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‘Reading Rocks’ at East Perth Cemeteries

September 5, 2013

From the establishment of the first cemetery in 1829 to the closure of the seven cemeteries in 1899 almost all of the people who died in Perth, Western Australia, from the wealthy and prominent to the poor or unknown, were buried at East Perth Cemeteries.

Over the years more than 90% of the grave headstones and markers were lost through decay, neglect or wanton destruction. The remaining 800, however, now conserved by the National Trust of Australia (WA) offer a unique opportunity to explore Perth’s early years. The headstones tell stories of bravery, tragedy, illness and accident; of success and suffering.
In the middle of the Cemeteries stands a simple Gothic chapel designed by colonial architect, Richard Roach Jewell. Built in 1871 as a mortuary chapel, St Bartholomew’s became a parish church in 1888. After a period of neglect, it is still a consecrated church, used for regular church services as well as weddings and other religious events.

Image provided by National Trust (WA).

Image provided by National Trust (WA).

Originally located on the edge of the town, the Cemeteries today are a tranquil haven within bustling inner city East Perth and a wonderful resource for students studying the history of early settlement in Western Australia.‘Reading Rocks’ for primary aged students was set to fit the Children’s Book Council Book Week events in 2005. This National Trust education program was developed to engage the students with learning how to read headstones so they could explore the seven cemeteries and learn where so many of the famous names of Perth and WA came from. Students had heard of Roe Highway, Lake Monger and Wittenoom Gorge but did they realise that John Septimus Roe was the first government surveyor and explorer’, John Henry Monger was a farmer and ‘Bertie’ Wittenoom – the son of Edward –drowned at the age of ten in a boating accident?

By ‘reading’ the headstones the students discovered that these familiar names were all attached to actual people who lived and died here. Today the program continues and when students visit they photograph and take notes of the headstones, they decipher the symbols and they compare the materials of the headstones that remain. Back at school they are encouraged to research either a person whose headstone they have been interested in or they may choose to follow another historical line of inquiry. Perhaps they will find out why so many children died from drowning or what else John Septimus Roe had named after him? Where did he go exploring? Who with? Or they may decide to learn more about the symbols on the graves and what they represent?

Ultimately through this National Trust program we hope to engage students, through the process of historical inquiry, to learn more about the people who arrived during the early days of the Swan River Colony and the challenges they faced.

This post has been written by Joy Lefroy, Manager Education & Learning, National Trust of Australia (WA).  You can follow them on twitter @NationalTrustWA

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