Pioneer Cemetery

The Pioneer/Goyder Road Cemetery was originally called "Palmerston Cemetery" and is Darwin's first "official" cemetery. Among the gravestones and unmarked graves, lie buried the stories of hundreds of the Territory's pioneer men, women and children. There are stories of tragedy and triumph, hope and heartbreak. Here, in this final resting place, the 'occupants' sleep on oblivious to the modern homes and businesses established nearby and the thousands of vehicles that pass by.

The Pioneer Cemetery is situated on Goyder Road and is also known as the Goyder Road Cemetery or Palmerston Cemetery. The Pioneer Cemetery was opened in 1865 and closed in 1919. A number of burials have been carried out at Palmerston Cemetery since its closure and others associated with the pioneering families and individuals buried there may continue. The cemetery has been controlled by the City of Darwin since 1958. The first burial took place around 1872 or 1873. In all, 1,230 burials took place at this cemetery, however 450 of these were not recorded by Births, Deaths and Marriages. 

In February 1869 the South Australian Government sent George Woodroffe Goyder, the Surveyor General and a group of survey teams north to Port Darwin aboard the Moonta. One of the first tasks of George Goyder surveyors when they designed the new town of Palmerston (not officially called Darwin until after 1911) was to lay out the future town across the peninsula and extending a mile or two from the site. In the plan, Goyder also made a provision for the first cemetery for Palmerston. The 48 acres they selected for this purpose stretched across from where Graham Street in Stuart Park runs today, straddling what became the Stuart Highway and running from around Nylander Street to include what remains of the cemetery today, near the Motor Vehicles Registry. Decisions regarding development of the surrounding area, particularly Parap as both a suburb and the site of Darwin's aerodrome, and the main road south, saw a number of closures of sections of the cemetery and the size of the site decreased considerably. At the time of it's final closure the cemetery occupied only a small part of the original 48 acres surveyed.

Throughout it's history, the cemetery was the subject of inadequate record keeping, lack of documentation and at varying times, neglect by the authorities.

The site for the cemetery was recorded in the 1869 field book of Surveyor AT Woods, referring to "Prince's Creek' which was in the vicinity of Graham or Nudl streets of today's Stuart Park. Indeed, the present Stuart Highway bisects the site of the old cemetery which provided for a road reserve two chains wide leading from town as "Freds Pass Road".

It is thought that the first burials were around 1873. Charles Harvey, a carpenter, died on 4 October 1872, James Honan on 26 October and police trooper William Davies was taken by a crocodile off Lameroo whilst swimming on 26 November 1872. Two miners, Robert McCracken and JW Smith died in early 1873.

Take the monument to Edward (Ned) Tuckwell, who was buried in 1882. Ned and Eliza Tuckwell - whose pioneering efforts go back to the pre-Darwin settlement at Escape Cliffs - came to the Territory in 1864 with the settlers who tried to build the first Palmerston at Escape Cliffs on the mouth of the Adelaide River. In 1866 he built the raft which floated explorer McKinlay's party back to Escape Cliffs, from desperate straits in the East Alligator. Ned returned to Adelaide when Escape Cliffs failed, but came back to the Territory with Goyder's men in 1869. He had a hand in the building of most early Darwin buildings, including the first Government House until he was struck down by dysentery in 1882. Ned and his wife Eliza founded a dynasty which several of today's most prominent Territory families proudly claim membership. Many of their children are buried at the cemetery as are members of some of Darwin's most prominent families, such as Spain, Brown and Bell families. There are also graves of many less known but equally interesting citizens of many cultures - including those of scores of children who died in 'epidemics' or at childbirth.

Another strange addition to the cemetery was a school teacher whose death was described in the records as "visitation from God".

The Cemetery had become "less' important after the Gardens Cemetery was opened in 1919. For a long time, few cared that vehicles were driven over the graves, or that memorials were often desecrated.

In 1961, the NT news said that the cemetery presented a scene of "desolation and neglect". The News urged that a fence should be erected immediately, to prevent traffic, littering and vandalism.

City of Darwin sought control and eventually won back the freehold of the cemetery. Management was low key until an upgrade program in 1983. One outcome of this was the installation of a plan which showed the locations of graves and the names of their occupants.

The cemetery is now fenced. One of the most significant occupants is John George Knight, the architect who designed many of our early buildings, the colourful warden of the Pine Creek gold fields who was famous for his 'solar' bath, and finally the Government Resident who died in office and whose funeral was attended by the entire town. Another famous occupant is Tom Crush, the Territory's first Labor member of Parliament in South Australia, and who, along with his flamboyant wife Fannie (later Haynes) built in famous Federation Hotel at Brocks Creek. The cemetery's most impressive headstone, complete with a 1m marble angel and long inscription belongs to Tom Crush.

Paul Foelsche, Darwin's first Inspector of Police from 1870 and one of Darwin's finest photographers, and his wife Charlotte, who died just before the turn of the century, lie nearby their graves marked by matching monuments.

Contributions like those of J G Knight (died 1892), architect extraordinaire and Government Resident or George McLachlan (1873) one of Goyder's senior surveyors, explorer, overland telegraph builder and finder of the first commercial goldfield near Pine Creek. J.A.G Little (1906) was another who helped build the overland telegraph, and then stayed on as a faithful servant of the Territory for 35 years. Paul Foelsche (1914) came north in January 1870, arriving on the same ship as Eliza Tuckwell. Foelsche led the NT Mounted Police and became a noted recorder of the Territory through his writings and photographs. A nephew of George Goyder, McLachlan was the Senior Surveyor until his death from a lung disease on 19 March 1873. He had contributed a great deal to the initial survey of Palmerston and particularly in the area around Virginia. He had also been involved in the exploration of a route for the proposed Overland Telegraph Line between Katherine and Palmerston (later Darwin).

In the case of deaths in Palmerston, these were recorded in Palmerston and burials would have been at the cemetery, although many never registered. Whilst there are 90 graves evident in the cemetery today, some 500 graves are recorded in the area - unfortunately the available records fail to provide the layout of the cemetery and locations of graves. Some graves markers have disappeared over the years and some records list the grave numbers that were allocated at the time.

The cemetery is also the resting place of Captain Joe Bradshaw who lost over four hundred thousand pounds in his ventures in the Territory but never his faith, he died of gangrene on 23 July 1916 - while Yusumatsu Tokayama a lowly pearl diver followed two months later, probably of the bends and for a pittance in wages.

One of the saddest stories in the cemetery is that of 18 year old Edith, the daughter of the Territory's first Judge, Timothy K Pater, who died of an incurable illness and who lies near the grave of 27 year old Anna, wife of Surveyor GR McMinn, and their young son William.

Here too lies Sarah and Lee Hang Gong, pioneers of the mining industry and the Chinese and European community. Sarah was a London born woman who met and married Hang Gong on the Victorian goldfields before venturing to the Territory which became their home and final resting place.

Following the Commonwealth taking control of the Territory on 1 January 1991, legislative amendments saw some portions of the cemetery closed in 1919. In 1920 negotiations between the Government and Acting Administrator Staniforth Smith and the Town Clerk, Harold Whittle, took place a new cemetery near the Botanic Gardens was opened. The Palmerston Cemetery was gazetted as closed on 24 January 1922.

A glance at the headstones reveals that Darwin's cultural diversity emerged early in the town's history. Memorials reflect that Chinese, Japanese and Malay people were among our first and most enduring settlers.

Typical was the Spain family, with it's antecedents in the Philippines and Thursday Island before patriarch Antonio Spain arrived here in the 1880's. The family is still here, though it has moved on from trepang fishing, pearling and hairdressing.

The headstones also show us just how far from home and family many of our early settlers were. So many memorials were erected by workmates or friends, or by the general community, at a time when the community accepted such obligations.

That has changed, as have religious affiliations, and the tastes in memorials and the words on them.

The Cemetery is maintained by City of Darwin and any enquiries in relation to the cemetery or burial records can be obtained by phoning 08 8980 3655.