Uniquely Western Australian stories are embedded in the collection of graves at East Perth Cemeteries and reflect over 10,000 separate and interconnected lives. The carved stone, marble, iron, slate and granite tell of commerce and government, family and relationships, exploration and change, faith and community, hardship and struggle, love, and ultimately, of loss.
During the first years of the colony the settlers experienced a level of hardship that is difficult to comprehend. There were many causes of death such as measles, tuberculosis and typhoid – drownings were also common. Thirty five women are recorded as having died during or as a result of childbirth, and a staggering 32% of those buried in the Cemeteries are infants.
In October 1839 Jane Pearson arrived with her husband Captain James Pearson en route to Sydney. The newspaper concurrently reported the birth of their son John on 6th November, Jane’s death on 25 November (of dysentry) and baby John a week later on 3 December. The undoubtedly heartbroken James set off for South Australia in March 1840. He left behind his 21 year old wife, their 27 day old son and a most beautiful chest tomb.
The average age of individuals buried in the East Perth Cemeteries is 29 years and 10 months. A bricklayer by the name of John Green was this age when he met with a premature death while sinking a well that collapsed. His story is carved deep into the only Jarrah grave marker to have survived. Now in the collection of the Western Australian Museum, it was removed from East Perth Cemeteries for display at the Paris International Exhibition of 1895 to show the durability of this special Western Australian timber.
On 21st December 2016 contractors were undertaking works on the Perth Airport estate as part of the Forrestfield – AirportLink rail project. Whilst undertaking earth levelling the operator of a front end loader noted a broken headstone. Mystified by the discovery of a headstone on airport land, the contractors stopped work and brought in an archaeologist to investigate. A brief investigation quickly linked it to East Perth Cemeteries and the National Trust.
The headstone was that of Madeline Clifton James who died 4 April 1891 at the age of seven months. She was the daughter of John Charles Horsey James (WA’s first Commissioner of Land Titles and inaugural president of the WA Cricket Association) and Rebecca Catherine James (eldest daughter of Charles and Maria Clifton). John died in 1899 and was buried in the Church of England Cemetery (grave #642). Rebecca died and was buried in Devon, England in 1901 (she is memorialised on her husband’s grave marker).
So how did Madeline’s broken headstone end up so far away? Associated with the headstone were pieces of broken dinnerware and bottles dating from around the time the State Gardens Board did a tidy up of the Cemeteries. Broken headstones and railings were removed and added to landfill.
The discovery of little Madeline James’ headstone is a reminder of the high mortality rate in 19th century Perth. Doubtless never forgotten by her parents, now 127 years after her death we have a tangible prompt for Madeline’s continued memory.