Cemetery Tales

Cemetery Tales

Hidden Stories from the East Perth Cemeteries

If you want to understand the history of a city, visit the museums and the libraries by all means but first, go to the local cemetery. Don’t think of it as a landscape but as a text, telling you a history that is almost accidental the way it reveals a past that official records can’t.
East Perth Cemeteries are a perfect example. Walking through the grounds, you’ll find testimony to social mores in Perth in the nineteenth century. We know infant mortality was much higher in the nineteenth century than today, and children were taken by diseases we can treat with a course of antibiotics, but the headstones also remind us why death is the great democrat: wealth and social standing offer no protection.
The layout of the cemetery can be read as a map of where the power in the colony lay. The reasons why the Chinese and Jewish cemeteries are separate from the main ground may be as obvious as they are uncomfortable, but what does it say about a time and place where people wanted to or were expected to be buried among fellow believers? And why is the Anglican sector in a prime location by the entrance while the Catholics and other denominations are laid out behind St Bartholemew’s chapel? It’s no surprise that the most powerful families have the most elaborate graves, but work out where did that power came from, business, politics and the military, then relate it to today and the trace is still apparent.
In these stories we will encounter racism, class divides and other attitudes that ought to make us ashamed of our ancestors, but it isn’t the historian’s job to make people feel good, it’s to make them aware, and with that in mind, let’s lift the lid on Perth’s past and see what we find there.

Cemetery Tales was made possible by a National Trust Inspire Writers’ Residency and funding from the Heritage Council of Western Australia. Unlike the audiowalks available on other pages, you are not expected to listen to the stories as you walk through the area and they are not written with walking in mind. You can of course listen to them anywhere.

The East Perth Cemetery was surveyed in December 1829. The hill is known to the Whadjuk Noongar as Martellup. The East Perth Cemeteries are on Aboriginal land.

The Tales

An Unofficial History

Bonehills, an unlikely episode, night of the banshees.
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What Lies Beneath

Mutes and keeners, James Pollitt raises a stink.
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Means to an End

Swimming lessons, pistols at dawn.
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The Undertaker’s Story

Men muscle in, a world champion ratbag.
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Notes from Underground

The escape artist, two unsolved mysteries.
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Government of Western Australia Heritage Council
National Trust Western Australia