Rookwood Cemetery & Necropolis, Sydney

Haunted Auckland pops across the Tasman to visit the famous “City of the Dead” in Sydney, Australia.

History and Background

The largest cemetery in the Southern Hemisphere, Rookwood Cemetery (also called Rookwood Necropolis) is the final resting place for approximately over one million people.

Originally known simply as the Necropolis (meaning “City of the Dead”), local residents lobbied officials to have the name of their village changed from Haslem’s Creek due to its association with the cemetery. In 1879 the villagers got their wish and the area’s name was changed to Rookwood, however before long the Necropolis was also being referred to by that name. The settlement of Rookwood changed its name to Lidcombe (a combination of two mayors names, Lidbury and Larcombe – Larcombe was also a monumental stonemason whose business exists to this day) in 1913. The cemetery retained the name Rookwood.

Rookwood is a suburb, a suburb unto itself – the only Sydney suburb without a postcode or voting rights. Close to Lidcombe railway station about 17 kilometres west of the Sydney central business district, the cemetery was a major employer at the turn of the century, attracting stone masons from all over Sydney to work on headstones and the many Gothic buildings within the Rookwood grounds.

In 1818, Governor Lachlan Macquarie had Sydney’s main burial ground established near the town’s brickworks. By the 1840s, the Devonshire Street Cemetery was close to being full so another larger site was needed. A location near Randwick was chosen but abandoned in 1859 without ever being used due to complaints from local residents and churches.

In Australia, as in Europe, there was an increasing trend to move burial sites outside of the cities for practical, hygienic and other more aesthetic purposes. With a railway line having been completed to Parramatta in 1856, it was decided to locate the new cemetery at a point on the line. Several sites were surveyed and found to be inappropriate. However, in 1862 the government purchased 80 hectares of land at Haslem’s Creek from the estate of Edward Cohen.

Cohen’s land had previously formed part of a larger parcel known as “Hyde Park” that had been given to the magistrate and parliamentarian Henry Grattan Douglas in 1833 and subsequently leased out. The site was approved due to its relative isolation and proximity to the railway line. The cemetery was then divided into sections for the various denominations according to their numbers in the 1861 census. The Church of England section was 21 hectares, the Catholics were allocated 14 hectares and a non-denominational area of 23 hectares was also established.

The Necropolis Act came into force on 1 January 1868 and the cemetery was officially opened.

By 1879, more land was needed and the remaining 233 hectares of the former “Hyde Park” were then purchased. By the 1890s the cemetery was home to several buildings including the St Michael the Archangel Chapel and various cottages for section managers and sextons.

Like a lot of 19th century Sydney architecture, both were built with the familiar colour of Pyrmont sandstone. However, with the arrival of the motorised hearse the railway came to an end in 1948. Rookwood Necropolis still retains much of its nineteenth century features. It was with the development of a romantic attitude towards death and dying in Victorian Britain that saw the Garden Cemetery make its debut. The main purpose of a garden cemetery was to “be a park-like location set aside as a pleasant resting place for the dead and a comforting site for mourners to visit” (David A Weston, “The Sleeping City”).

The cemetery was a major employer at the turn of the century, attracting stone masons from all over Sydney to work on headstones and the many Gothic buildings within the Rookwood grounds. In earlier times death was accompanied by more elaborate rituals than we are accustomed to today. At the end of the 19th Century, coffins were brought to Rookwood by train from the Mortuary Station in the city. The Rookwood Station was dismantled and re-erected as an Anglican church in Canberra.

The first registered burial in the Roman Catholic Cemetery was of a 14 month old baby, Catherine McMullen. The burial took place on the 7th January 1867. The Catholic section of Rookwood takes up approximately one-third of the area of the cemetery.

One of the graves there once attracted famed magician Harry Houdini. It is the burial-place of one of the notorious Davenport Brothers, who are said to still haunt the cemetery. Ira and William Davenport toured the world giving demonstrations of alleged spirit phenomena. While the pair were securely tied in a special ‘spirit cabinet’ the ‘spirits’ played musical instruments and performed other ‘manifestations’ in darkened theatres. Then on July 1, 1877, while they were on tour in Australia, the long-ailing younger brother William died and was buried at Rookwood.

Decades later, in 1910, while Houdini was himself on tour there, paid a visit to the grave, accompanied by two fellow magicians, only to find the grave had been sadly neglected and so put in fresh flowers and had the stone work repaired. The surviving brother, Ira was so moved by Houdini’s act of kindness that he confessed the brothers’ tricks, even teaching Houdini the famous ‘Davenport Rope-Tie’, the secret so well-kept, that not even his sons knew it.

The cemetery is now managed by five denominational Trusts, each of which is responsible for the care and maintenance of a number of burial sections catering to various ethnic and cultural groups within the community. The following individual Trusts manage the cemetery on behalf of the NSW State Government: Anglican & General Cemetery Trusts, the Catholic Cemeteries Board, The Independent Cemetery Trust, Jewish Cemetery, Muslim Cemetery Trust, and, importantly, The NSW Cremation Company, which founded and operates The Rookwood Crematorium, the oldest operating crematorium in the country. The NSW Cremation Company is the only private company operating a ‘cemetery’ section within the necropolis grounds, today the company is part of the Invocare company.

Rookwood also contains a number of memorial shrines including those dedicated to victims of the Holocaust and to members of the merchant marine killed in wartime. The Sydney War Cemetery is in the eastern section of the necropolis. The Circle of Love is a shrine dedicated to stillborn children or those who died in young infancy.

The “Friends of Rookwood Inc” is a voluntary organisation dedicated to preserving the site. As the largest Victorian era cemetery still in operation in the world, Rookwood is of significant national and historical importance.

Some older sections of Rookwood are overgrown with plants, some now large trees or groves, as well as an interesting array of remnant indigenous flora. This results in quite an eclectic mix of flora to be found within the necropolis. The Serpentine Canal within the Anglican section was restored in recent years, repairing and replacing ornamentation, landscaping and vegetation over 31 hectares of the cemetery.

Notable residents

  • John Gowing, co-founder of Gowings store
  • Kenneth Slessor, poet
  • James Toohey, brewer
  • Jimmy Governor, outlaw
  • Peter Dodds McCormick, songwriter (“Advance Australia Fair”)
  • Louisa Lawson, suffragette
  • Lilian Fowler, Australia’s first female mayor
  • Bea Miles, well-known Sydney eccentric
  • Jack Lang, former Premier of New South Wales
  • Joseph Cahill, former Premier of New South Wales
  • David Jones, founder of David Jones stores
  • John Fairfax, newspaper proprietor
  • Abe Saffron, Sydney businessman and “underworld figure”
  • Jacob Pitman, advocate of shorthand (whose epitaph is written phonetically)
  • Sally Anne Huckstep, Sydney underworld figure
  • Three Victoria Cross recipients: Sergeant John Paton, awarded in Indian Mutiny
  • Captain Richard Been Stannard, Royal Naval Reserve, awarded in Norway campaign, World War II (cremated)
  • Sergeant John Woods Whittle, awarded in World War I.

As of 1st January 2013, Rookwood Necropolis contains the graves of a total 680 Commonwealth service personnel that are registered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, over 400 from World War I and over 260 from World War II, besides 3 Dutch war graves. The Commission also record 132 Commonwealth service personnel of World War II were cremated at Rookwood Crematorium.

Haunted Auckland visited the Rookwood Cemetery on Feb 23rd 2013.


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