Cemetery site of sighs and stories

Headshot of William Yeoman
William YeomanThe West Australian
The surrounding countryside is beautiful in spring.
Camera IconThe surrounding countryside is beautiful in spring. Credit: Will Yeoman/The West Australian

Toodyay’s Bilya Walk Track starts at Duidgee Park on the town’s west side and follows the Avon River for 5.6km before ending at Nardie Cemetery to the east.

But I won’t be spinning an allegorical tale of life and death. Indeed, I don’t even walk the track (that’s for another day, and another story). Instead, I go straight to the cemetery, a few minutes drive out of town, to discover more about its fate, and the fate of those interred there, whose number includes the ancestors of some of Toodyay’s oldest families.

I say “its fate” first, because both its location near a Dumbarton industrial estate — which includes an earthworks — and its state of neglect are striking.

I hasten to add the local Shire, the Toodyay Historical Society and the Toodyay Friends of the River have clearly made efforts to ensure this haunting location is accessible. The signage and interpretative material, including a map of the Bilya Walk Track and a brief history of the cemetery, are excellent.

The entrance to Nardie Cemetery.
Camera IconThe entrance to Nardie Cemetery. Credit: Will Yeoman/The West Australian

It is in the latter that I read the following:

“Many members of Toodyay’s pioneer settler families have their resting place here: the Fergusons, Whitfields, Clarksons and McDermotts to name a few.”

Two small children were the first to be buried on this site, in unmarked graves, nearly a decade apart: Charles (later Toodyay’s first Anglican minister) and Julia Harper’s infant daughter Isabella (1839) and four-year-old Mary Elizabeth Whitfield (1848).

Charles Harper (later Reverend Charles Harper) leased Nardie from owner James Lloyd from 1840 to 1855. After Harper left, Thomas Millard bought some of Nardie’s riverside acres from the Lloyds and established a farm. Millard became concerned about the infants’ graves being trampled by cattle, leading him to offer the land as an official cemetery.

Blacksmith Alexander (Sandy) Ferguson was thus the first to be officially buried at the site, and Nardie was gazetted in 1856. Joseph Morris Lloyd is also buried there.

In 1867 Bishop Hale consecrated Nardie and Newcastle (now Old Newcastle Public Cemetery — Newcastle being the old name for Toodyay) cemeteries. Unlike Newcastle, Nardie is no longer used as a cemetery (its last inhabitants were interred there in the 1960s). But its legacy lives on. The aforementioned history concludes thus:

“The headstones reveal rich stories from the early years of the Swan River Colony, like that of Nancy Green (nee Turner) who died in Toodyay in 1867. Nancy arrived in Fremantle on the Warrior in March 1830 with her family along with Capt Molloy and his wife Georgiana, who became a famous collector and researcher of WA flora. Other passengers included the Bussell family, after whom Busselton is named.

“In 1834 Nancy was widowed when Capt James McDermott was lost at sea. She inherited his property east of here, known as Mountain Park.”

Some of Toodyay's oldest families have members buried at Nardie Cemetery.
Camera IconSome of Toodyay's oldest families have members buried at Nardie Cemetery. Credit: Will Yeoman/The West Australian

Walking among the overgrown graves in various states of disrepair, I see these names and others inscribed on the headstones. Others again are harder to read, having been worn away by the elements. There are family plots, and there are lonely, isolated graves set apart from the others.

The countryside beyond the river is lush, and there are occasional outbursts of wildflowers.

I am reminded of the opening of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658):

“When the general pyre was out, and the last valediction over, men took a lasting adieu of their interred friends, little expecting the curiosity of future ages should comment upon their ashes; and, having no old experience of the duration of their relics, held no opinion of such after-considerations.”

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