Home Historic Day 129: Dying to tell

Day 129: Dying to tell

Day 129: Dying to tell

It may sound an odd way to spend a Friday night, but the South Brisbane Cemetery torchlight tours turn up some top yarns about old Brisbane at the city’s oldest surviving municipal cemetery.

First used in 1870, one claim to fame is being the final resting place of those who were brought from the gallows at the nearby Boggo Road Gaol.

south brisbane cemetery
Torchlight tours

The cemetery was also handy to the Diamantina Hospital (now the Princess Alexandra) so those who succumbed to contagious diseases could be quickly interred. It was said that a victim who died in the morning would be buried by the afternoon. And if you died at night, you were underground the next morning. Often families couldn’t be contacted in time hence there are a number of unmarked graves.

The Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery organise the tours which they stress are not intended to be ghoulish (fancy dress not welcome) although they do have a couple of decent ghost stories.

There are 27 graves relocated from the original Paddington Cemetery which is now under Suncorp Stadium formerly Lang Park. It presents quite a headache for genealogists as all dates are given as 1913, the last date of burial when they were moved, regardless of the date of death.

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South Brisbane Cemetery

Among these is 32-year-old Elizabeth Cowell who died in 1864, six years before South Brisbane cemetery opened. She died trying to save her servant who had caught alight at the fireplace she was attending.  These old graves have both a headstone and a footstone as they were “put to bed” to rest in peace.

South Brisbane Cemetery was full by 1900, was extended and then filled again, finally closing in 1960. It is now open only to those who have a family plot booked. A few more spaces became available in 2010 when plots were re-sold after families had moved from the area and their spots left empty.

The historical cemetery also has Brisbane’s only remaining horse troughs. In the 1800s, coffins arrived by horse and cart and the horses needed somewhere to be rested.

Another question addressed during the tour is why cemeteries are so often on steep hills. This is not, as I had imagined, because the land wasn’t useful for the living, but because it solved health issues. One graveyard at Milton was on flat land and the water didn’t drain properly, creating health and odour issues. A nice steep hill solved that problem.

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The old troughs where the horses were rested after bringing in the coffins.

Unlike other cemeteries, South Brisbane didn’t segregate by race and religion. Here you can have a Russian Orthodox cross beside an Irish Catholic.

The only exception is 6B, owned by the State Government, where people came from around the world to be buried after swinging on the Boggo Road Gaol gallows. It was used from 1883-1913 and is the final resting place of one woman and 41 men. (It is a myth that people hanged and placed here had a stake put through their heart).

They came from England (5), China (3), Ireland (2), Germany (2), Ceylon (2), Scotland, Portugal, France, Chile, India, Philippines, Java, Japan, Solomon Islands, America, Malaita Island (4), South Sea Islands (3) as well as six Aborigines, three from Queensland, and one from New South Wales and Victoria.

A cheap coffin was provided but no headstone although their names and dates are now listed on a plaque placed at 6B.

The exception was Patrick Kenniff, a notorious horse thief, who was hanged on January 12, 1903 for murder of a station manager and a policeman who had been chasing him. It was said he shot them dead and chopped up their bodies and burnt them and put the ashes in his saddlebag.

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Plaque listing the unfortunates who swung at the Boggo Road Gaol gallows

It was during the great recession and drought and times were tough, so a lot of people thought he was innocent and a victim of the times. They held a meeting to have him set free, unsuccessfully, and 1000 people turned up for his funeral.

Although buried with the rogues – who are separated from other families as nobody wanted to say a murderer is buried beside Mum- he has his own headstone.

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Where the gallows victims lie in Section 6B

There are also a few unknown graves of those who were pulled from the nearby river after washing up at Cemetery Reach, as well as those from Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum at Wacol. Under the Lunatics Act, the insane were not allowed to travel on a king’s road, so they were taken by boat downstream to South Brisbane, the first cemetery on the river banks.

Another quirky story is the small grave that appears like the plot of a child yet has no headstone or identification. The story was that a child had drowned in the Brisbane River and was buried here by a good Samaritan.

In truth, the sexton, Allan Bavister, had a dog and always kept his water bowl beside the tap while he as working. When the dog died, he buried it beside the tap and kept the water bowl there. He spread the story about the child to cover his actions. The water bowl remained there for years after the dog died.

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The little dog’s grave beside the water tap

South Brisbane Cemetery has superb views of the Brisbane River and although parts of it went under during the 1893, 1974 and 2011 floods, all occupants are accounted for.

There are plenty of other stories to come from the tour, so back to those ghost stories.

The Lady in Black, was newly married when her husband died tragically. She attended his grave every day and apparently still does but when people approach she disappears. Lots claim to have seen her.

Since the 1990s, the ghost has been that of Irishwoman Ellen Thompson who was hanged in 1887, for murdering her husband. The story keeps changing but the Lady in Black is the most notable spirit haunting the place.

The other is an old grave digger who, in the late 1800s, was busily working when the grave collapsed and it became his own. There was a ferry across to the university and students who took a short cut through the cemetery would hear someone digging a grave close to this spot. When they got close, the noise would stop. It happened mainly late afternoon and night. The story never changed, so just maybe …

Follow Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery on Facebook to learn when new night tours are coming up.

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River view at South Brisbane Cemetery


  1. This is one of your best posts ever, enjoyable isn’t quite the right word is it? Maybe thought provoking. But it certainly has a dynamic aspect. Great stuff.

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