Tens of thousands of commuters each day walk Central station’s Devonshire street underpass; few realise the ground around them once hosted thousands of Sydney’s dead.
The area was the burial site for close to 30,000 people from 1820 to 1867, with bodies later exhumed to make way for Sydney’s busiest train station.
Dead Central, a new exhibition that opens tomorrow at the State Library of NSW, pays homage to the people who were once buried there, including James Squire, who started Sydney’s first brewery.
Senior curator Elise Edmonds said the cemetery became crowded as time went on.
“Devonshire street cemetery was consecrated in 1820,” she said.
“Prior to that, it was essentially sandhills; that Surry Hills area was one great big sandhill.
“People who lived in Sydney were buried then for the next 40 or so years, up until the 1860s.”
The city would grow and envelope the crowded hallowed ground.
“There were concerns about bad smells emanating from the place, there was concern about overcrowding,” Ms Edmonds said.
The cemetery became overgrown and was then abandoned until Central station began construction in 1901.
Those buried there were exhumed and moved on.
Ms Edmonds said the cemetery was a cross section of Sydney’s early history.
“You see the difference in the headstones, you can see monuments; in one photo, you can actually see a visitor to the cemetery, we don’t know who she is,” she said.
And we may well wouldn’t have known about the cemetery unless for husband and wife team Josephine and Arthur Foster, who spent every moment available in the cemetery documenting the headstones in an amazing collection of photographs, before the grave diggers took the last body away.
The tombstones show the way people lived, and how met their demise, including death by servant and drowning in a puddle.
Dead Central opens tomorrow and runs until October.