The Old Melbourne Cemetery at QVM

By Cheryl Griffin 

Royal Historical Society of Victoria

It seems impossible to believe now, but Melbourne’s main cemetery was once located on the site of the iconic Queen Victoria Market (QVM), mostly under what is now the market’s car park. 

In 1837 it relocated from a very small burial ground on Flagstaff Hill (in today’s Flagstaff Gardens). At the time the Old Melbourne Cemetery was thought to be “out in the bush”. Isaac Selby, who compiled its history, recorded that when it relocated there was no fence around the cemetery, so the graves (and the newly planted avenue of elms at its entrance) were in danger of being trodden down by sheep and cattle. Eventually, the funds were raised to put up a fence with iron railings and bluestone foundations to surround the cemetery’s nearly 10,000 burials.

The Old Melbourne Cemetery closed in 1867. Although burials continued on the site until 1917, the rapid expansion and overcrowding of the QVM site meant that the cemetery came under pressure and the controversial decision was made to move the headstones so the market could expand. And so, from 1921 headstones and remains were transferred or distributed according to family wishes. 

Before their removal, though, the headstones were photographed by Everard Studley Miller and Isaac Selby, both Historical Society of Victoria members and strong supporters of the retention of the cemetery on that site.

The photograph you see here was taken in 1920 by Miller. It’s of Selby standing beside a distinctive cast-iron memorial to 22-year-old Evans Fawcus, a native of Stockton-on-Tees in Durham, who died at Flagstaff Hill in 1853 after only six months in the colony. Behind the memorial is a camera, reminding us of the massive task these two men undertook in recording the headstones before they were removed.

Selby and his supporters worked tirelessly to save the Old Melbourne Cemetery. It was a long and often bitter campaign. “Progress” could not be stopped, but his work did lead to the formation of the Old Pioneers’ Memorial Association, with Selby as secretary and 220 of the headstones like those you see in this photograph were moved to the Pioneers Section of Fawkner Memorial Park where they can still be found. 

Selby lived a long and colourful life. If you would like to know more about his life and interests, Isaac Selby: Lecturer, Historian, Assassin! is a must-see exhibition curated by Alison Cameron. It can be seen at RHSV’s Gallery Downstairs, History House, 239 A’Beckett Street (Cnr of William St, opposite Flagstaff Gardens) until the end of the year. The exhibition tells the story of Selby’s life in his own words and images echoing his distinctive scrapbook style. For more information visit historyvictoria.org.au

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