Burials: History and Microfilm Records

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The Columbarium, 
St James’ Church

For much of the 19th century the burial service was usually read, in part, in the residence of the deceased, followed by the committal at the graveside. In the majority of cases there was not a funeral service in the church, as we know it today.

Government records show that the clergy in Sydney worked on a roster system for officiating at burials in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s. As burials usually took place within a day or so of a death (and in some cases on the day of death) this was quite an onerous and time consuming job as the minister had to be on call at short notice to read the burial service.

Each minister would enter the burials that he had conducted during his rostered turn of duty in his church’s burial register. This means that the presence of a particular minister at a burial cannot be taken to imply that the deceased was one of his parishioners, or was even resident in his parish. The St James’ burial registers are continuous from February 1824 to December 1849. From 1850 to 1856 only twenty burials were recorded. The register ends on 9 August 1856. The civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1856.

Place of burial is not recorded in the burial register. St James’ Church has never had a burial ground. The columbarium in the crypt of the church, which is reserved for the deposition of parishioners’ ashes, came into use in 1930.

Cemeteries in Sydney and its suburbs

Much useful information about cemeteries in Sydney and its suburbs is provided in the book Sydney Burial Ground 1819–1901 (Elizabeth and Devonshire Streets) and History of Sydney’s Early Cemeteries from 1788 by Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty, published in 2001 by the Library of Australian History. Appendix 4 of this publication lists all of the cemeteries in the Greater Sydney region, in chronological order, and Appendix 5 gives their location, name, modern place name and the date when each came into use, together with other remarks (eg. ‘Still in use’).

The main Sydney cemetery for much of the 19th century was the Devonshire Street Cemetery at what was then the southern extent of the town. This was used from 1819 until it was closed in 1888 and was totally removed in 1900 to build the present Central Railway Station. The bodies were exhumed and moved to other cemeteries. The documentary records of the cemetery are incomplete and by the time it was moved many headstones had decayed or been damaged and were indecipherable. Many burials would never have had headstones and so the remains could not be individually identified.

The history of the cemetery, its removal and the relocation of the remains to other cemeteries are fully explained in Sydney Burial Ground 1819–1901 (Elizabeth and Devonshire Streets) and History of Sydney’s Early Cemeteries from 1788 by Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty. The book also includes indexes to all of the surviving documentary records of the Devonshire Street Cemetery and the monumental inscriptions transferred to Bunnerong and transcribed by the authors in 1969.

Further information about cemetery records and much useful guidance for family historians is available from The Society of Australian Genealogists, Richmond Villa, 120 Kent Street, Sydney, NSW 2000. Its website is www.sag.org.au.

Monuments and Memorials in St James’ Church

St James’ Church has a fine collection of 19th century marble memorials that commemorate notable members of Colonial society as well as regular worshippers. The 20th century memorials commemorate the lives of parishioners.


St James’ Church was the second Anglican church in Sydney. It was consecrated by the Reverend Samuel Marsden on 11 February 1824 and has been in continuous use as a place of worship since that date.

The baptism, marriage and burial registers of the church are a valuable source of information for family historians. They are however very fragile and, for conservation reasons, are not generally available to researchers; nor may they be photocopied. In order to make these registers available for research, while ensuring their preservation, various records have been microfilmed.

The following St James’ burial records have been microfilmed:

Burials 29 February 1824–1856

Records after this date are not currently available for general research.

These microfilms are available at:

The Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Macquarie Street, Sydney

The Society of Australian Genealogists, Richmond Villa, 120 Kent Street, Sydney

The Society of Australian Genealogists’ (SAG) Reel Numbers for the microfilmed St James’ Church records are given for ease of reference and are as follows:


SAG Reel 61 Burials 1824–1825

SAG Reel 62 Burials 1826–1834

SAG Reel 136 Burials 1834–1838

SAG Reel 61 Burials 1839 to 9 August 1856

SAG Reel 68 Burials 22 Dec 1845 to 28 July 1846