All across the city the slogan "Rich Heritage Always Evolving" shouts across hoardings that are used to conceal the bulldozer and wrecking ball. Heritage doesn't evolve, it needs context, understanding and protecting. As a city we have been actively extinguishing our heritage with an obsession from the start of settlement – an obsession with forgetting.
Sydney as a city is drunk on striving ahead and the cost is erasure and we are all the poorer for it. We keep our eyes to the horizon, fixed on the future, building over and upwards oblivious to the past, not knowing on what ground we stand. Every day thousands of Sydneysiders rush across the past, on train tracks and soon-to-be new tram lines, literally travelling over the sand hills of the dead.
Devonshire St cemetery: not all bodies were moved in 1901. Many were churned into the ground.Credit:State Library of NSW
From the Gadigal to the colony, the sandy soil that once was a dune leading down to Darling Harbour, was the final resting place for generations of Sydneysiders.
Until the land was resumed by the Government in 1901 in the name of progress to build Central station. Families had a mere two months to arrange exhumation. Some of the unclaimed dead were moved to other cemeteries, but as recent works around Central Station for the new tram line reveal, not all bodies were transferred or removed, but were churned into the ground, lost to Sydney's obsession with moving forward, of being bigger, brighter, of wanting to belong to the future more than the past.
Sydney is built on forgotten stories. Once they are eroded the cycle is almost complete. Place is treated like a blank page, the past at risk of disappearing. Remembering and uncovering stories of lives past is an act of resistance against cultural amnesia.
In my family, each baby born gets an inspection of their fingers, tiny starfish unfurled in an adult palm. If the fingers are found to be long and tapered, they are pronounced to be "Whittaker fingers", though no one knows exactly what that might mean.
James Whittaker was light fingered himself, originating from Manchester, known to the constabulary, he felt the weight of the law when he was convicted at the Old Bailey for stealing a funnel. For this he was transported for seven years to Australia, arriving on the Asia II on July 24, 1822 when he was described as "6 foot tall, fair complexion, brown hair and blue eyes". His occupation listed as a tin-man.
He was appointed to Mr Terry's clearing party, but absconded, disappearing to nowhere. Months later an advert in the Gazette revealed a letter was waiting collection at the GPO, a bright, shining lure of a ruse to reel him back in. Back in custody, James was sentenced for robbery and sent to Port Macquarie, the "convict gulag", the prison within a prison, for three years.
James Whittaker’s name was incorrect on his Certificate of Freedom in 1829.
When James Whittaker served our his sentence and returned to Sydney in August 1828 he was a changed man. His Certificate of Freedom describes him as: "Age 28, 6ft 1inch, complexion fair, ruddy and eruptive, hair light brown, eyes light grey. Remarks: Scar on the top of his nose, lost one tooth in upper jaw."
Writer Sandra Leigh Price has explored her ancestors’ convict and colonial past.
James was received into the Catholic faith at St Mary's Cathedral before marrying Ann McGuigan. She had arrived from Ireland as a child. Ann's convict-father had petitioned the Governor to allow his family's journey, lamenting "the perpetual Exile of their only Protector". They welcomed their first living child, Richard, the following year in 1831 and James in 1832.
Living in colonial Sydney was a violent and rough existence, the gift of freedom was the beginning of self-survival. The water supply was pestilent, rum and ale safer to drink than water. Houses were crowded and divided by thin partitions.
In 1834 James Whittaker, alerted to screams and fearing murder, looked through a crevice in a window to see a woman being beaten by two people. It was only when he went to the back door and forced it open that the woman's life was saved.
In the same year, at his tin shop now in King Street, a theft occurred. James was alerted to the theft by his son, "Daddy, beggar man steal pot." James witnessed the accused putting a tin can in his bag, but upon seeing the prisoner's infirmity, and previously having given him bread, let the man go unmolested. It wasn't until he came back a few minutes later to steal something else that the law was called. James' forgiveness of the first theft influenced the bar to give the man a lesser sentence.
More children followed. Some still birth, some survivied. James born 1832, Robert born 1836 and Mary-Ann 1837. In 1840 both Ann and James were committed to trial for stealing from Mr Chorley's shop in George Street. The primary witness was a little boy who raised the alarm. They were not permitted bail by the bench. The item that James took and Ann received? A box of soap. In gaol, they left their children aged 3, 4, 8 and 9 to fend for themselves.
To live in colonial Sydney was to live in panopticon. A ticket of leave or certificate of freedom did not liberate from the penal colony formed in the mind. The surveilled became the surveillance. Magistrates regularly had no training or understating of the law, being land owners they used the law to further their own interests.
In 1840 Ann and James were charged with stealing soap from Mr Chorley’s shop in George St.Credit:State Libray of NSW
In 1842 Ann was imprisoned in the watch house for hawking tin-ware without a licence. The law of the time did not require imprisonment to answer for the charge, but the bench imprisoned her nonetheless. Later she appeared as the only witness to an inquest in her neighbour's stillbirth. She had witnessed the woman punched in the belly. The perpetrator went unpunished.
James tangled with the law again and again. He was charged with assault but discharged, he was found drunk and disorderly ordered to pay a fine or sit for four hours in the stocks. He was charged with trespassing with intent to steal, accused of assaulting a constable giving him a month in Darlinghurst Gaol.
To survive in such an environment, one had to recklessly adapt and this is exactly what their son Richard did. As a twelve-year-old he raided Shepherd's Nursery grounds filling a bag with fruit before being apprehended.
At thirteen with another boy he was charged with being a "general" of a mob of up to fifty boys, armed with sticks and wooden swords, "juvenile warriors" that battled on King Street, cheered on by a crowd of upward of a hundred of encouraging blackguards. For this he was bound for good behaviour for twelve months, his father ordered to pay £10 and a surety of £5.
The following year he was apprehended with other boys for brazenly gambling upon a grave under the Druitt Street wall of the Old Burial Ground directly opposite the Police Office. Town Hall stands here now. A month later with two others he was committed for trial for having stolen a pair of trousers and other articles from a cutter moored at Darling Harbour.
"The prisoners displayed a great knowledge of Police business by the acute manner in which they cross-examine and bounced the witnesses for the prosecution to get clear of the charge."
But at one o'clock in the morning on the 10th of April 1846, with Richard not home, James Whittaker did what any parent would do and went out to seek his errant son. In the darkness, along the precipice on the east side of the Market street wharf on Sussex street, he took a false step and fell backwards, dashing his head on rocks.
Showing considerable strength of will he walked home to Duand's-alley, Goulburn street, bleeding onto the city's dusty streets, before collapsing on his doorstep, bleeding profusely from the head, his skull fractured. He died as the sun rose to warm the golden sandstone on an Autumn day. He was 42.
Circular Quay, 1839, watercolour by F. GarlingCredit:State Library of NSW
In October of the same year, Ann collapsed while visiting a neighbour. Her sons attempted to lift her, but upon finding they were not able to, dragged her home and put her to bed, where she died. The inquest deduced that she died of apoplexy from intemperance, but it is possible she may have suffered from a postpartum haemorrhage from a still birth earlier.
The Sydney Morning Herald declared her as the mother of four children – one a "helpless cripple, left without a friend or protector in the colony". The youngest, Mary-Ann and Robert, were taken in by the Benevolent Society and would not live to see adulthood. The eldest, James and Richard, were imprisoned for being homeless.
A letter to the Herald in 1847 described them as "…much to be pitied, when we take into consideration the fact of their having been thrown up in the world, without friend, guidance, or instruction…exposed to misery, contamination and infamy."
What happened to James junior I don't know, but Richard's instinct was to survive, free from the tooth and claw of the penal eye. With a with a "toor-ra-li, oo-ral-li-ay", he did just that, bequeathing to us the Whittaker fingers, to make of them what we will.
James and Ann now lie buried beneath Central Station.Credit:State Library of NSW
Both James and Ann were buried at Sandhills cemetery, now beneath Central station. All that they were – rejects of Empire, survivors of a prison-state, loving parents – subsumed into the soil, the trains and new trams yet to come, rattling over their remains. Along Central's echoing hallways there are memorial boards to the soldiers of World Wars, but why is there is no memorial to the estimated 30,000 whose final resting place churned through the soil, to become foundations of the future?
This is but one family, one story, but what of those of the 30,000 lost stories? Each life unique and shimmery, quartz caught in chisel marks, in the city's bedrock sandstone.
In 1901 The Australian Town and Country Journal lamented: "The price of progress – old Sydney [is] disappearing." But it is beneath our feet as we wait on platforms, walk through tunnels, cross the streets, stepping over sandstone kerbs hewn by indentured convict hands. Without the past how do we know who we are? The past as well as the future should be balanced in our hands. Let us remember. Let us resist.
Dead Central: The Devonshire Street Cemetery is at the State Library of NSW until November 15. Sandra Leigh Price's two historical novels, The Bird's Child and The River Sings, are published by HarperCollins.
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