Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Church on Pulpit Hill - Unlocking a Blue Mountains Mystery

Edgar Church's headstone (photo by John Merriman)  
It has long been popularly held that a number of convicts who died while working on road gangs in the Blue Mountains were buried at Pulpit Hill, just west of Katoomba.  There are also folk traditions that free ‘pioneers’ were interred there.  However, when it comes to verifying these traditions, there are few accurate sources.  In the years after the Western Road to Bathurst was opened to traffic in 1815, Pulpit Hill became a recognised resting place for travellers and stock. In the 1830s there appears to have been a stockade in the vicinity and, in 1835, the ‘Shepherd & His Flock Inn’ opened for business.  There was also a police lock-up established there in the early 1860s.  

Until now, the only nineteenth-century reference to graves in the vicinity came from the account of the French surgeon, René Primevère Lesson (1794–1849), who travelled over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst in early 1824.  In his journal, an extract of which was translated by Olive and Ward Havard and published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Lesson wrote:

‘. . . we climbed a high eminence where the road formerly passed, for to-day it winds on the mountain side taking an easy grade. M. d’Urville and I climbed this old road with difficulty and we enjoyed the view of enormous precipices, deep chasms, in short the ruins of nature, which impressed us deeply. On this wind-beaten height stand rocks of various shapes. One of them bore the epitaph of a young man who died there in 1822, and whose still fresh grave will make me call this mount Mount Sepulchre.’[1]

Cox's Road of 1815 ascending Pulpit Hill (photo by John Merriman)
The burial traditions received virtually no mention in the early tourist guides. Perhaps this was a symptom of the social attitude referred to by local museum curator Melbourne Ward who found that, even in the 1940s, ‘it is not usual to mention the Convict, it is a subject to be hastily skimmed over or not mentioned at all.’ While convict relics were featured in his museums at Medlow Bath and Katoomba, he remained aware that to ‘many Australians the relics of those times are barbarous and should be forgotten.’[2]  An exception appears to be the Blue Mountains Railway Tourist Guide, published c. 1902. While there is no mention of the graves in the text, a map is included with the words ‘old cemetery’ located behind the Explorers’ Tree.  This map (printed originally by the Department of Lands, Sydney, in 1894) was re-used some years later by Harry Phillips in his The Blue Mountains & Jenolan Caves Illustrated Tourist Guide (c. 1914).  

In the debate over the authenticity of the Explorers’ Tree which was conducted in the letter columns of The Sydney Morning Herald in August-September 1905 there was, it would appear, no reference made to the graves at all (unlike the later debate in the columns of The Blue Mountains Echo in June 1983). There are, however, several interesting later references which also raise the question of just how many graves are supposed to be on Pulpit Hill.

In 1921 Mr G. Elliott, a resident of Katoomba, told ‘of how, over 60 years ago, he first saw these graves. At that time there were only three, and that long after the convicts had left the Mountains. Now these primitive memorials have been added to. By whom?’[3] The Sydney Morning Herald in March 1933 reported that: ‘Some twenty-two graves may be clearly discerned to-day, but the majority would seem to be the work of vandals and hoaxers. Twenty years ago, when Mrs Taylor, the wife of a rector of Katoomba, visited the spot there were only five, and, according to a Mr Peckman, an 84-year-old Katoomba resident . . . interviewed two or three years ago, there were originally only three. If Mr Peckman’s recollection is correct, it would seem that only three convicts were buried on Pulpit Hill.’[4]
In the 1930s a visitor from Britain commented: ‘On a local map is marked “Convict Graves” behind the Explorers’ Tree on the Bathurst Road. I visited these graves, and, to my surprise, found they consisted of sixteen heaps of rough stones, representing sixteen graves. At the foot of one grave is a stone, on which is roughly carved the name “Picot”, the remainder are nameless. As Picot is a common French name, this convict was probably French, or of French descent. I spoke to a local resident, who remembered when a wooden cross giving the name was on each grave, but they were all destroyed in a bushfire, and never replaced.’[5]
In 1960 Mr L. G. Bogus of Merriwa Street, Katoomba, a resident of the town for seventy years, wrote: ‘On the hill above the Explorers’ Tree there were seven mounds of earth and stones, which were said to be convicts’ graves . . . As a lad, we often visited these “graves”, and someone seems to have cared for them, for we would often find fresh wild flowers and ferns on the mounds, and all dead leaves and rubbish had been brushed away.’  Mr Bogus went on to suggest another theory about the occupants of the graves: ‘We were told that people from Katoomba and Megalong Valley had cared for these “graves”, some being aborigines [sic] who lived in Megalong Valley and in camps in the bush near where Catalina Park is now.’[6]
An unidentified grave on Pulpit Hill (photo by John Merriman)
During the debate about the Explorers’ Tree and the ‘graves’ in 1983, local naturalist and historian Isobel Bowden stated in a letter to the Mayor of the City of Blue Mountains that: ‘Sixty-five years ago the site [Pulpit Hill] was regarded as a genuine burial ground where several graves existed. More recently the area has been interfered with and the stones moved and scattered . . .’ As a child, she added, she had been taken up to see the graves.[7] Furthermore, a Mr. Edward Thompson, who wrote to The Blue Mountains Echo from Adelaide, was reported to have ‘visited the Tree in 1903 at the age of 10 and claims at that time there were three graves which belonged to a convict and two children - all of whom died of diphtheria. When [he] returned seven years later with friends, there were several more mounds of stone and the small ones had been lengthened.’[8]

Despite this conflicting evidence of multiple graves, when the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) of New South Wales employed consultants to conduct a Ground Penetrating Radar study in 2000, they determined that ‘there appears to be only one potential grave site in the investigated area’. They qualified this conclusion, however, by saying that if burials were shallow ‘the natural processes of weathering and the acidic nature of the soil’ might have erased all trace.[9]

If there is only one grave at Pulpit Hill, it is now possible to say with certainty who is buried in it.  It will be recalled that in the earliest known reference to a grave in the area, the French surgeon René Lesson referred to his travelling companion M. d’Urville.  This was Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville (1790—1842), second in command of the Coquille, on which Lesson arrived in New South Wales in January 1824. He was later a significant Pacific and Antarctic explorer in his own right and also an important naturalist and ethnographer in our region.  Jules Verne, mentioned him in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and he is sometimes called ‘The French Captain Cook’.  Despite this, he is absent from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, just one example of how anglocentric our history still is!  The Mitchell Library has preserved a transcript of d’Urville’s shipboard journal during the voyage of the Coquille.  The original is held by the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris.  However, this account is little more than a navigational summary.  Far more interesting is what survives of d’Urville’s personal journal for this voyage, which Edward Duyker located in a bank vault in the explorer’s birthplace, Condé-sur-Noireau, Normandy, in 2007.   The preservation of the journal is all the more remarkable, because in the three months after the D-Day landings in 1944, the town was bombed 26 times by the Allies and 94% of its buildings were destroyed.

Despite d’Urville’s truly forbidding handwriting, in his journal we can read that he described the view from Pulpit Hill as that of an ‘immense diorama’. And that unlike Lesson–who makes no actual mention of Pulpit Hill and wrote cryptically of ‘Mount Sepulchre’ because of the ‘still fresh grave’ of a young man who died there in 1822–d’Urville, actually recorded, in English, what was written on the tomb.  Thus his journal now provides us with an opportunity to reinstate the long lost inscription: ‘Sacred to the Memory of Edgard [sic] Church who has departed this life, the 20 Juny [sic] 1822, aged 27 years’.[10] He also guessed, correctly, that this young man was ‘an unfortunate convict’[11] who died during road construction.  Edgar Church received a sentence of 7 year’s transportation at the Old Bailey, on 4 December 1816, for grand larceny: stealing, on the 9th of November, one trunk, value 16s., the property of Henry Bott and Wm. Payne [trunk makers in Leadenhall street,  London]’.[12] He was one of 220 convicts transported on the 566-ton Batavia (Capt. William Lamb) which departed Plymouth in October 1817 and arrived at Sydney, via Madeira, on 30 April 1818.[13] The Colonial Secretary’s Papers indicate that he was sent to Parramatta on arrival.[14] There is some discrepancy in his age cited by Dumont d’Urville on the grave inscription and his age given at the Old Bailey in December 1816 when he was said to have been 19 years old.  He was therefore born in either 1795 or 1797. 

The members of road gangs tended to be fitter, yet more trusted convicts, because of the greater opportunities such work offered to abscond and to turn to bushranging.  Despite the initial road constructed under the direction of William Cox, realignment, widening, new cuttings and repairs continued–indeed they still continue. Convict road workers were at risk of accidents from falling rocks and trees.  The accounts of early travellers on the road frequently record the difficulties horses, wagons and carts had on its steep gradients and loose surfaces.  Such conditions also presented numerous possibilities for fatal accidents.  However, Edgar Church’s life was not cut short by such an accident.

We know something of the actual circumstances of Church’s death from two depositions sworn before William Lawson, Justice of the Peace, at Bathurst on 23 June 1822.[15] Charles Connells an illiterate crown prisoner, declared that ‘on or about the 10th [sic] of June last 1822 he came to the road mens Huts on the Mountain Road about 9 o’clock at Night and was in one of the Huts lying down’ when two men from the road party came in from another hut, crying, and stated ‘Edgar Church was dead’.  Two men from Connells’ hut then went to investigate and returned saying that it was true and that ‘they supposed that it was the rum that [Superintendent and overseer of the New Road] Mr [Richard] Lewis had given him and one of his hands being in his mouth which had occasioned his Death’.[16] The other deponent was John Atkins, also illiterate, the driver of the government mountain cart.  He, too, declared that Edgar Church, like all the other men, had been given spirits by Mr Lewis and that ‘an Hour before his death the man appeared quite well but went and laid down in one corner of the hutt with his hands clasped together and laid with his mouth down towards the ground, and one of the men shortly after went to remove him to his Bed and said that he was dead’.  Atkins added, that ‘on examining the man they found him a corpse’.[17]

Superintendent Lewis probably gave his convicts rum as a reward for their work, but given the need to keep them fit for more labour, it seems unlikely that he would have given them an excessive quantity (by the standards of the day) on that winter’s night in the mountains, in 1822.   The rum is unlikely to have been adulterated, since none of the other convicts appears to have been adversely affected.  Of course, Edgar Church could have had another illness exacerbated, with fatal consequences, by alcohol.  This might have included mental health issues associated with poverty, the shame associated with criminal conviction and the ill-effects of an alcohol-based reward system. If Edgar Church drank all his ration in a very short period of time, he might simply have died from alcoholic poisoning which is known to have a severe effect on the respiratory system.  His ability to breath, while unconscious, could also have been hindered by his posture in the corner of the hut and the position of his hands near his face and mouth. 

Edgar Church’s sad death, nearly two centuries ago, highlights a debate in Australia about safe levels of alcohol consumption which is still with us to this day. And now that we know who he was, we should put a name to his nameless grave.  May he rest in peace, but no longer in anonymity.


Authors: Edward Duyker and John Low

Edward Duyker (Hon. Sen. Lecturer, Department of French Studies, University of Sydney), his book on Dumont d'Urville was published by Otago University Press in 2014 with the title "Dumont d'Urville, Explorer & Polymath"  

John Low is the former Local Studies Librarian at Blue Mountains City Library.

Editor: John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian, Blue Mountains Library

Note: this article originally appeared in the journal Doryanthes in 2009.

[1] Lesson, R. P., Journal, in Havard, O. and Havard, W. L. (trans.), ‘Some early French
 visitors to the Blue Mountains and Bathurst’, Royal Australian Historical Society
Journal and Proceedings, 1938, vol. xxiv, part iv, pp. 245–290 [part ii, Lesson’s
journal, pp. 260–90].
[2] From Ward’s notes quoted in Mauldon, Verena, Melbourne Ward’s Gallery of Natural History and Native Art, unpublished thesis, Sydney University,
1989, p. 39.
[3] The Blue Mountain Echo, 4 March 1921.
[4] The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 March 1933.
[5] Undated clipping from The Sydney Morning Herald, probably early 1930s, held in Local Studies Section, Blue Mountains City Library.
[6] The Blue Mountains Courier, 21 April, 1960.
[7] Letter dated 25 June, 1983, copy held in Local Studies Section, Blue Mountains City Library.
[8] The Blue Mountains Echo, 29 June 1983.
[9] Williams, S. ‘Pulpit Hill, Great Western Highway, Katoomba, NSW: Subsurface Investigation Using Ground Penetrating Radar To Identify Possible Grave Locations in a Cemetery on Pulpit Hill’, Egis Consulting Australia Pty Ltd for RTA [Roads and Traffic Authority] Technical Services, December 2000. Report No. CG1219 [copy held in the Local Studies Section, Blue Mountains City Library, Springwood].
[10] Dumont d’Urville, Ms journal de la Coquille 1823–4, Municipalité de Condé-sur-
Noireau, Ms 11, 1 février 1824, f. 130.  Whether d’Urville recorded the inscription in situ or at the end of his day’s travel is unknown.  It is possible he unconsciously recorded the common French spelling ‘Edgard’ and perhaps wrote ‘Juny’ because he could not discern (or remember) clearly whether Church died in June or July and therefore fudged the two months.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Proceedings of the Old Bailey, t18161204-14.
[13] See Australian Joint Copying Project, microfilm roll 88, Class and Piece Number HO11/2, Page Number 388 and Bateson, C., The Convict Ships, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1983, pp. 342–3.
[14] Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 4/3498, p. 151.
[15] ‘Depositions of John Connells and John Atkins respecting the  Death of Edgar Church one of the Mountain Road Party’, Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 4/1798, pp. 141–2, State Record Office of New South Wales, microfilm reel 6065.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.

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