Walking with the Dead: West End Cemetery tour

As part of an event organised by the English Teachers’ Association Queensland, I created a walking tour and teaching resource. It offered hands-on ways to use creative writing, research, imagination and empathy to engage participants with the local history in the West End Cemetery and to think about how the past lives on in the present.

The walking tour focuses on voices that are often marginalised or silenced in the historical record because of class, culture, or gender.

Hearing and writing these stories invites students to think about the gaps and silences in the historical record, as well as ways the past is constructed, and the implications of such representations. Participants were invited to consider the emotional significance of the past.

The cemetery is built on the traditional lands of the Wulgurukaba and Bindal People, the first people to have lived in this region.

The cemetery was Townsville’s General Cemetery from around 1868 to 1902, with burial records dating from 1873. It’s an example of a Victorian cemetery and features much of the symbolism favoured during the late nineteenth century. It is estimated around 7900 to 8000 people are buried here.  However, only 2210 are marked by a monument grave; some bodies are buried together in family plots, some marked only by a small marker in the ground, and others are unmarked.

The tour took participants to sites that reveal contrasts, absences and hauntings, as well as the deeply emotional and symbolic ways that people make sense of death and grief.

For example, Thomas Foley was a Member of the Legislative Assembly, unionist, and an Alderman for the Townsville City Council.  In the early 1890s, Foley campaigned for his daughter Mary, a state scholarship winner, to attend Townsville grammar school. Mary Foley became the first girl to attend the school, making it a co-educational grammar school from 1893.

Image: Foley family Grave

In contrast to the monument of this wealthy family is an unmarked mound in the middle of the cemetery. It is thought to be a mass grave, perhaps belonging to orphan children, although little is known about who they are or how they died. We do know that the first orphanage in Townsville was opened in 1879 in North Ward; before then, vulnerable orphan children were sent to Brisbane and Rockhampton (See: Gibson-Wilde, Dorothy. 1984. Gateway to a Golden Land: Townsville to 1884). 

Image: Orphan’s mound 

In the past when the cemetery was surveyed, it was divided into blocks, organised by religious denomination. Block E, on the other side of the gully, was called a ‘Chinese cemetery’ in early records.

However, a 2004 geophysical survey showed that 65 people were buried in this block from a diverse range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, including Chinese, Japanese and South Sea Islanders.

Until 2005, when the Townsville City Council erected markers for these graves, the burials here were unmarked and the area was not as well maintained as areas on the other side of the gully. No one knows for certain why these people were buried on the other side of the gully, but it seems to be because of a mixture of race, religion, and cause of death (See: Stanger, Ross, and Roe, David (2007). ‘Geophysical surveys at the West End cemetery, Townsville: an application of three techniques.’ Australian Archaeology, 65. pp. 44-50).

Image: Tomijiro Kawai’s grave

The exception is the grave of Tomijiro Kawai, who was a Japanese cadet who died while his ship Hiei was in Townsville in 1900. The Japanese Navy has a tradition of returning to erect graves

The booklet is available here for download. You’re welcome to freely use and adapt this resource for your classes and teaching.


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