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Tasmanian Aboriginal people of the Mouheneenner band lived by the river in the Cornelian Bay area for thousands of years – their shell middens can still be seen in the dark sands near the top of the low cliffs of Cornelian Point.
The first English navigator to explore the Derwent was Lieutenant John Hayes – in 1793 he came ashore at this location and named the bay for the semi-precious cornelian stones found on the beach.
Soon after Sullivans Cove was settled in 1804, the Cornelian Bay site became the Government Farm, supplying fresh vegetables and other produce for the first residents of Hobart Town.
In the early years, over a thousand acres of the land was granted to Andrew Whitehead, who grew crops and raised stock. His original farm homestead was probably located on the site of the present Jewish Cemetery. At about the same time, the northern part of the site became a popular recreational destination as a racecourse and picnic spot.
In 1818 the Government purchased the land from Whitehead for £1,300, then leased it back to him. The Government Farm was advertised for rental in 1843, then subdivided and sold in 1860.
By 1843, the four original cemeteries around Hobart Town had become public health hazards – the sites were too close to the city and the soil was often so rocky that the graves could not be dug deeply enough. But although the population of Hobart continued to grow, a report on the health risks was ignored.
The Cornelian Bay site was suggested as a suitable location for a new cemetery, but action was not taken for nearly two decades – one of the reasons was that the site was thought to be too far from the city for poorer people to visit.
Finally, after argument, procrastination and the passing of several Government bills, the Cornelian Bay Cemetery was opened in 1872, with clearing and fencing done by convict labour. Twelve year-old Bridget Ryan, who died from typhoid fever in that year, was the first person to be buried there. Her grave can still be seen.
The cemetery was designed so that there should be a separate part for each religious denomination. Today, the Church of England section is the largest, followed by the Roman Catholic area. Methodist, Independent or Congregational, Presbyterian, Baptist, Jewish and Quaker denominations are also represented. Today, other special sections include War Graves, Garden of Remembrance and the Crematorium Gardens.
A separate paupers burial area was also reserved for the poor, where up to eleven bodies could share one unmarked grave. This section was closed in 1935 but it is estimated that about 5000 people are buried there.
The first building on the Cemetery site was the mortuary chapel, designed and built by colonial architect Henry Hunter in 1872. The chapel’s original Huon pine and iron gates were only recently found in the undergrowth where they once stood.
The Jewish Receiving House was also designed by Hunter around this time, as was the superintendent’s residence, which is classified by the National Trust and is in use as the current office of Millingtons.
Other buildings to be classified by the National Trust include the sandstone blacksmith’s shop, which dates back to 1822, during the Government Farm years and a whimsical Henry Hunter-designed shelter in the style of a garden gazebo.
Although the first statute allowing cremation in Tasmania was passed in 1905, it was not until the 1930s that cremation became widely acceptable. The first cremation at the Cornelian Bay Cemetery was in 1936 – since then there have been just under 60,000 cremations recorded.
When a new lawn cemetery for the Hobart area was opened at Kingston in 1983, Cornelian Bay was closed for burials, apart from those in previously paid or selected sites. Following a reassessment of the area, the cemetery reopened in 1996 with 500 new burial sites available. Through the years, there have been about 100,000 burials at Cornelian Bay – today, plenty of sites remain available, enough for many decades to come.
The Cornelian Bay Cemetery was originally administered by the Hobart Cemetery Trust, under the control of Government-appointed trustees. From 1961 until 1982 it was managed by the Hobart City Council, and since then the Southern Regional Cemetery Trust has been in charge of the Hobart Regional Cemetery at Kingston as well as Cornelian Bay.
Under the new management of Millingtons, Cornelian Bay Cemetery continues to move with the times to meet the changing needs of the wider community for a growing range of memorial options. More than 80% of families opt for cremations, and recent developments have been the establishment of a new lawn cemetery, creation of additional niche walls in landscaped settings; other garden, riverside and parkland locations for the placement of ashes, including a landscaped site with solar-powered water features; and the recently upgraded Wellington Chapel, and the Crematorium which opened in 1994. Other recent initiatives have been the establishment of the HIV Memorial Garden and the construction of state-of-the-art above-ground crypts, first built in 2001, and continuing to be developed.