Saturday, April 2, 2011

Heritage Week: Field of Mars Cemetery

Every now and then, and usually in Heritage Week, the Ryde District Historical Society runs guided tours of the Field of Mars Cemetery.  As I have an ancestor buried in one of the Church of England sections of this cemetary, hubby and I went along on the afternoon tour. Price was extraordinarily reasonable at $2 per person.
Some optomistic travel time estimation and traffic snarls caused us to be a little late, but our friendly guide assured us we had not missed much and we were soon joining the friendly and really rather funny group of mostly older people as we explored some of the graves and heard the stories of the residents.

First up we head for the grave of Archie Jackson a great cricketer whose life was cut tragically short by tuberculosis in 1933 just as he was setting out on what was promising to be a spectacular career. Our guide informs us that there are still some who speculate that had he lived, Archie Jackson could even exceeded the achievements of "our" Don Bradman. The Australian cricket team flew back to Sydney from Adelaide in order to attend Archie's funeral.

A short distance away is the grave of  Lesley John Roberts Jones aka Jack Jones a pioneering aeronautical engineer who spend much of his early years in the field designing and building prototype aircraft in his backyard. Our guide has a folder of resources to support her talk and having admired illustrations of Archie Jackson, now we admire the illustrations of some of the early planes Jack Jones constructed, before we head on.

The next stop on our tour, I simply cannot recall, but they are followed by a stop to discuss the military graves. Apparently the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has an agenda to ensure that all veterans get a plaque for their grave.  I busily write myself a note for follow up to see if my Dad is eligible for such a commemoration.

Across at the edges of the cemetery near the bush stands an area of graves where babies and children have been interred.  Many of the graves have numerous little toys and ornaments neatly arranged. We hear that the families come very regularly and we are touched to hear the story of two mothers who's daughters lie side by side, coincidentally both found out they were seriously ill on the same day and both died aged 8. One from Leukemia and the other from a brain tumour.  The mothers met at the graveside and have become firm friends. A beautiful frangipani tree has been planted between the two headstones to grow over the two graves. The cemetery has a humane policy to the management of the children's graves with the proviso that whatever is placed does not obstruct the mowing and maintenance.

Next graveside we stop at commemorates the burial site of Peggy Glanville-Hicks an internationally regarded composer and music critic. Like so many successful people in the arts, Ms Glanville-Hicks chose to use her estate in a philanthropic way.  She donated her home in Paddington Sydney as a residence for young composers. Which we are given to understand operates such that the musician in question can stay in the house for up to 2 years rent free in order to support their composing.

We head across now and explore some nearby areas.  These include the above ground burial sites. Crypts, Vaults and so forth.  Learning not so much about individuals but the types of burial styles. Many of the vaults are made from stone imported from the region where the deceased originated.   To be buried above ground the body must be embalmed and interred in a lead lined coffin before that is placed in it's resting place.  Many of these burial spaces are of Italian heritage but not all. We come along to an avenue of vaults and find the vault of Leonard (Lennie) Macpherson a notorious Sydney crime boss and the inspiration for the movie Dirty Deeds, which we are informed is, if not a true story, then inspired by the real events, including the move from the US to muscle in on local crime activities.

Moving right along and out of the way of the family who are busily cleaning the vault we stop to admire the view across an open area of ground which is unmarked. Pauper's graves.  Among these we hear is the unmarked grave of 42 year old James Hacket, a petty thief and derelict who in death was mistaken as the body of one Alan Edward Brennan proprietor of a mixed business in Burwood.  It turned out however that Mr Hacket was the last victim of the said Mr Brennan who in turn was in fact the Mutilator, Sydney's own terrifying serial killer of the early 1960s.  As we hear of the fate of the mutilator, I ask for confirmation.. "when  did you say the mutilator was in Morriset mental hospital?"  We do some quick calculating from the notes... "oh god!  that means that he was in there when my grandfather took me with him to buy besser blocks from the mental hospital.."  shudder..

We continue on our way. I may have the order mixed up but we made a stop at the grave of a first fleeter ancestor of our guide.  Apparently there is an association that travels all over the world seeking out the graves of persons on the first fleet in order to place special commemorative plaques.  This particular lady drowned in the well nearby in Ryde and her remains were in the way of the widening of a road so she was relocated into the Field of Mars Cemetery grounds long ago before there was much else in place here.

Our final stop was at the graves of some of the Sextants of the cemetery just behind the building where they lived.  It's been a fascinating tour and well worth the time and effort to get here.  I would highly recommend slating in some of the heritage festival activities either during the remainder of the prgram or next year.