Camperdown Cemetery: A walk among the tombstones

People will be dying to get in here and we’ll make a fortune! That was the entrepreneurial spirit behind the purchase of 12 acres in Sydney’s Camperdown to develop as a private cemetery in 1848.


In today’s market you’d be lucky to get change from $1 million for a terrace house in Sydney’s inner west. In the early days of the settlement, however, offloading land in Camperdown was a hard sell – potential buyers didn’t want to live that far out from the colony!


Seizing the day, 200 businessmen formed the Sydney Church of England Cemetery Company and relieved Governor William Bligh’s daughter, Mary, of 12 acres of her land, each buying a share for 10 pounds. There they established Camperdown Cemetery, the colony’s third burial ground, in what is now known as Newtown.


Today, wading through knee-high kangaroo grass – a protected species among the decaying sandstone grave markers – you almost have to close your eyes to imagine what the Cemetery Company envisioned in 1848: a manicured, English-style cemetery to put Sydney’s two government-run, unkempt cemeteries to shame.


On most Sundays, while parishioners pull up a pew in St Stephen’s – the on-site church designed by architect Edmund Blacket – other locals pull up a slab in the cemetery and proceed to unpack their picnic baskets.


Once a month, Marcelle Rodgers, the wife of St Stephen’s former rector, and archaeologist Jenna Weston conduct a two-hour walking tour of this (now four-acre) cemetery in Newtown that is dense with fascinating stories.


A headless woman, a verified ghost, the victims of Australia’s own Titanic, the real Miss Havisham… These are just some of the ‘residents’ of Sydney’s oldest existing European cemetery.


The headless woman


In 1856 opera singer Anna Bishop erected what can only be described as a Victorian death monument – with all the histrionics that implies – to her lover, Nicholas Bochsa, who had been the imperial harpist to Emperor Napoleon of France. Nicholas had even given lessons to the Empress Josephine, fuelling a passion for harp-playing among Parisian ladies.


In 1817, to avoid 12 years’ imprisonment for forgery, Nicholas did a runner to England, where he was a big hit in London. There he met composer Sir Henry Bishop and his young opera singer wife, Anna.


Losing her head over the harpist, Anna ran off with him, leaving her three young children and husband to their own devices. Anna and Nicholas toured Europe and the US before taking their highly anticipated act to Australia. However, they gave just one concert in the colony and then Nicholas died.


Crowned with Anna’s self-portrait, Nicholas’ tombstone in Camperdown Cemetery declares her “sincere devotedness” as his “faithful friend and pupil”. But, judging from the extravagance of the piece, local stonemason John Roote Andrews had read between the lines.


Anna continued touring, never returning to her husband and children. She did, however, lose her head a second time – to cemetery vandals.


Mr Eternity’s serendipity


The headstone of Lieutenant John Putland – Governor Bligh’s aide-de-camp and Mary Bligh’s first husband – was ‘homeless’ for a time, not unlike the man who inadvertently led to its discovery in Marcelle Rodgers’ garage when she lived next door to Camperdown Cemetery.


The find was made about 10 years ago when a film crew was working in the cemetery on a documentary about Arthur Stace. Dubbed ‘Mr Eternity’, Arthur was an itinerant alcoholic who was inspired by a preacher at the Burton Street Tabernacle in Darlinghurst to chalk the word ‘Eternity’ in perfect copperplate on the streets of Sydney from 1932 until his death in 1967.


The film crew wanted to chalk the word ‘Eternity’ on the back of a headstone. Rather than disturb anything in the cemetery, Marcelle agreed to bring out a headstone that was stored in her garage, without taking notice of the inscription to Putland. “The next week,” she recalls, “people started knocking on my door, saying, ‘You won’t believe what’s turned up in the cemetery – the most important historical piece!’”


Putland’s headstone predates Camperdown Cemetery by 40 years, and no-one quite knows how it got there. But, like Mr Eternity, historians suspect it has done the rounds of Sydney.


Thomas Downes and the “sham balloon ascent”


Take a closer look at the headstone of 11-year-old Thomas Downes and you’ll realise the hot air balloon isn’t a reference to a child’s toy.


In 1856 a Frenchman, Monsieur Pierre Maigre, sold tickets to hundreds of people to watch him launch the first flight in Australia in the Domain, Sydney. It all went disastrously wrong when the balloon caught fire and didn’t rise. Accusing Maigre of ripping them off, the crowd began to riot. In the chaos that ensued, a pole anchoring the hot air balloon was knocked down, striking the Downes boy in the head. While Maigre hotfooted it out of there, the boy was taken to the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary, where he died from his head injuries.


Thomas’ death went before the courts, the jury concluding, “…we unanimously consider that, if any person is to blame, it is Monsieur Maigre, the perpetrator of the sham balloon ascent…”


Dr Charles Nathan, the surgeon who attended to the boy at the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary, is also buried in Camperdown Cemetery. (I’ve had no joy finding his headstone – let me know if you find it.) In June 1847 he administered the first anaesthetic in Australia, which was understandably a big deal. Before that, the few operations that were possible were carried out with no pain relief; after a dose of opium and/or alcohol; 0r after a good old-fashioned blow to the patient’s head that would ‘knock them out’. These days we’d call that malpractice.


Convict ghost sighting


Camperdown Cemetery has several ghosts, but only one that can be verified: Bathsheba Ghost.


Hers is a classic ‘convict makes good’ story. In 1838, convicted at London’s Old Bailey court of receiving stolen property, Ghost was sentenced to 14 years in the colony of New South Wales. She was forced to leave her husband and their three-year-old son.


Thirteen years into her sentence, Ghost was appointed to one of the most prominent and well-paid positions available to a woman in the colony: matron of the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary. Along with Dr Charles Nathan, she attended to the boy fatally injured in the hot air balloon accident.


Ghost remained in Sydney and never remarried. It’s not known what happened to her husband but, towards the end of her life, her son immigrated to Australia and she came to know her grand-daughter.


Australia’s own Titanic


Towards the far corner of Camperdown Cemetery is a mass grave for the victims of the Dunbar shipwreck. Some refer to the Dunbar tragedy as ‘Australia’s Titanic story’, but given that it occurred in 1857 – the Titanic sank in 1912 – perhaps the Titanic should be ‘Ireland’s Dunbar story’?


Unlike the ships of the First and Second Fleets crammed with convicts, the Dunbar was an English sailing ship bringing upper-class passengers and their servants back to Australia. On its second voyage to the colony, disaster struck.


At about midnight on 20 August 1857, in the midst of an east coast low, Captain Green made a fatal error – he thought he was guiding the ship into Sydney Harbour, but he was a kilometre short. A massive wave smashed the ship against the wall of the Gap at Watsons Bay, and within a couple of waves the ship was completely destroyed.


All but one of the 122 people on board perished. Miraculously, crewman James Johnson was washed up on a ledge at the Gap, where he spent two days before he was finally seen and rescued. James lived to an old age, becoming a lighthouse keeper at Nobbys Beach in Newcastle – where, the story goes, he went on to save the sole survivor of a shipwreck, like himself, up the coast.


While you won’t find the Dunbar’s sole survivor in this cemetery, you will find evidence of another love triangle and a ghost story. Next to the Dunbar mass grave is that of Captain John Steane, also a victim of the Dunbar. His body was among the handful recovered intact, so he was given an individual burial. Just a couple of metres away, within eyeshot, is the grave of John’s alleged lover, Hannah Watson, and her husband, Captain Thomas Watson, the Harbour Master of Port Jackson.


According to the story, when Thomas discovered his wife’s infidelity, he cursed the lovers. Hannah wrote to John, begging him not to return to Sydney, but it was too late – he had already set sail on the Dunbar. The story didn’t end there, though. While the ill-fated lovers were never reunited in life, Hannah’s ghost has reportedly been seen drifting from the tomb she shares with her husband to the grave of her lover.


The real Miss Havisham?


When her well-to-do father, James Donnithorne, died in 1852, Eliza Donnithorne inherited most of his estate, including their home, Cambridge Hall (no longer extant), at 36 King Street, Newtown.


Four years later Eliza was to marry shipping clerk George Cuthbertson. However, on the morning of the wedding when all was in readiness – the bride decked out in her gown, the wedding breakfast laid out and the guests assembled – George failed to turn up.


From that time on, jilted bride Eliza never left the house, opening the door only to a select few and taking refuge in books. The wedding breakfast remained on the dining table, gradually decaying away. Eliza died in the house 30 years later, aged 60, and was buried in Camperdown Cemetery with her father.


Sound familiar? Yes, Eliza Donnithorne bears an uncanny resemblance to eccentric recluse Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations. Though no-one can be sure if Eliza was the real-life inspiration for Miss Havisham, the Dickens Society in England gave Eliza the benefit of the doubt and money towards the restoration of her granite headstone when it was knocked over and broken in 2004.


Dickens published Great Expectations four years after Eliza was jilted. You have to wonder if Eliza read his novel while she was holed up at Cambridge Hall. If so, did she recognise shades of herself in Miss Havisham? While history may never yield those answers, one thing is certain: The slab next to Eliza’s gravestone makes a great picnic table.




Tours of Camperdown Cemetery are held on the first Sunday of the month (except January). The cost is $10 per person. Booking is not required. Tours meet at 11.30am at the fig tree within the grounds of St Stephen’s Anglican church in Church Street, Newtown, Sydney.


See photos of the headstones in Camperdown Cemetery in my Gallery.







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