practical grave digging, and relative isolation from the urban areas where closer settlement was occurring. Several sites remote from the town were considered and in the 1880s the site at Sandgate was decided upon.
The Opening of Sandgate
The land finally selected was near the south channel of the Hunter River. The track to Maitland passed along the northern boundary and the south-western boundary was close to the northern rail line. Access, therefore, was available by all modes of transport – water, land and rail. Many early funerals came by boat, and barges were used to bring in the materials for the monumental masons whose yards were at first beside the river. The railway was the principal mode of transport to and from the cemetery for many years and continued so until 1985. Horse drawn vehicles remained in use until early motor hearses were introduced, approximately in the 1930s.
The land chosen for the cemetery was owned, since the mid-1830s, by the Australian Agricultural Company (AAC), which had purchased it from the first grantee John Laurio Platt. The AAC sold 50 acres (c. 20 ha) to the Crown for the cemetery and an adjoining acreage for an infectious diseases hospital. The land was a series of vegetated sand dunes at the western edge of Platt’s grant. The railway line crossed the Wallsend Road at a place called the Sand Hills Crossing and this name is the likely source of the locality name Sandgate.
The cemetery opened in 1881. The cemeteries in Newcastle town closed at this time. Sections of land at the Sandgate site were apportioned to nine religious groups and a tenth section was allocated to non-religious burials. Each denomination appointed trustees to manage their areas of responsibility. Clearing away trees began, drains were installed, walkways constructed, fencing erected and beautification undertaken. A branch railway was built that entered the cemetery and proceeded to a centrally placed platform.
A special Mortuary Station was built in Newcastle at Honeysuckle. Special trams conveyed funerals from the suburbs to the Mortuary Station. Most funerals that came from the city used the special funeral trains that travelled regularly between the Mortuary Station and Sandgate.
As more and more land was taken for gravesites, the early beautification schemes gave way to more intensive land use for burials and many mature trees were removed.
In the early years of the 20th century, further land was needed. Newcastle’s population had doubled from 27,000 to 54,000 between 1881 and 1901. The land reserved for the infectious diseases hospital was not required for this purpose, so in 1908 Sandgate cemetery was extended westward. The new areas were not landscaped in the style that had been used in the 1880s.
Due to changes in land use at the old cemeteries at Newcastle West some remains were brought from the city, re-interred and their memorials reinstated in Sandgate Cemetery. By this circumstance, some headstones in Sandgate Cemetery are dated as early as the 1840s.
In the era 1920s to 1930s, gravesites then being used were located at a distance from the rail platform, which had been sited centrally to the original cemetery. At the same time, motor funerals were becoming more common.
This era was characterised by the building by the principal religious denominations of special ‘chapels’ or lych- gates in the newer areas, for the convenience and comfort of funeral groups. These interesting structures are generally built in the newer section of the cemetery.
In addition to the original denominational allocations, further sites were made available for other religious groups such that today precincts exist for Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Wesleyan Methodist, Methodist, Primitive Methodist, Uniting Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Jewish, Salvation Army, Chinese, Greek Orthodox, Macedonian and Muslim adherents. Other precincts are allocated for general or non-denominational use.
In 1942 three acres of the land still held by the Crown was provided for a Soldiers Cemetery. Before 1942, veterans had been buried at Sandgate but without special provision being made for them.
Today, the total area of the cemetery is about 31 ha. There is a general lawn cemetery, above ground crypts, a ‘garden of innocents’ for infant burials and memorials, and special places for interment of ashes.
Sandgate Cemetery is located on Crown land. The management arrangement set in place in 1881 continued for 106 years. As the cemetery grew in size the task of maintenance became increasingly difficult as well as a matter of community concern.
In 1987 the cemetery was brought under the control of the then Department of Land and Water Conservation and a single non-sectarian community-based trust of seven people was appointed by the Minister to oversee cemetery management. Shortly after the trust’s appointment, the damage to cemetery infrastructure, especially drainage, caused by the 1989 Newcastle earthquake added to the large task ahead in revitalising the cemetery.
The initial task was the development of a comprehensive Plan of Management for the site, taking into consideration the cemetery’s physical, cultural and spiritual qualities. The Department and the NSW Heritage Office provided funding for this major study. Architect Planners, Suters Architect Snell undertook the work during the early 1990s. The Minister adopted the Plan following a period of public exhibition and consultation. Funding to proceed with the recommendations was obtained under the Federal Government’s ‘Working Nation Initiative’.
This valuable DEET (Department of Employment, Education and Training) Scheme was implemented over two years. Work opportunities were provided for about 150 people. The Wallsend Training and Development Centre in association with EJE Group Landscape supervised the work. Improvements made to the cemetery in this round of works included erecting new boundary fencing and gates, upgrading of internal roads and paths, landscaping, tree planting and installing watering systems, seating, signage and other amenities. Conservation work was done to the historic rail precinct, church buildings and shelters.
Upon conclusion of the DEET funded scheme, the trust appointed a manager in early 1997 who continued the implementation of the Management Plan by the judicious use of resources and funding opportunities. Since then a number of projects have been implemented such as the habitat rehabilitation of the railway spur precinct, undertaken under the ‘Green Corps’ (Young Australian for the Environment) Program. On the southern boundary of Sandgate, between the cemetery and the railway, is a remanent of wetland that had long been a wild, unmanaged wasteland. After six months of the Green Corps program, this area became a delightful, accessible environment enhanced by a walking trail with areas and facilities to sit and enjoy interesting vegetation and wetland scenery. When clearing this precinct, a few rare plant were identified that could almost be called ‘heritage’ species.
Another program was the construction of a heritage walking trail through the original sections of the cemetery. This was achieved through a ‘Work for the Dole’ project. Groups of young people tackled this initiative with great enthusiasm and their achievements were highly commendable. They were introduced to history, heritage, botany and plant culture, monumental masonry, restoration techniques, and the making and erection of signs.
During 1998 a lawn cemetery and a chapel with above-ground crypts were opened, the latter to serve the needs of Newcastle’s significant Italian community. In early 1999 a special monument was built to remember the over-4, 000 infant burials at Sandgate for which no marked grave or memorial exists. Another special project honoured the hundreds of citizens remembered on graves in the cemetery who fought in or who were killed in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries.
These initiatives make Sandgate a welcoming and interesting place where visitors can remember, and discover, the contribution of the district’s former residents in pleasant surroundings that reflect activity and care.
Sandgate – A Cultural Asset
The upgrading of Sandgate Cemetery has made the cemetery a more welcoming place, not only for the family members who tend the graves of their relatives or friends, but for the growing number of visitors who seek either to discover and record their family history, or to understand a little more about past citizens whose lives contributed in some way to the story of the Lower Hunter region.
Both genealogy and local history studies are increasing in popularity. Genealogy in particular has attracted a great following with hardly a family that has not started compiling its ‘family tree’. The reward is a fascinating glimpse into past lifestyles.
The virtualisation of the cemetery through our website now brings the cemetery to the world. Search for our records, view the grave and see its location on Google Earth using Search our Virtual Records.
Genealogy is a rewarding and sometimes surprising pursuit and if it additionally encourages descendants to visit and care for memorials, then the cemetery will certainly become a pleasing and attractive landmark.
The different sections of Sandgate Cemetery depict many aspects of funeral customs practised in past times. The headstones (dating from about 1840s to the 1870s) brought from the Cottage Creek cemeteries are mostly locally made of sandstone slabs with varied and individually crafted lettering. By the 1880s, the fashion was marble memorials with an increasing amount of elaborate and decorative features, statuary, and formal lettering, often lead-filled. Some of these were individually made, and others are examples of ‘mass produced’ monuments with special adaptation for individual graves. Both styles feature interesting symbolism associated with the deceased person, or with mourning and death generally. Mid-20th century memorials are generally of lower form and simpler design.
Every gravestone has a story to tell, and each would be a vignette of this region’s history. Many themes of society’s activities are represented in the cemetery: the world of home life, the spiritual, the world of work: the city’s industries, public life, the mines, the entrepreneurs, the professions, war, sport, music, and conflict, to name just a few.
Sandgate Cemetery is the last resting place of over 85,000 citizens of NSW, mostly of the Newcastle district, and representing innumerable nationalities. There are over 37,000 individual memorials to their memory. These memorials provide spiritual and historic links to the past that can be appreciated by all visitors who care to explore the beautified paths and landscaped avenues.