By Shane Scanlan
The bones of an estimated 7500 of the CBD’s first European residents remain in the City of Melbourne’s too-hard-basket after nearly a century of disrespect.
The human remains lie buried under the Queen Victoria Market (QMV) and the issue has again come to prominence with the council’s recently-announced market re-development plans.
The council hasn’t yet worked out what it will do with any bodies excavated to make way for the re-alignment of Franklin St and the construction of a mixed-use development on the Franklin Street Stores site at the southern end of the precinct.
The development site will require significant excavation in the most densely populated areas of the Old Melbourne Cemetery.
Apart from a small section at the northern end of the market, most of the QVM site sits above the cemetery which was the main burial ground during Melbourne’s first 20 years of development.
When a small-scale market was first build in 1877, the council cleared all affected graves from the northern end of the cemetery.
But when the market was expanded in the 1920s, less than 1000 bodies were moved, leaving behind an estimated 7500 souls – some of whom lie only 36 cm below the asphalt.
In 1922 only graves that were marked with headstones were moved before the area was in 1928 cleared of vegetation, ploughed and prepared for construction of an expanded market. Scant regard for the remaining graves has been shown ever since.
Historical photos show a steam shovel ripping into the most densely populated Church of England and Presbyterian sections of the cemetery to construct the Franklin Street Stores in 1930. This is the same area now proposed for a mixed use development.
A 2013 report to the City of Melbourne says: “Soil was removed from the site during these excavations with only limited examination for bones taking place.”
The report by consultants Godden Mackay Logan says bones were stored in boxes and were supposed to be re-buried in Fawkner Cemetery. The Argus newspaper of January 28, 1937 reported that bones excavated for market expansion were found in a “spoil heap” near the Parkville Presbyterian Church.
Disruption to burials has continued. In 1990 two bodies were found when a fire hydrant was installed in an alley near Shed F. Two years later 150 bodies were discovered during construction of Shed J.
In 1999 the remains of five children were unearthed during testing around the Franklin Street Stores and, as recently as 2011, three bodies were found near Shed M during excavation for a sewer line.
A fire in 1864 destroyed cemetery records, so it is generally accepted that the identities of the remaining bodies is unknown.
In its recent consultation about the proposed market redevelopment, the council’s Participate Melbourne consultative website referenced burials only in relation to an underground car park which is proposed for the northern edge of the market – an area outside of the old cemetery boundary. It correctly states that it is unlikely to involve disruption to burials. But it does not talk about the burials due for disruption at the southern end of the site.
A City of Melbourne spokesperson denied human remains would be excavated during the process.
The spokesperson said: “The archaeological heritage of the Old Melbourne Cemetery is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register and any proposals will be subject to a number of statutory approvals and of course staged and managed with the utmost care, with a focus on minimising disturbance to existing burials.”
“Where this is not possible to achieve, we will work with Heritage Victoria, archaeologists, stakeholders and the broader community to determine the appropriate approach. It is expected that for the most part, burials will remain in situ or be re-buried at a cemetery.”
“One of the main reasons why market sheds A, B and C has been proposed for a below ground area – potentially incorporating a customer car park – is that it is outside the footprint of the former Old Melbourne Cemetery.”