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the mortuary train to Rookwood

Ochert, M. in Locality, Newsletter of the Centre for Community History, University of New South Wales, Vol. 9 No. 2 1998 (Labour History edition)

excerpt one
My mother passed away in 1923. The service was held in our home in Bondi, Sydney. Though I was only five years old, I recall the subsequent funeral procession. Some bearded Rabbis walked ahead for a distance, followed by the hearse which was drawn by four black horses, caparisoned in black. This carriage was polished black with silver embellishments; its sides were glass; the four wheels were of large diameter, with narrow rubber tyres. On the high, outside seat at the front were two attendants in black top hats, tails and black cravats.

The close relatives followed in a four-wheeled, horse-drawn black landau. Then came a number of hansom cabs, then sulkies and finally a long line of cars. This cortege moved to the Regent Street Mortuary Railway Station, just beyond Central Station. From there the coffm and the mourners proceeded by train to Rookwood Cemetery. In those days, and for many years before, this method of transport to Rookwood was the usual procedure.

In May 1927, I attended the funeral of my paternal grandfather. In this case, the service was conducted at the funeral parlours of the Sydney Chevra Kadisha, after which we mourners followed the hearse on foot, the short distance to the Mortuary Station, and so to Rookwood.

The mortuary rail service has an interesting history which has largely been forgotten. In the 1850s it became obvious that the cemeteries in Sydney's centre had to be closed, "due to problems of space, land availability, costs and hygiene". In the early 1860s an area of 250 acres at Haslem's Creek was procured from its Jewish owner "for a major Metropolitan cemetery, to be named 'The Necropolis', ie 'The City of the Dead'. (Indeed, the living in many cities number far less than the deceased at The Necropolis.) It was named 'The Rookwood Cemetery'. An unnamed railway historian has recorded that "the residents of Haslem's Creek, upset at the thought of being associated with a burial ground, changed the name of their village to 'Rookwood'. However, the spirit of the dead chased the spirit of the living and the cemetery once more assumed the name of the surrounding community in 1876". The village later became the Sydney suburb of Lidcombe.

The new cemetery was nearly seventeen kilometres from the city. Since the roads were in poor condition, it took the horse-drawn funerals a long time to travel to and from the new cemetery. It was recorded that "one must set aside an entire day to attend a funeral". Fortuitously, the Sydney to Parramatta railway passed nearby Rookwood, so a short spur-line was constructed from Haslem's Creek station into the cemetery. This track was handed over on November 22, 1864. From January 1, 1865, a regular morning and afternoon funeral train ran from Sydney. It would stop at any station en-route, by pre-arrangement, to take on coffins and "friends".

ln order to dignify these rail-borne funerals, it was decided that more elaborate shelters than the standard corrugated iron and timber platform shelters should be built. Designated as "Necropolis Receiving Houses" they were erected on the platforms in the cemetery and at Regent Street Stations, (also known as the Sydney Central Mortuary Station). These structures were tastefully designed in the Italian Gothic Ecclesiastic style by James Barnett, FRIBA, Colonial Architect for New South Wales, and were constructed from pale pink Pyrmont sandstone. Sculptured figures such as cherubs and floral designs were set into the stonework; the wooden roof trusses were similarly adorned; the floors and the platforms were paved with tiles from the Cumberland Pottery. In a quarry near Thirroul, south of Sydney, the roof tiles were manufactured. The building at Regent Street was topped by a spired bellcote (but had no bell) while that at Rookwood had a handsome tower, complete with a bell. Notwithstanding their ecclesiastic design, neither building was intended, or ever used, as a chapel or church. With an admirable display of sensitivity, nothing specifically relating to any creed or denomination was displayed in either building. As a result, the Receiving Houses were quite acceptable to all strands of Christianity and to the several non-Christian faiths.

There were two types of hearse carriages: the smaller four-wheeled van carried up to ten coffins on upper and lower shelves, each shelf opening out to the platform; the larger eight-wheeled van had a capacity of thirty coffins. These hearse-vans were always attached at the rear of the train.

On the front of the engine was a large sign reading "FUNERAL". As the train approached each station, the driver tolled his bell and slowed down. Menfolk on the platform and railway employees would doff their hats while the train passed.

At Regent Street, when funerals were to proceed, the coffins were loaded onto the shelves in the hearse van, which stood waiting alongside the platform in the normal manner. The "friends" would then take their seats in the carriages. At the Rookwood terminus, however, the train stopped inside the building. There, the coffins were unloaded onto wheeled hand-propelled litters…

The cemetery was increased in area on several occasions and the rail line was progressively extended until it measured nearly five kilometres, and three more unloading platforms were erected. However, elaborate stone shelters were not provided on these three extra stations.

The rail facility saw its greatest utilisation around 1900. By the 1920s improved roads and cars with pneumatic tyres allowed motorised funerals to take over and buses carried the greater numbers of visitors on week-ends. By 1930, the service had ceased "except for visitors on Sundays and Mothers' Days". It was revived during World War II, due to the problems of petrol rationing, but was rarely used after and on April 3, 1948 the service terminated. The rails were pulled up and the spur was recorded as "closed December 29, 1948".

It remains to tell what became of those two fine buildings. When I saw them, during World War II, they were grubby, neglected and black with train engine soot. Today, they are as handsome as the day they went into service, thanks to high-pressure water jetting and the attentions of dedicated restorers.

The one inside Rookwood cemetery became an eyesore, especially after a grass fire destroyed the beautiful wooden roof-trusses and the roof collapsed. Weeds, garbage and human derelicts caused the cemetery authority to require the Rail Department to call tenders for its removal. The only offer was from Reverend T. Buckle of All Saints' Anglican Church of Ainslie, Canberra, who in 1957 successfully tendered £100 to demolish and remove the sorry remains. Every stone was numbered by an architectural craftsman who made sketches and took photos. In three months, the 782 tons of masonry were in Canberra at a cost of £8,000.

Rebuilding the edifice in Canberra took over a year, at a cost of only £6,000. Appropriately, it was consecrated on All Saints' Day, November 1, 1959. Some changes were made during the reconstruction. The bell tower was moved from the right side to the left and the two open ends, which previously allowed the train to pass right through the building, were fttted with stained glass windows.

The building at Regent Street Station also experienced a long period of neglect and abuse after its original function came to an end. It is recorded as having been used "for the despatch of horses, dogs, poultry and parcels", as a tool-shed for the rail fettlers, and also to have stood idle for years. Then it was renovated and the surrounds were landscaped to house a proposed railway museum. Instead, it became a tea-room. Now it is hired out by the Railway Department as a popular venue for weddings, receptions, and promotions – particularly book launches. For dinners and for refreshments, two dining carriages are parked at the station when required.

We should honour those who arranged for the restoration of these two fine buildings, so that they have not fallen into the hands of the demolishers. They remain as memorials to multitudes of Sydney's departed, who travelled to their final resting place along the Mortuary Railway Train Line to Rookwood. "May their memory be a blessing".

excerpt two
My late father was, for twenty years, an honorary member of the Chevra Kadisha (the Jewish Burial Society) and so attended many of the Jewish funerals in the period 1918 to 1938. He therefore saw a great deal of the above transport arrangements.

He told me that some faiths include a celebration called a "wake", immediately after a funeral. The intention is "to give the departed a send-off he'll have to remember for a long time". These good folk seem to believe that the late-departed is, in spirit, celebrating with them. So, when a "wake" was to follow a burial, cases of beer and cartons of spirits were loaded onto the train at the Regent Street platform for the grave-side farewell. Quantities of more solid nourishment, including meat pies, saveloys, oysters, lobsters, crabs, prawns, sausages, cheese and bread rolls, also went along to aid in absorbing the liquid refreshments. Some of the mourners and friends may have arrived at the Receiving House already fortified for the day's labours, while on the outward journey many a wake had a premature commencement.

At the Rookwood platform after careful allocation of the correct coffin to the correct funereal party, the foot processions would be formed. In front would go one of the Sexton's men with all the paper-work necessary for this serious operation. He had to guide the party and ensure that they reached the correct grave site, and witness that the corpse was duly interred accordingly. With him went the Pastor, of the Rabbi, or the Imam, or the Priest, or the Reverend, or whoever was the religious practitioner charged with the spiritual procedures. Then, (let's not overlook him) the chief participant, in his casket, on that wheeled liner pushed by friends and relatives. Now come the immediate family, followed by friends and "others". But what about all that liquid and solid nourishment? Well, there were always available some extra litters, so those supplies were loaded thereon, and with an adequate escort of mature menfolk, they brought up the rear with a display of commendable dignity. At the graveside, once the departed was lowered to rest, the serious drinking and eating got under way. Nor were the grave-diggers (waiting upon the signal to fill in the excavation) nor the Sexton's men, nor the Minister, backward in participating. Somehow the principle developed that leftovers (chicken bones, empty bottles and bottle-tops and the carapace of the various crustaceans) were discarded into the grave, the idea being that the late lamented would get a good idea of the extent of the valedictory commemoration.

The bell in the tower at Rookwood Station would be tolled as the train arrived for the return journey. After about 45 minutes it would ring again to warn the folk in the cemetery that they must hurry back, as the train was to leave in 15 minutes' time. When five minutes remained, a more urgent, importunate clangour would peal out, while right on the sixtieth minute the train whistle would be sounded and (the engine having been turned around on a loop-line and attached to the other end of the train) the return journey would commence. But not all the erstwhile passengers would be present, for occasionally, some would be left in an alcoholic slumber, back in the burial ground. My Dad said that sometimes the litters would be pressed into two-way service, carrying some of the worse-for-wear mourners back to the platform.

Another aspect of this story relates to the aversion between folk of some disparate denominations and the xenophobic hatred which can break out between people of traditionally opposing national origins. So it was that on the platform waiting for the return trip to commence, and aided by the emotions of the day's activity, not to mention the demon drink, it could take little to ignite a fracas between opposing groups.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Morris Ochert.


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