Julie is the author of a number of guidebooks, including 'Melbourne's Best Bush Bay and City Walks' & 'Melbourne for Dogs' (with RSPCA). Read more of her adventures at her walks blog: walksmelbourne.com
Published April 21st 2013
Digging the dirt on Melbourne's past
OK, call me morbid, call me creepy, call me macabre. But the truth is, I think graveyards are pretty fascinating places. You can find out all about the social and cultural history of a city in its cemeteries, writ large on crooked tombstones and towering monuments. And I have visited some amazing cemeteries in my time to do a bit of celeb-spotting as well as local history research: there's the extravagant Pere Lachaise in Paris, with its veritable who's who of famed French folk, as well as Oscar Wilde; Hampstead Cemetery in North London; Arlington's military rows in Washington DC - John F Kennedy's resting place .... and closer to home, the extraordinary sliding downhill cemetery in Walhalla, and my favourite, a wild country cemetery near Smeaton, near Daylesford, which is kept in good order by a flock of sheep.
Melbourne also has its share of interesting stories buried (excuse the pun) in our cemeteries and there are enough people keen to hear these stories to support a range of interesting tours.
One of the finest offerings is by Helen Harris and Jan Davidson, who have been running tours around Melbourne General Cemetery, in Parkville, for over 25 years. Their walking tours are usually themed, and have covered topics like Famous Medicos, Law and Order, Who's Who of the famous and infamous, and a 'Dead Pollies Tour'. Keep a look out for the pyramid shaped memorial to Prime Minister Harold Holt, who was thought to have drowned while swimming off Sorrento - or possibly been kidnapped by Russian submarines (!) ... his body was never found. Tours last for 2 hours, but are not run in winter or in extreme weather conditions. Bookings are essential: (03) 9890 9288 and the cost is $25 per person ($20 for seniors). Group tours can be tailored and arranged on request.
The Dead Pollies Tour at Melbourne General Cemetery
. Melbourne Cemetery also offers very popular night tours, for those with not-too-vivid imaginations. These are run, appropriately, at Midsummer, during full moons and at Hallowe'en. You've been warned.
Melbourne General Cemetery Angel Monument
On the other side of town, the Friends of St Kilda Cemetery run a fascinating 'who's who' tour around this historic cemetery which is full of famous people and interesting stories. Look out for founding father, Alfred Deakin, arts philanthropist Alfred Felton, and WWI hero and Victoria Cross recipient. Captain Albert Jacka. Hear the story of the remarkable Australian nurse, Matron Mary FInlay who was the nurse in charge of the WWI army hospital sin Egypt and France. In keeping with St Kilda's colourful history, St Kilda Cemetery is also the resting place of Melbourne's most notorious brothel owner, Caroline Hodgson, aka 'Madame Brussels'. Tours run on Sundays, usually once a month and in all weather. They usually go for around 90 minutes, are often themed, and cost just $10 for visitors and $5 for members. Bookings are essential: (03) 9531 6832. Check the tour website for details.
Madame Brussels 'the wickedest woman in Melbourne'?
Other tours are run by Friends groups at Boorondara (Kew) Cemetery (enquiries: 03 9859 8106) and Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery and Memorial Park, which does a great line in 'tragic tours' of the 1920/s and '30's. Many cemeteries also offer brochures, either at their entrances or online, which indicate famous interments for those who prefer to do self-guided walks at their own pace, but you definitely miss out on the rich history and stories a guided tour can bring. If gardens are more your thing, Springvale Botanical Cemetery offers a wonderful botanic tour detailing the history of its landscaping and plantings.
Gardens and Fog and Graves: A Match Made in Heaven?
One cemetery you won't be able to book a tour of, though, is one of Melbourne's first - it lies beneath the present day car park of the Queen Vic markets, and while those who were marked with headstones were thought to have been relocated to the Melbourne General Cemetery, it is believed that more than 10,000 unmarked graves were left behind..... Ghost Tours next, anyone?