Coffs Coast cemetery researcher Ruth Morrow explains the significance of carvings on headstones to a rainy day crowd at Coffs Harbour Historic Cemetery, while  Rochelle Davies provides some shelter.
Coffs Coast cemetery researcher Ruth Morrow explains the significance of carvings on headstones to a rainy day crowd at Coffs Harbour Historic Cemetery, while Rochelle Davies provides some shelter. Belinda Scott

Local history researcher takes a grave view

GRAVEYARDS are three-dimensional history books for Coffs Harbour's Ruth Morrow.

The Coffs Harbour Regional Museum volunteer and local historian devotes her leisure time to digging up the stories behind the headstones.

She also conducts cemetery tours, bringing the past to life as she walks and talks about the lives and times - and sometimes the crimes, of those now safely under the sod.

"I've always been interested in cemeteries and the stories behind the stones," Ruth said.

"I began visiting the cemetery researching my own family history."

The Coffs Harbour Historic Cemetery is located a short walk from the city's Museum, which has recently published Ruth's 42-page booklet, Coffs Harbour Historic Cemetery.

This graveyard was established in 1886; dedicated in 1892 and closed to new burials in 1986.

Ruth said the cemetery was not the first for the town, but it is not known how many people, if any were buried in the 'old cemetery' between Barrie St and Glenreagh St.

 

Even a rainy day could not dampen the interest of these history hunters, on a cemetery tour with Coffs Harbour local historian Ruth Morrow.
Even a rainy day could not dampen the interest of these history hunters, on a cemetery tour with Coffs Harbour local historian Ruth Morrow. Belinda scott

"In the old days people were buried on private property or where they died," Ruth said.

"That was practical because there was no refrigeration."

She is now compiling a spreadsheet containing all the information she can gather from all available sources on who is buried where around Coffs Harbour's cemeteries, as there is currently no central register. and

One on of Ruth's cemetery walks you will find the graves of early European settlers worn out by years of unrelenting toil; the graves of victims of tragic accidents with falling timber, fire and flood; the graves of war heroes and pioneering doctors - and of tiny children who too often succumbed to disease or domestic disaster.

Here also rest the earthly remains of many of those who laid the foundations of today's prosperous city, with many of the names engraved on headstones still familiar in the district today.

Many graves are unmarked.

 

Ruth Morrow talks about the oldest headstone in Coffs Harbour Historic Cemetery, erected for children of the Marles family.
Ruth Morrow talks about the oldest headstone in Coffs Harbour Historic Cemetery, erected for children of the Marles family. Belinda Scott

The oldest headstone in the cemetery, dating from 1895, is , devoted to three children of the Marles family of pioneering shopkeepers.

One of the most impressive monuments is dedicated to Betsey McLean, the wife of Murdock McLean, who built the Fitzroy Hotel (now the Coast Hotel).

You will also visit the grave of George MacKay, the unfortunate first husband of one Elizabeth Cook.

Elizabeth was charged with bigamy after marrying someone else without divorcing George, but this obviously did not put her off marriage, as she acquired four husbands during her lifetime.

One of the graves is that of Clarrie Shephard, whose discovery of a man's severed leg in a chaff bag led to the discovery of Coffs Harbour's first murder, of Russian-Finnish settler Matt Matteson in 1885.

This incident demonstrated the dangers of mucking about with dead bodies, as the policeman forced to exhume the leg for the subsequent court case in Grafton contracted blood poisoning.

The murderer, Matthew Friske, was the first execution at Grafton Gaol in December 1885.


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