No. 955 - Hobart - Cornelian Bay - Derwent Chapel

The Derwent Chapel at Cornelian Bay is the site of Tasmania’s first crematorium (and crematorium chapel), opening in May 1936. Until recently it served as a funeral chapel and is still surrounded by beautiful memorial gardens.

Cornelian Bay cemetery opened in 1872 after Hobart’s cemeteries were closed to new burials. The town’s cemeteries had become unkempt and also a significant health hazards. In 1919 Mr Alfred Courtney-Pratt recalled visiting St David’s cemetery as a child to see the grave of a female relative:

“The ground had been allowed to fall into a shocking condition, and he had…seen children collecting bones there, placing them in a bag, and selling them for old bones”.

In the 1890s a public campaign gathered momentum for the human remains in the old cemeteries to be disinterred and reburied at Cornelian Bay. These remains are among the estimated 100,000 burials and 60,000 cremations at Tasmania’s largest cemetery.

The campaign to remove Hobart’s cemeteries coincided with calls for the establishment of a crematorium for the city. In 1896 a series of articles written by “J.T.”, were published in the Tasmanian Democrat, invigorating public debate around this issue. The argument put forward by “J.T.” was that traditional burials were costly and that headstones were an unsightly blight on the townscape:

“I do not think that shoving a dead body into the ground will be less expensive than its disposal by cremation. At present the lowest price paid for a grave being dug is about 12s. Most everybody has a hearse to be conveyed in. This conveyance, I suppose, would be found necessary also if the body was to be cremated. There may be other small charges—I suppose the clergyman gets something, also the grave digger may look for a trifle. If the" body is cremated, this should about cover all charges. It is not here, so far, that any extravagance has been displayed. It is when a family burying place is bought and leave given to enclose it, and erect tombstones or monuments over the departed. For a piece of ground suitable for this purpose you will have in the first place to pay from four to five pounds, then it has to be enclosed by an expensive iron railing; then the tombstones and monuments make their appearance. The money spent on these, often unsightly structures, would have been in many cases far better employed in providing for the family left behind. It seems to be the fashion to have a tombstone or a monument on which the virtues of the deceased can be inscribed in fancy, letters. The tombstones are monotonous in their uniformity, but the monuments here, you see what looks like a glorified candle in marble or granite, those extraordinary models such as children make with toys, all costing a lot of money, and for little else than an ostentatious display by the relatives of the dear departed. …..Hobart must take the cake in this matter. You cannot go in any direction from that city but you come across either a graveyard or, a cemetery….the Davies-street cemetery, in the centre of the town, is a disgrace to any community, surrounded on all sides by houses, and having a common sewer running through its centre. Here are expensive monuments in every style, neglected and in a state of mossy-decay, and the tombs of former Governors, and men who held high positions in the colony, standing in a wilderness……When the body is cremated there will be no occasion for monuments. The handful or two of dust remaining after the operation can be taken away with you and enclosed in an ornamental urn, and placed anywhere in your house, on the mantel-piece if you like. Or it can be-put in a niche in the columbarium”.

In September 1905 the debate over cremation was ‘reignited’ following the controversial disposal of a body at Lindisfarne. The Daily Telegraph reported:

“A late resident of Lindisfarne was cremated on Saturday morning. His funeral pyre consisted of 14 tons of wood”. [see photograph below].

The issue was not the cremation itself as the practise was not entirely uncommon, but rather unregulated aspects of the practise, especially concerning the issuing of death certificates and the potential for the disposal of bodies which had not necessarily died from natural causes. The Lindisfarne incident was debated in the Tasmanian House of Assembly and gave rise to the State’s first ‘Cremation Act’.

The purpose of the Cremations Act of 1905 was to regulate this practise and upon its successful passage the Hobart Mercury commented:

“This [cremation] has all along been permissible in Tasmania, with no further precaution against the unlawful putting away of a human cadaver out of sight and identification, than a one man certificate of death, and though cremations, have been few, and at all times free from suspicion of malpractice, it is just as well that this method of disposing of the dead should be hedged around with precaution. For cremation may become fashionable…..prejudice and sentimentality may go down before the promptings of common-sense, and crematoriums become regularly recognised as necessary adjuncts to cemeteries...contravention of such regulations will render the offender liable, on summary conviction, to a penalty not exceeding £50…The penal clauses of the Act enjoin that it shall not be lawful to burn or cremate human remains which have not been identified, nor in any case where the Attorney-General, or a Coroner, or Police Magistrate shall forbid…..nor in any place not approved of for the purpose by the Chief Health Officer. These are necessary precautions, and in consonance with regard for the fitness of things. There have been recent instances in Tasmania where bodies of the “dear departed" have been carted into the bush, and consigned to a pyre of firewood. Nothing indecorous or uncanny in this from one point of view, but now that cremation is to be legalised, it seems but right that St. Paul's precept should be observed, "Let all things be done among you in a seemly and due order.”

With the passage of The Cremation Act 1905, the reality of the establishment of public crematorium in Tasmania was at last brought into focus. However, several decades were to pass before progress was made and by this time crematoria had been established in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.

The first crematorium in the southern hemisphere was built in the West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide, South Australia. On Friday 17 October 1902 the foundation stone for the West Terrace Crematorium was laid by the Hon. John Greely Jenkins (1851–1923), the only South Australian Premier to be born in the United States. The first ‘official’ cremation in Australia occurred in 1903. Before it was put into operation, the crematorium had first to be tested:

“The body of a sheep, enclosed in a suitable coffin, was placed in the Crematorium. Within 30 minutes the process appeared to be nearly complete, but the burning was continued longer than was expected, and it took 70 minutes. The trial was considered completely successful”.

The first cremation of human remains at the West Terrace Crematorium took place on Monday 4 May 1903. The body cremated was that of Bishin Singh, a man of the Sikh faith from Punjab, India, who had died at the age of 30 of natural causes. Incidentally, first first woman to be cremated in Australia, took place in the same facility on 16 September 1905.

Campaigns to build crematoria at Hobart and Launceston were contemporaneous and it was Hobart that first succeeded. The campaign was long and arduous and required the passage of another Act of parliament. Indeed, this history is too complex to cover here, but it will suffice to say that it took 30 years to realise after the passing of the 1905 Act.

In December 1935 the Mercury reported:

“The construction of a crematorium for Hobart will be begun immediately at the extreme easterly end of the Cornelian Bay Cemetery, …The building will be of brick; and the estimated total cost is £3,400. The work will be finished in about four months”.

“The general lay-out of the building will consist of a large chapel, with receiving hall and crematory adjoining. Entrance will be obtained through a columned porch direct to the chapel, the interior of which, as time goes on, will be lined with memorial urns, placed in copper recesses. At the far end of the chapel will be a raised dais containing a handsome catafalque, upon which the casket will be placed during the service. When the time arrives for the committal the casket will be lowered slowly out of view by means of a hydraulic lift concealed in the catafalque. It will then be conveyed to the cremation chamber, and from there to the crematory. Utmost silence will be a feature of tho operation”.

The article went on to describe the the building:

“The general construction of the building will be of red brick, relieved with variegated brickwork. It will have a semi-glazed tile roof. The interior of the chapel will have a brick dado with decorative plaster above and fibrous plaster ceilings, while the dais will be separated from the chapel proper by an arched and columned opening. The exterior design of the building will have a decided Georgian appearance with the columned entrance porch, flush gables, leaded glass windows, and variegated brick quoins and trim. The land immediately surround of the building is to be laid out with paths, flower beds, hedges, etc., to form a Garden of Remembrance, in which the ashes of those who so desire will be scattered. The plans and specifications have been proposed by Mr. Eric H. Round, architect, Collins Street, Hobart,….”.

The building was officially opened on Tuesday 19 May 1936 by the Lord Mayor of Hobart, Mr J. Wignall and the chapel was blessed by the Bishop of Tasmania, Dr. R.S. Hay.

The first cremation took place on Wednesday 20 May 1936:

“The first cremation since the official opening of the first Tasmanian crematorium at Cornelian Bay Cemetery took place yesterday. Following an impressive funeral the remains of Mr. M. E. Tolman, who served with the 26th Battalion, A.I.F. in the Great War, were cremated. The esteem In which the late Mr. Tolman was held was evidenced by the large attendance. The deceased was invalided home after two and a half years of service, and his death at the Repatriation Hospital, Hobart, was not unexpected…..The service In the crematorium chapel was conducted by Archdeacon D. B. Blackwood. It was the first cremation service conducted in Hobart. The casket was draped with the Union Jack, and the 26th Battalion colours….Mr. A. Partington sounded "The Last Post" at the door of the chapel. The funeral arrangements were carried out by H. C. Millington Pty. Ltd.”.

Cremation at Beltana (Lindisfarne) 1905. This led to the passing of the Cremation Act in the same year. Source: Libraries Tasmania AUTAS001139594188j2k

St David's Cemetery in the process of being cleared Source: Libaries Tasmania

The crematorium and chapel as it appeared in 1936 - The Mercury

The Mercury 1936

The Mercury 1936


Tasmanian Democrat, Friday 7 August 1896, page 2
Tasmanian Democrat, Friday 14 August 1896, page 4
The Mercury, Tuesday 26 April 1898, page 3
Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 5 September 1905, page 5
Tasmanian News, Thursday 7 September 1905, page 2
Daily Telegraph, Saturday 16 September 1905, page 5
Mercury, Friday 3 November 1905, page 4
World, Tuesday 4 March 1919, page 5
Daily Telegraph, Thursday 7 September 1905, page 2
Mercury, Thursday 12 December 1935, page 3
Mercury, Wednesday 11 March 1936, page 5
Mercury, Monday 18 May 1936, page 1
Mercury, Wednesday 20 May 1936, page 10
Mercury, Thursday 21 May 1936, page 4


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