In 1818, Governor Lachlan Macquarie had Sydney’s main burial ground established near the town’s brickworks at what is now Central Station. 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 land 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.
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.
Haslem’s Creek Cemetery Station (c.1865) Rookwood was served by a rail spur from the main line from 1867 until 1948. Mortuary stations served each of the three sections of the Necropolis, with a fourth at the main junction and a fifth on Regent Street adjacent to Sydney Central Station. The railway line construction began in November 1864 and from January 1, 1865, trains began their run into the cemetery. It stopped at prearranged stations on the journey from central Sydney in order to pick up mourners and coffins. Trains ran at 9.30am and 3pm. The trains that carried the mourners were known as ‘unimproved Redferns’  There were two types of Hearse carriages used for the procession. One consisted of a four-wheeled van that carried up to 10 coffins on its upper and lower shelves. Each of these shelves was designed so it could open onto the platform. There were also eight-wheeled vans that could hold 30 coffins. Both of these vehicles were attached the back of the train for transporting to the cemetery. At the terminus inside the cemetery the coffins were unloaded using ‘wheeled hand-propelled litters’  The rail line was used to convey funeral parties to Rookwood until 1948 when the expanded use of processions by road made it obsolete. The stations were offered to the Joint Committee of Necropolis Trustees for the price of £1 but due to maintenance costs the offer was rejected and the platforms within the cemetery were demolished. Cemetery Station No. 1 at the head of the rail spur was sold to Reverend Buckle for £100 in 1951 and was moved to Canberra in 1957 to become the All Saints Church, Canberra.
The name Rookwood is most likely an accidental or deliberate corruption of the name Brookwood Cemetery and its associated railway station. At the time of Rookwood’s opening, Brookwood Cemetery, located in Brookwood, Surrey, England, was one of the largest cemeteries in the world. It is less likely, however far more romantic, that, as claimed by some sources, Rookwood was named after William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Rookwood, written in 1834.
- 1 Friends of Rookwood (2002) A Rookwood Ramble (book). A short self guided walking tour, NSW.
- 2 Ochert, M.S. (1998) The Mortuary Station to Rookwood in Locality, 9 (2) pp.23-26.
- 3 State Rail Authority of New South Wales Archives Section, How & Why of Station Names: meanings and origins…, Second Edition, 1982, State Rail Authority of New South Wales
- 4 All Saints Church information