Located just outside of Sydney, Parramatta is a bustling city filled with business and activity. However, all of these modern developments are built on land of one of the most important heritage districts. Parramatta was home to Australia’s first European inland colony, and evidence of their past is still prominent in daily life around this western city suburb.
In the center of town lies St. John’s Cemetery, the country’s oldest European burial ground. It was built in 1790, and each person laid to rest here has a unique story tying them to the history of the British in Australia. Though most of the first fleet’s graves are unmarked, they are still standing as an enduring reminder of the settlers.
Notable residents include Samuel Marsden, the priest thought to have first introduced Christianity to New Zealand, and Henry Dodd, the Superintendent of Convicts at the Government Farm, who was responsible for growing the first successful wheat crop in Australia. His was the first public funeral held in St. John’s—he currently holds the title of Australia’s oldest marked grave.
In the early 1820s, a brick wall was built to keep out wandering stock out of the cemetery grounds. It has been described as “the most substantial sandstock structure remaining in Australia.” It still stands today, though time and weather have necessitated substantial repairs.
The burial registers reflect the diversity of the earliest groups of European settlers, from convict workers to shopkeepers to doctors. The cemetery’s residents were not just British, either. People of many nationalities are represented, including French, German, Danish, Indian, and Chinese in addition to those of English, Scottish, and Irish origin.
In 1970, a committee was formed to plan the cemetery’s restoration, including several major memorials within it. A group called Friends of St. John’s Cemetery was formed in 2016 to handle maintenance, repairs, and research.