9 April 2024

Canberra region heritage festival helps bring Yass cemetery back to life

| Sally Hopman
Start the conversation
Two women at headstone

Yass and District Historical Society archives coordinator Maureen Collins and guide Corrine Chalmers check details of Henry O’Brien’s gravesite at the Yass cemetery in preparation for the tours. Photo: Sheree Bamforth.

Visiting old cemeteries like the one in Yass, you can’t help thinking of all the stories buried there – from the famous, such as explorer Hamilton Hume, to victims of a notorious criminal, William Munday, to a special consecrated area – the resting place for 53 nuns.

For Yass and District Historical Society (YDHS) volunteer guide Corrine Chalmers, it’s all about bringing history to life.

As part of the 2024 Canberra and District Heritage Festival, Corrine and other volunteers are conducting tours of the Yass cemetery, this Saturday, 13 April, and next, 20 April, bringing to life the stories of the hundreds of people buried there.

Asked how much research she had to do on who was buried where and why, Corrine said she was “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

“We have an incredible team of archivists here who have spent a lot of time working on the history,” she said.

READ ALSO Yass cafe and gallery Tootsie takes out an international award – as ‘a work of art’

“We have such a vast archive with a wealth of information here. It’s actually been a challenge to choose pertinent information for the tour but we’ve taken a good cross-section.”

The stories they have uncovered are both joyous and heartbreaking. From the notorious crime known as the Conroy Gap murders, when William Munday, who, after a dispute with his employers John and Bridget Conroy, killed them and three others in 1878. Munday was an itinerant worker who had come to the valley in search of a job. His victims are buried at the Yass cemetery.

The Yass Courier newspaper described it on 14 April, 1878, as “one of the most atrocious and blood-thirsty murders it has ever been our lot to record … perpetrated at a part of the southern road known as Conroy’s Gap, about 16 miles from Yass a few days ago. No less than five persons in succession fell victim to the inhuman monster” who, it turned out, was a shepherd.

Man looking at gravesite

Yass Historical Society volunteer guide Wayde Chalmers looks at the gravesite of Rose Emerson. Photo: Sheree Bamforth.

Corrine said she hoped the tour, especially visiting the many graves few people knew about but still told important stories, would resonate with visitors.

“The site where the Sisters of Mercy are buried is beautiful,” she said. “Sadly, there are no more in Yass any more.”

The grandfather of writer Miles Franklin, Joseph Franklin, is also buried at Yass. He had land at Good Hope.

But there are also many stories of sadness among those buried. Anne Shannon, for one. She came to the Valley as one of the Irish orphans aboard the Thomas Arbuthnot. They were described at the time as “a superior class of delinquents”.

“There were 150 of them, mostly orphans who were sent here in eight wagonloads for employment,” Corrine said.

Old headstones at cemetery

The burial site of explorer Hamilton Hume and his wife Elizabeth at Yass cemetery – one of the sites to be visited as part of the tour. Photo: Sally Hopman.

“They worked for seven pounds for two years. Anne was 16 when she arrived and worked as a house servant. She produced nine children.”

The young woman died at only 38 after what was the hardest of lives.

READ ALSO Why a Yass family won’t let the death of their daughter be in vain

The first tour last weekend for YDHS members was booked out, with tickets for 20 April also booked out and only a few left for this Saturday.

For Corrine and members of the YDHS, it’s a joy to spread the word about the Valley’s history, both good and bad.

“One of our members said to me at the tour something which really resonated – ‘How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?’,” she said. “I thought that was quite valid.”

After the tour, which runs from 1:30 pm to 4 pm, visitors will be treated to a Devonshire tea at the nearby historic property, Cliftonwood, a home built for Hamilton Hume.

Bookings for the 13 April tour are essential.

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Do you like to know what’s happening around your region? Every day the About Regional team packages up our most popular stories and sends them straight to your inbox for free. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.