Walking in West Terrace Cemetery
If ever there was any doubt that one could learn about, or from, history by visiting a cemetery, it has now been conclusively dispelled by Carol Lefevre in her latest book Quiet City. Her three hundred page account of the Adelaide Public Burial Ground, now known as West Terrace Cemetery is not only crammed with characters and their life stories, which are as fascinating as any fiction, it also tells us about the early beginning of the cemetery and its continuous development and improvement.
During her walks through this Heritage listed cemetery and later research in the State Library and State Records as well as old newspapers, the author has been able to reveal that the stories from ordinary lives can be much more than that. Many of the headstones have proved, or hinted at, adventures and misadventures that would not ring true in a novel. Some of them are hard to believe, others are sad, tragic, shocking or downright disgusting. And they all happened right here in Adelaide.
There are also small discourses on such topics as Abortion, the Admella disaster, Bell ringing, Cremation, Dissection, Governor George Grey, Herbal medicines and remedies, Homeopathy, Infanticide, Self-harm and Suicide. As the author has tried to discover and document as much as possible about the people whose names are in danger of slipping away from history, one wonders if the same or similar stories could be discovered or told about some of the people who are better known.
Lefevre opens her account of the cemetery with some of the people who once lived at the cemetery. One of the better known turns out to be Caroline Carleton who wrote the Song of Australia. By the time she took up residence more than 500 people had already been buried there without any official records. The first recorded burial was that of James Laffen on 6 July 1840.
Walking in any section of the cemetery one is struck by the numerous headstones detailing the death of babies and young children. Research by Lefevre has shown that there are even more unmarked sites or graves without any headstones. Does this reflect the financial status of the parents or the social or religious attitude towards infant mortality? On the other hand, there are also the opulent monuments which would have cost the earth, not for children but for adults.
Patrick Boyce Coglin spared no effort or money to create a lasting monument and vault of many tons of marble and granite to his wife and for himself when the time would come. When that time finally came he decided for religious reasons not to be buried next to his wife but in a completely different section of the cemetery. Many people have heard of him. Hardly anyone knows of the more deserving Quaker Edwin Ashby who established Wittunga Gardens at Eden Hills which is enjoyed by numerous people interested in native plants and lately concerts under the stars.
For those interested in football and the Magarey Medal there is the account of the Magarey family, the drowning at Carpenter’s Rocks and the cremation at West Terrace cemetery. Once again, not too many of us would know the full story behind this medal. Among the many other interesting stories are those about William Light and Maria Gandy, the Adelaide Gaol, Unhappy women and Desperate men.
Being the first cemetery in Australia with a designated section for a Military Cemetery, Carol Lefevre has included some touching and tragic stories of deaths associated with war right here in Adelaide. One of them recounts the heart-breaking story of an eleven year old boy shooting and killing his best friend in a game of catching Germans.
Also related is the short history of Australia’s first crematorium and the gruesome happenings at the morgue. The idea of a crematorium was radical and passions ran high, especially among some religious groups. Promoters stressed its sanitary and public health aspects. Many others arguments, both in favour and against, have been mooted since.
Medical men in particular were in favour and Lefevre rightly wonders whether it would be too cynical to suggest that many of them initially saw it as a convenient method of clearing up after the bodies they had dissected so messily and in such numbers. The first cremation took place in 1903 and when it finally closed in 1959 as many as 4762 bodies had been cremated.
All stories offer astonishing insights into the lives lived in early South Australia and Adelaide especially. They also show that what at first seemed to be ordinary people living ordinary lives often were extraordinary people living extraordinary lives. They all are now part of the West Terrace Cemetery and are woven into the social, economic, political and religious history of South Australia. After reading Lefevre’s fascinating stories from the graves, walking in the West Terrace Cemetery will never be the same again.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Quiet City by Carol Lefevre,
322 pp, B/W photographs,
and index is available at $29.95, from
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