This has been the land of the Wadjak people since dreamtime. This area is known as Martellup.
Nitja Wadjuk Nyungar Birdiyia Boodjar Nyungar moort koorlinjy Nitja Gnulla Boodjar Djinoong and koorlinjy Curram
This is land-of Wadjuk people and Nyungar Country; they have been walking and looking after this land since dreamtime. This place name Martullup.
Here, stories of life and death written in stone.
From 1829 to 1899 almost all of the people who died in Perth, from the wealthy and prominent to the poor or unknown, were buried at East Perth Cemeteries.
About East Perth Cemeteries
East Perth Cemeteries sits on Whadjuk Noongar Country in an area known as Martellup, on a sandy hill overlooking Western Australia’s capital city.
In 1829 this was the site of the first colonial burial ground in Perth when a general cemetery was established. This was followed by six more of different denominations, plus one for felons, until the closure of the eight cemeteries in 1899.
Originally located on the edge of the town, the Cemeteries today are a tranquil haven within the bustling inner-city East Perth, perfect for a Sunday stroll.
In the middle of the Church of England Cemetery stands a simple Gothic church, designed by colonial architect Richard Roach Jewell. Built in 1871, St Bartholomew’s is the only example of a mortuary chapel constructed in Western Australia. St Bartholomew’s is still a consecrated church and is used for church services, weddings and other religious events.
Since the closure of the Cemeteries, the majority of the grave headstones and markers have been lost through decay, neglect, vandalism and well-intentioned ‘cleanups’. The remaining 800 however, now cared for by the National Trust, offer a unique opportunity to tell and explore stories of bravery, tragedy, illness and accident, of success, suffering and loved ones lost.
Book your ticket to stroll through East Perth Cemeteries on a Sunday afternoon, reflect on loved ones lost and appreciate the stories this place has to offer. Volunteers on site are incredibly knowledgeable and can help you search the extensive database of burials and locate graves.
A burial ground at the east end of the Perth district was assigned on 9 December 1829. Surveyed by John Septimus Roe, the location of the cemetery seems logical; on a hill on the outskirts of town, but within walking distance up a steep sandy hill. On 13 February 1830 Governor Stirling issued a Government Notice stating that:
to prevent indiscriminate burials and unpleasant consequences arising there from, in a warm climate, a burial ground will be set apart in every township or parish; and that interments must take place in them only and a Register of the Names, Age, Profession and place of birth be transmitted to the Colonial Secretary’s Office.
The first acknowledged burial was on 6th January 1830 for John Mitchell, a soldier of the 63rd Regiment. It is believed there were at least three earlier burials but this has not yet been confirmed.
This initial burial ground for the Perth district was non-denominational although Reverend Wittenoom, a Church of England minister, was the Chaplain responsible for most early burials. During the earliest years of colonial settlement no one appeared to be responsible for the site’s operations. In 1842 the burial ground was granted to Trustees of the Church of England to administer as a public cemetery and cemeteries for other religious denominations were gradually allocated as required: Roman Catholic in 1848, the Independent Congregational and Wesleyan Methodist in 1854, Jewish in 1867, Presbyterian in 1881 and Chinese 1888. An eighth cemetery was assigned for the burial of felons in 1867.
For forty years all Church of England burial services were conducted in either St George’s Church or the deceased’s regular place of worship. Other denominations used their own churches or places of worship for the ‘celebration of death’ prior to the cemetery burial.
The gold rush of the 1890s led to an increase in burials. Funerals were commonly held in a place of worship and later the funeral cortege would then move up Cemetery Road, a rough track that led diagonally up Wellington Street. Horses and hearses struggled in the sand so six bearers (rather than the traditional four) would take it in turns to carry the heavy coffin up the hill.
As Perth grew so did concerns about the position of Cemetery Hill. There were fears relating to possible health hazards as “noxious matter will gradually drain down from the summit of the hill”. These concerns coupled with residential expansion led to the closure of the Cemeteries in 1899. There were no further burials except for those in existing vaults or with the approval of the Governor. This practice continued until 1916 with a handful of exceptions. In 1900 Karrakatta Cemetery became the main burial ground for Perth.
Through the 1920s and 1930s there was much criticism of neglect and vandalism at the East Perth Cemeteries but little serious action was taken until many grave sites had been lost forever. In 1932 the site was declared a disused burial ground under the control of the State Gardens Board and its fate was uncertain during the Depression and war years. In the late 1940s headstones in poor condition were bulldozed, piled in heaps and removed. The Presbyterian, Jewish and Chinese cemeteries were relinquished and the land made available to the Education Department.
In the 1950s the Royal Western Australian Historical Society was one of several groups that agitated for action to preserve the site. Growing recognition of its cultural heritage significance resulted in St Bartholomew’s Church being vested in the National Trust in 1975 and the rest of the site in 1994.
Being an outdoor site, the graves and memorials are subject to the weather and there are no guarantees they will last forever. However, their deterioration can be slowed or even halted through careful conservation.
The National Trust has developed policies to safeguard the cultural heritage significance of the East Perth Cemeteries. They are based on the principles of the Burra Charter which advocates a cautious approach to change that is “do as much as necessary to care for the place and to make it useable, but otherwise change it as little as possible so that its cultural significance is retained”.
Funding from Lotterywest allowed significant conservation works to be carried out on St Bartholomew’s Church in 2021. Damp and salt had affected the internal walls, with damage evident to the dado stencil – the decorative painted strip illuminating the inside of the church. The cement render was removed, salts were reduced through a vacuum process and the walls were re-rendered in lime and repainted with white lime wash. The church’s floorboards, which were scratched and dull, now give off a warm glow after a very light sand and finish with Tung oil.
Additional conservation included strengthening the internal arch, oiling and replacing timber roof shingles, installing new aged-copper gutters and downpipes, repointing bricks with lime mortar and repairing the leadlight windows.
Conservation work is ongoing, particularly for the many graves needing attention. You can donate to our ‘graves appeal’ via our Donate page.
A number of recent initiatives at East Perth Cemeteries have shared its many stories through exhibition, drama, music and interactive tours.
REST at East Perth Cemeteries won a 2019 MAGNA Award for Interpretation, Learning & Audience Engagement and was a finalist in the 2020 WA Heritage Awards in the Interpretation Project category.
The National Trust won a 2017 MAGNA Award for Interpretation, Learning & Audience Engagement for Sound from the Ground.
A dedicated East Perth Cemeteries walking tour by Perth’s own Two Feet & a Heartbeat (ext. link) has also been created enabling you to explore along with expert commentary of the place.
A recent exhibition, ‘Beneath the Bitumen: Discoveries from the Chinese Cemetery’ showcased some of the findings made during excavations in the former Chinese Cemetery. It was produced as part of the 2022 Western Australian Heritage Festival, supported by Lotterywest.
Cemetery Tales, an audiowalk series, was made possible by a National Trust Inspire Writers’ Residency and funding from the Heritage Council of Western Australia. The series uncovers many hidden stories from the site.
Contribute to the conservation of East Perth Cemeteries
You can donate to ongoing conservation works at East Perth Cemeteries via our donation page. We also provide the option for those who wish to ‘save a grave’ to donate to a specific grave restoration. All donations to the National Trust of $2 or more are fully tax deductible.
Commemorate someone buried here
You can purchase a plaque to be attached to one of the denominational fences throughout the Cemeteries to commemorate those that are laid to rest there that do not have a grave marker. Memorial Plaques at East Perth Cemeteries