Tales from Fremantle’s Cemetery Trail
I have a tendency to wander around graveyards. Reading epitaphs can give away much about a place, its people and history. It may seem like a morbid activity but cemetery’s aren’t really the dark, scary settings from horror stories but rather memorials to life and individuals’ achievements. In fact Fremantle has designed a signposted trail around its cemetery highlighting notable and notorious Western Australians for who this is their final resting place. As part of the Heritage Festival I took a guided tour of Fremantle Cemetery, including a few speeches by the ‘residents’ themselves!
Our first stop was a large Gaelic cross memorial to legendary Fremantle figure C.Y. O’Connor, revered for engineering Fremantle Harbour, which is still in use now over 100 years later. Quite an achievement when you consider the changes in shipping, especially the increase of the size of ships, during this time period. The Goldfields Pipeline is also accredited to O’Connor, pumping water over 500km to the town of Kalgoorlie in the desert centre of Western Australia. However, at the time he received a huge amount of criticism from the media which is thought to have contributed to him shooting himself while riding his horse into the sea.
Next up I came face-to-face with Moondyne Joe, described as an escapologist. He came to Australia from the UK in 1853 as a convict, punishment for stealing bread, bacon and cheese. After six years of free life he was arrested once again for branding a horse with his own mark, effectively horse-stealing, in the night he escaped stealing the horse back to get away. Twice more Joe was arrested and both times managed to escape, so a special escape-proof cell was built especially for him at Fremantle Prison. Allowing him out to work was deemed too risky, so rock was brought into the prison’s yard for Joe to break up. However, Joe used the pile of rock as a cover to break a hole in the prison’s wall and escape yet again. Moondyne Joe is now remembered for his love of freedom, with the Welsh translation ‘rhyddid’ and a pair of broken handcuffs engraved on his tombstone.
I then met the only woman to be hanged in Western Australia, who lies in an unmarked grave in the cemetery. Martha Rendell was convicted in 1909 of killing three of her stepchildren by applying hydrochloric acid to the back of their throats. A neighbour stated he often saw the children screaming in pain while Rendell stood rocking back and forth as if in ecstasy. In this same grave is Eric Edgar Cooke, a serial killer who terrorised Perth in the early 1960s, going on a violent crime spree which including killing 8 people. He was hanged in nearby Fremantle Prison, the last person to be executed in Western Australia.
A memorial commemorates the lives lost in two shipwrecks that occurred in the same storm in July 1899. The lighthouse on Rottnest Island lit a flare to tell the City of York to wait for a pilot to guide it into Fremantle Harbour. However, the captain mistook this as the international signal from a pilot-boat itself so headed straight towards it, striking the reef. Everyone abandoned the ship into two lifeboats, but one overturned in the waves and 11 men drowned. The same day the Carlisle Castle hit a reef just further south, killing all onboard.
This is just a glimpse of the fascinating stories told on the Heritage Walk Trail, as this map shows there are 35 points of interest. They’ve even included QR codes on the signs so you can get more detailed information about any person or event that particularly interests you. Of course I couldn’t write about Fremantle Cemetery without mentioning the most visited grave in Australia, that of Bon Scott from rock band AC/DC. He’s number one on the trail so ‘have a beer with Bon’ then soak up the rest of Freo’s history.