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The Lost Graveyard of Terranora Creek


There are of course many little old graveyards dotted around the Queensland landscape today, some in better shape than others, but there are lots more that never made it this far and have been lost to history. I have written about the 'Gibson Island plague cemetery' before, and here I will look at a burial ground that once lay on the banks of Terranora Creek, off the Tweed River just inside the New South Wales border, and is today gone but not quite forgotten.*

Tweed Heads. (Australian Town and Country Journal, August 1886)

This small burial ground was laid out close to the Terranora Creek sometime in the 1840s/50s as part of what was originally known as Tarranora ('little river'), the first non-Indigenous settlement in the area, established from 1844. The cemetery lay in the vicinity of what is now Philp Parade/Dry Dock Road.

Tarranora was built by southern cedar-getters. The logs they cut down in the region were transported south on schooners, some of which were wrecked on the shallow river bar. This was a shipping hazard until retaining walls were built in the 1890s, and among the dead buried in the cemetery were those who died in the nearby wreck of the schooner 'Ebenezer' in July 1859.
'LOSS OF THE EBENEZER. The Fortune, which arrived last night from the Tweed River, brings intelligence of the total wreck of the above named schooner. She sailed from this port for the Tweed, and on the 30th ultimo, on taking the bar, with a heavy sea rolling in, the wind fell light, and she got on the rocks. Every endeavour was made to get her off by running out a kedge, but she broke up suddenly, and we are sorry to add that two ladies, named Mrs. J. and E. Boyd, with their two children, were unfortunately drowned: the rest of the passengers and crew were saved.' (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 1859)
Unfortunately their graveyard was a bit too close to the waters, and over time graves were lost as persistent flooding eroded the bank. By the 1920s only three headstones remained, and only one of those was still standing. The oldest stone was said to date back to 1856, but some of the inscriptions were by then indecipherable. A visitor at the time wrote a very useful account of the state of the place. and his words were published in the Border Star newspaper in September 1932:
'At Tarranora is the Tweed's first cemetery and to this sacred spot where "the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep", a pilgrimage was made last Sunday by Brisbane tourists, to inspect the neglected graves of the victims of the 'Ebenezer' and 'Mary Jane' disasters. Gnarled old age has its home in this cemetery situated on Government reserved land on the right bank of the stream facing the East with lovely Eucalypts all around where the numerous dead are lying. Rank weeds and bracken surround the crumbling gravestones, which speak of the disappearance or forgetfulness of those whom the dead have left behind, of the slender memories of the present generation for their grand-sires who went through storm and stress when the Tweed was young and Australia battling for its very existence. There is an unmistakable air of melancholy where the dead are lying. But the butcher bird whistles its song in the neighbouring thicket, the subdued sound of the sea can be heard moaning a requiem and except where the shadows are dense the bright sun covers all with a benediction - Requiescat in pace. 
There are only three graves visible and marked by tombstones, in one of which no less than six persons are interred, Old hands state there were ten or twelve well-defined graves there at one time though many more persons were buried there in what was for many years the only cemetery on the river, and two more monuments have disappeared by the erosion of the riverbank.

The lettering on the monuments is weather-worn and some of the dates in the records of a whole chapter of tragic events are now almost undecipherable. Here they are.
'Sacred to the memory of Hannah, the beloved wife of John Boyd, aged 26 years. Also Thomas, son of the above named John Boyd, aged 2 years and 3 months. Also to the memory of Mary Ann, the beloved wife of Edward Boyd, aged 24 years, all of whom perished in the wreck of the ill-fated schooner Ebenezer at the entrance of the Tweed River on 30th July 1859. Also Edward, the only son of the above named Mary Ann and Edward Boyd who also perished in the above named vessel, aged 2 years; Also Richard second son of Thomas and Mary Boyd who died 30th December 1859, aged one year; Also Edward Boyd who died February 5th 1863, from the effects of a gunshot wound inflicted by the hand of an assassin at the Tweed River, aged 34 years.'
(His 'assassination', it is said, was due to an aboriginal. This Mr. Boyd was one of the survivors of the 'Ebenezer' wreck.) 
A few feet to the left of this remarkable record stands a second headstone bearing the inscription:- 'Sacred to the memory of Bridget Gillett who departed this life August 1st, 1856, aged 38 years. May the Lord have mercy on her soul.' 
A third stone was lying flat at the water's edge, having been undermined by the erosion of the bank in many years' lapping of the tide. cluster of oysters has taken possession of the scroll on top. It reads:- 'Sacred to the memory of Margaret Wootten who departed this life August 3rd, 1856, aged 37 years; Also Charles Wootten who was drowned going from the Tweed River to Sydney on board of the ill-fated ''Mary Jane'' on 26th July 1861, aged 45 years. Gone out with the tide. May the Lord have mercy on their souls.' Erected by his beloved wife, Delia Wootten. 
In 1926 the Australian Workers' Union held their convention at Coolangatta. During a river excursion the delegates were landed at this old cemetery. Realising the significance of the tombstones they set to work with rope and pole to raise them into safety on the high bank. Then with bared heads they stood around while Senator Barnes, like a true patriot, gave a brief speech in memory... 'Peace to their souls, for surely in their careers it is shown these departed pioneers fulfilled some Divine decree in the regulating of a great destiny.' For which things the thanks of Australia are due to the A.W.U. and Senator Barnes. 
Dry Dock was not only the first town on the Tweed but several schooners were built there in the early days. Mr. Philp who has lived nearby for nearly 40 years, states that many years ago an old lady inspected the cemetery. She said her father Mr. Henry Gillett built a schooner just beside the cemetery and she was a native of the Tarranora hamlet. 
It is recorded of the great Wolfe that just before the battle of Quebec which decided the fate of the vast North American continent, that he recited to those officers in the launch with him, 'Gray's Elegy', those beautiful lines on an old English churchyard - admitted to be the finest epic poem in the English language - and that when he came to the immortal verse:- 
'The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power
And all that beauty all that wealth e'er gave
Await alike the inevitable hour;
The paths of glory lead but to the grave,'
he turned to his officers and said: "Gentlemen believe me when I say that I would rather have written this poem than take Quebec."

Anyone who looks at the one picture of the lonely cemetery at Tarranora which tells of the last gallant struggles of those who, in their day without clarion-like advertisement in an unostentatious way helped to build the glory of our Empire will understand something of what the famous soldier felt when he uttered his memorable words. In this little spot marked by a few crumbling freestone monuments with the inscriptions of nine persons lie how many hopes and loves and ambitions, brought by the paths of glory to untimely graves?... 
Somewhere within this quiet place Jack Warwick, a former British naval seaman and cedar-getter's cook was drowned there, and an American sailor also sleep their last sleep... 
Of the ill-fated 'Mary Jane' I have never been able to gain any documentary evidence. The records of the Navigation Department go back only to 1870. Old hands say she was one of the many cranky coracles that went out from our port with a human freight and was never again heard of - mysteries that must remain unsolved until that day when the sea shall give up her dead. The late Mr. Tom Lillie who was living at the Dry Dock in the Fifties said the hotelkeeper was lost in this manner whilst going to Sydney. 
Bridget Gillett was the second wife of the late Henry Gillett, shipwright, who died at the Coldstream, Clarence River, 17 3 81 aged 80 years. With his wife and two children, he embarked as a ship's carpenter on the emigrant ship 'Hiberna' which carried 550 souls for Australia. When 60 days out the ship took fire and all efforts to subdue it were ineffectual. The boats were few and unseaworthy and hopelessly inadequate to the demands upon them. Over 500 lives were lost, including his wife and children! The survivors returned to Rio de Janeiro. Eventually he reached Sydney in 1826, where he built the 'Susan'. He was in that vessel when she was the first boat to enter the Clarence in 1830. On that river he built the 'Martha' and 'Elizabeth' and the 'Atlanta'. Then he went to the Bellinger and built the 'Matha Ann'. Moving to the Tweed in the early Fifties, Mr. Gillett built 'The Twin', the first vessel launched on the river in 1854, that being the year in which twins were born to Mr. and Mrs. Gillett, the vessel being named 'The Twins' in consequence. The lady who visited the graves many years ago was one of the twins. After the death of his second wife he returned to the Clarence in 1858.
The object of this article is to plead that love of antiquity alone should urge the preservation of a particular memorial as these old gravestones are, before it is too late. Even now some words in the epitaphs are for ever obliterated. Quaintly worded as they are they are nevertheless a loss to posterity in the eyes of those who love the few surviving records of the old pioneers. The Tweed affords an extraordinary variety of interest and beauty. Part of its attraction is the historical interest - romantic if one will - which age always brings to the scenes and monuments of man's early struggles with primeval nature. It is of course true that we in Australia are just a little shy of admitting this interest and many indeed are still quite indifferent to the past. But to say the least, the indulgence, of such a taste will not hurt us and a proper concern for origins and for the memorials of past history has always characterised self-respecting peoples once they have reached a stage of leisure and self-consciousness. It would be difficult to find a more touching scene of human pathos than these forlorn and neglected tombstones present to us, or one which more strikingly illustrates the typical chances of life and death which belonged to the pioneer story of Australia. If we knew no more than these inscriptions tell us, they are enough to make the preservation of these monuments a matter not merely of piety but of common and national interest. But, set in the framework of the pioneer story of the Tweed country they acquire added pathos and historical value.'
The dry dock (constructed 1898) on the Tweed, 1937. This was
located near the old graveyard. (John Oxley Library)

These three stones were later recovered and one went on display at the Tweed Heads Maritime Museum (later renamed the Tweed Heads Historical Society and linked with the Tweed Regional Museum). The Terranora headstone is still in the custody of the THHS. In the 1960s the 'Taranora Cemetery and Memorial Stone' was erected on the riverbank off Philp Parade, in the locality of the original burial ground. This monument is still standing. In 2007 a new monument was erected on the north side of the Tweed River, off a car park on Coral Street. While this is some way from the original location of the burial ground, it is nevertheless good to see an effort has been made to acknowledge local history.

The Philp Road monument, 2003 
(Tweed Heads Historical Society)

The new location off Coral Street.

Chronology of historic Tweed Heads cemeteries

The Terranora cemetery was part of the foundation settlement in the Tweed estuary.
A cemetery was in use at North Tumbulgum from 1873 until 1947. It was later restored and can still be visited.

The Chinderah cemetery was in use by the Lower Tweed during the last few decades of the 19th century. The council still maintain this place but it is closed to burials.

The cemetery at Florence Street (now Charles Street Cemetery), Tweed Heads, opened in the late 19th century. It is still maintained by the local council but is no longer an operational cemetery.

There is also a graveyard at Fingal which was been used by Aboriginal and Islander peoples during 1864-1964.

Chris Dawson

* Article originally published August 2016.