The ‘sexton’ was basically the onsite manager of the cemetery, in charge of looking after it and dealing with the bereaved. They lived in a cottage or house in or next to the cemetery, usually with their family, and oversaw gravediggers and other associated labourers.
Typical duties of the sexton, according to an 1880s document, were: “Digging graves; being present at all funerals and rendering whatever assistance may be required; closing in graves; affixing a number to each grave, immediately on completion of interment, corresponding with the entry in the register; seeing that the gates are properly and securely fastened and fences in good repair; keeping down the grass and weeds and generally keeping the grounds in good order; keeping the paths clean, in good order and repair; planting out from time to time any shrubs or trees that may be provided by the trustees and attending to and looking after the preservation of same; receiving burial fees and paying over the same…” They would also liaise with undertakers.
The first sexton at South Brisbane was John Standring, who left soon afterwards to take up a position at the new cemetery at Toowong.
He was replaced by Thomas Magee, who was married to Elizabeth Ruddy and had 11 children, 10 of whom are interred in the South Brisbane Cemetery. Tom died in 1909. Their son Robert was sent to Boggo Road prison for three months in 1916 for stealing metal rails from a grave in the cemetery.
Robert Shipp was the longest-serving sexton at the cemetery, being in the job from about 1887 until the early 1930s. Robert arrived in Brisbane with his parents and five siblings in 1862, at the age of one year. He and his wife Margaret had nine children together, living in the caretaker’s cottage at the cemetery. He was reputed to go to work armed with his crowbar and his pet bird (a magpie or crow) sitting on the handle. Three of the Shipp children died and were buried at South Brisbane while Robert was still the sexton there.
Margaret died in 1902 and was also interred in the cemetery. Robert remarried in 1904, his new wife being Eliza Magee, the widowed daughter-in-law of Tom Magee, who had been the second sexton at the cemetery. Robert died in 1935 and was interred in the Shipp family plot in South Brisbane.
The next sexton was Robert Crease Souter, who was succeeded by Geoff Lewis and then the last sexton Alan Bavister, who retired in the 1980s. The old sexton’s house in the corner of the cemetery Annerley Road burned down in 1996.