With blistered feet and juggling two maps as well as a camera and my handbag I came to an abrupt halt, lost among a sea of higgledy, piggledy-laid graves.
The 42 hectare (106 acre) Melbourne General Cemetery is a bewildering place for the uninitiated, particularly for this country girl after a four-hour early morning drive.
The lass at the front-gate office had been helpful, whipping out a Melbourne General Cemetery Map to point the way to my great great great-aunt’s grave.
‘Just continue up this path here, swing right round to the Mausoleum and head down Centre Avenue’, she had advised.
Printing off a gravesite plot-map, showing by surname each grave’s owner or occupants she had highlighted Centre Avenue with a green marker, and then colored in grave 182 in the ‘N’ section of the map:
‘There she is, just a couple of rows in there’ she had blithely advised.
I get distracted before travelling even 100 metres along the path: gravestones are fascinating things and so I zigzagg back and forth to familiar surnames, wondering if they were people from my part of the country.
I guess a lot of residents from Victoria’s western district ended up in this cemetery, preferring to settle the north or western outskirts of Melbourne, close to the quickest arterial routes back to ‘home’ and kith n kin.
Country folk went to Melbourne seeking employment, especially during the droughts and depressions like the 1840’s and 1890’s where there was little work to be had in the countryside and nothing to pay for food on the table or a roof over the family’s head.
Some went for training, like one great great Aunt who wanted to be a nurse and ended up marrying a city policeman, and so Brunswick on Melbourne’s north became her home and the Melbourne general cemetery her final place of rest.
Some went for their futures, especially after family splits or when the eldest son inherited the farm and however-many-brothers-leftover had to seek alternative careers.
Or couples like my great grandparents ran away to the big city for a civil marriage, to circumvent the gaping chasm of a religious divide where love was a secondary consideration.
Commonly women went to have a baby in secret, for unwed motherhood was rarely an option, even so until this recent era and a single mother’s pension wasn’t a right until the 1980’s.
Country was no place for same-sex couples, who instead often had to live in the anonymity of larger cities, far from home and familiar surrounds.
Others just went for the bright lights and good times.
Whether they went for good or had only planned for a short stay, many ended up living in Melbourne permanently, and often not far from the main roads leading back out to country, to main towns like Ballarat, Colac, Hamilton or Warrnambool.
The Melbourne General Cemetery opened for business in 1853, and its proximity to these northern and north-west suburbs means ex-Warrnambool residents ended up in perpetual rest at the cemetery, but the lady I was visiting, Sarah Harriett McPherson (1831-1865) wasn’t from the western district – she had only arrived in Melbourne in 1849 when the place was little more than a dusty, bedraggled fourteen year-old European outpost.
Sarah was born in Ipswich, in the English county of Suffolk and at barely 18 years of age she hopped a migrant passage to Australia, to follow her older sister Mary Catherine McPherson (1829-1869) out to the other formative European settlement of Geelong.
Mary Catherine was my great, great grandmother, who had sailed to Geelong a year earlier, arriving on election day in October 1848. Mary Cath came out with a family by the surname of Booley, and shortly after their passage she married Robert Francis Booley (1829-1875), and their granddaughter is my grandmother Jean Lovel Williams (nee Booley) of Apollo Bay.
The McPherson and Booley families had long known each other in Ipswich, for they all belonged to non-conformist or dissenter churches, and the heads of the two families – Donald McPherson (1801-1852) and Robert Booley (1803-1876) were active members of the Ipswich Working Mens Association as well as leading activists, promoting the U.K’s Chartist political movement of the 1830’s and ‘40s.
Robert Booley helped lay the foundations for Australia’s democratic political system as well as the Australian Labor Party, and all of his family migrated to Victoria in 1848, except his second-born son Henry (the 1st), who remains buried in an Ipswich cemetery, having died at barely 3 years of age after being ran down by an out-of-control coach.
The majority of the McPherson children also migrated to Victoria, though four moved on to New Zealand, and their mother Mary McPherson (nee Campbell, 1806-1880) followed them out, after first laying her husband and eldest son to rest in an Ipswich cemetery (Suffolk).
I was fascinated to find out what happened to the McPherson offspring, for I wondered did they follow in their father’s footsteps and continue the cause for Manhood Suffrage, or were they like so many children of activists who instead sought a safe distance from politics.
Mary Cath and Sarah were the two eldest McPherson daughters, and upon her arrival in Melbourne in 1849 Sarah McPherson left the ship James T Foord saying she was going to her sister ‘Mrs Booley, at Geelong’.
Sarah Harriet McPherson married Joseph Royal in 1852 and at least three children are known to have been born to this couple while living in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond: Lucy Ellen Royal (1852-1908), Joseph Donald Royal (1855-1856) and Joseph Thomas Royal (1858- ??).
Sarah and Joseph’s first born son Joseph Donald Royal died at the age of just 11 months, and their second son Joseph Thomas Royal married Charlotte Annie Carter in 1905.
Their eldest daughter Lucy Ellen Royal had married in 1875 to Charles Henry Metters – who in 1908 was of the ‘well known firm of Messrs. Metters Bros of Alfred Street, North Melbourne’.
Metters was a familiar surname to Australian – and particularly Melbourne households, for Metters of North Melbourne were iron founders and smiths who manufactured household stoves, cookers and grates for family homes.
Lucy and Charles Metters resided at ‘Lolworth’ in Alfred Street, not far from the Melbourne General Cemetery.
As the northern fringe is where urban meets industrial as well as being home to the Royal and Metters families, it is fascinating to travel round the historic homes, curious how many have an original Metters stoves are still in place.
But it was Sarah’s grave that I had come to visit, but having lost myself down Third Avenue of the Melbourne Cemetery I had to work my way back to the mausoleum.
As I stood confusedly examining my map, a stooped, senior citizen and her companion drew alongside.
‘Its very easy to get lost here isn’t it,’ the elder remarked while stopping to rest.
“I don’t know what I have done wrong but I can’t find this section,’ I replied.
‘Who are you visiting?’ she asked, eyeing me intently.
‘Just my great, great great Aunt,’ I replied, laughing.
Her eyes brightened and her face lit up with delight.
‘How very kind you are, very thoughtful, you are a very nice girl’.
Between us we worked out Centre Avenue couldn’t be gained until I literally edged my way past the entire mausoleum and so after exchanging due thanks and pleasantries I continued on my way, puzzled why she had seem so delighted I was visiting a grave over a century and a half old.
Then it occurred to me that the older we get the more certain we can be of death’s approach, and we all probably hope we are not made forgotten by death.