Old Cheltenham Cemetery: A brief history

View of the Old Cheltenham Cemetery. The grave of James Jamison, a Cheltenham pioneer is the white monument to the left of the photograph.

With the dramatic five-fold increase in Melbourne’s population in the 1850’s [1], to a large extent brought about by the gold rushes and lure of instant riches, it soon became evident that the Old Melbourne Cemetery (West Melbourne) could not cope. The solution adopted by the elected authorities was to set aside reservations throughout the metropolis, and numerous ‘public infirmaries’ opened - Melbourne General (Carlton) in 1853, both St Kilda and Brighton in 1855, Williamstown three years later, and Boroondara in 1859. It is interesting to note that the relevant Act at the time did not allow cemeteries within a mile of any township.[2] This explains why these cemeteries were all situated at distant locations from their respective town centres.

For those communities on the periphery of these towns with cemeteries, to travel across unmade roads to bury the dead was becoming increasingly difficult. Certainly, for such towns as Mordialloc, Cheltenham and Moorabbin, the track which was to become Point Nepean Road, a "broad, sprawling, unkempt and dusty thoroughfare" prone to flooding, was hardly ideal for the sombre nature of a funeral procession! [3] It is in this context that smaller burial grounds were set aside to serve these semi-independent communities until improvements in transportation alleviated the problem. Oakleigh and Old Cheltenham were but two examples, the latter cemetery being the subject of this brief history.

The story of Old Cheltenham needs to be seen in the context of the history of the Beaumaris Cemetery (corner Bickford Court and Balcombe Road), being the first burial ground in the district. Beaumaris opened for burials in 1855 on one and a half acres of land donated to the Wesleyan Church by Stephen Charman. The practice of establishing churchyard cemeteries was rare in Melbourne and only a handful survive to this day, the most prominent locally being St Andrew’s Church of England, New Street, Brighton.

Although there were a few exceptions, the burial ground at Beaumaris was used primarily by members of the Wesleyan faith living in the district. Generally the members of the Church of England, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches at that time continued to use cemeteries to the north. This was particularly so for the more affluent families.

The reasons that led to Beaumaris’s demise in 1865, the year that Old Cheltenham opened, can only be speculated upon.[4] The advent of Old Cheltenham Cemetery could be a factor. Other reasons were perhaps its small size, the falling numbers in the chapel’s congregation, the establishment of a rival church, and the adverse topographical features of the graveyard.[5]

The distance to the Brighton and St Kilda cemeteries, the lack of a burial ground able to serve the needs of the whole community and a growing population all may have been contributing factors which led to a committee of residents approaching the Lands Department for land to be set aside for the burial of the dead. Subsequently, a meeting to appoint Trustees of the Cemetery was held at the Cheltenham Hotel, chaired by Thomas Attenborough (c1829-1899), with James Jamison (c1830-1906) as Treasurer, both prominent persons in the history of the Cheltenham district. In addition to Attenborough and Jamison, James Nagle, Robert Kay and Jonathan Stanway Parker were also elected trustees.[6]

The grave of Mary and Thomas Attenborough, sister and brother, who were early pioneers of Dingley.

Later, eight acres of land fronting Charman Road, just a few of hundred metres from the then town centre along Point Nepean Road, was offered to the Trust.[7] The choice of land available to the Trust was restricted. The area eventually offered was part of the only government reserve in the locality - bounded by Reserve, Park, Charman and Weatherall roads.[8]

Initially, just half of the eight acres was used. These original four acres consisted of Church of England one acre, Methodist (Wesleyan) 7/8 of an acre, Presbyterian 3/4 of an acre, Baptist and Disciples (Church of Christ) 5/8 of an acre, Roman Catholic 1/2 an acre and Strangers Ground 1/4 of an acre. It was common for cemeteries to reflect the religious composition of the locality, in particular that the dominate faith be accorded the area of greater prominence. In this case, the Church of England with twenty five per cent of the cemetery set aside at the highest point of the entire area is evidence of the strong number of adherents it had at the time. The Church of Christ had a numerically strong and active congregation at Cheltenham and this is also reflected in the size of their allocation by the Cemetery Trust.

During 1864, before burials were accepted, steps were undertaken to prepare the area, including the clearing of the ti-tree shrubs, the laying out of the main cemetery road, the erection of a timber gate fronting Charman Road, and the fencing of the four acres. The Trustees were able to undertake the work having been provided with a £40 grant, and receiving public subscriptions totaling £12-11-6.[9] By October 3, 1864 the "South Moorabbin and Mordialloc General Cemetery", as it was originally known was ‘officially’ open for burials.[10] However, it wasn’t until March 27, 1865, when the first interment took place, namely that of John Fullerton Hunter (c1841-65).

A snapshot of those buried in the early days of the cemetery reveals an interesting picture. In the first year, 1865, of the sixteen souls who were interred, the average age being just 7.7, twelve of these were children under the age of 10 years old. In contrast, the last full year, 1997, there were twenty interments, the average age being 73.9.

Click hereClick here to view this information in Adobe PDF formatto view this information in Adobe PDF format. [19]

Mention must be made to the enigmatic named Strangers Ground. While areas within each denominational section were set aside for ‘public’ (or common) interments - those who paid a lesser fee foregoing the right to erect a monument - it is believed the non-denominational Strangers Ground was for those who could not afford even a public burial or whose identity was unknown. It is possible that unlike other cemeteries, the Cemetery Trust decided to designate an area with the intention of separating the public graves from the ‘pauper’ burials.

In one of the two Church of England sections set aside for public burials of that faith, there are two headstones. This can be explained by referring to the practice at Brighton Cemetery, that allowed for the ‘upgrading’ of a grave from public to private, and therefore gaining permission to erect a headstone monument. Significantly, both of these graves - Church of England, Section G, Graves 18 and 57 - have only one internment each.

The Strangers Ground, located on the present day Church of England Section S, is where a total of 186 persons, mostly stillborn babies, were interred between September 1865 and July 1920. In October 1928, the Secretary of the Trust, Charles Bright, wrote to the Health Department seeking permission to exhume just 12 of the 186 interments and re-inter them in Presbyterian Public Section E.[11] The following year the Detailed Financial Statement reveals £4 was expended in "Exhuming Fees", suggesting that approval was given by the Law Department. The area where the 174 interments remained was reused for other burials from November 1930.

One of the twelve interments believed to have been exhumed and re-interred was ‘Eliza’, an Aboriginal who was originally buried on March 1, 1877 (Strangers Ground, Section A, Grave 40). Another indigenous Australian interred at the cemetery, ‘Tiger’, buried January 14, 1887 can be located at Church of England, Section G, Grave 49. There are however, a total of 644 persons, or 3.5 per cent of the total number of burials, who lie in locations that cannot be identified. This fact coupled with the circumstances surrounding the Strangers Ground is a sorry chapter in the history of the cemetery.

In 1869, four years after the first burial, the Cheltenham Primary School (then known as Beaumaris No 84), directly to the south of the cemetery, opened as a government school.[12] In 1872, a group of Cheltenham residents who had been agitating for some years for the building of a school east of Point Nepean Road used the presence of the cemetery adjacent to No 84 as part of their argument why a new school was necessary. Inspector Charles Topp (1847-1932, Boroondara Cemetery) looked into the situation and reported, "An objection has been raised to the site of No 84 on the ground that it is near the cemetery - I do not attach much weight to this - no ill result to the health of the children is likely to occur from such proximity for many years to come".[13]

The objection of the school being adjacent to the cemetery, as reported by Topp, reflects the social prejudices against cemeteries, perceptions that were to continue until around the 1940’s when burial grounds were finally accepted as having no effect on the environment or the health of people. The fact that the school was built there was out of step with the opinion of the time and is highly significant.

Another significant event occurred around 1880 when an area of 3 roods (0.75 acres) in the north-eastern corner was compulsorily acquired by the Railways Department for the construction of a single-track railway from Caulfield to Mordialloc.[14] It seems that not even the presence of a cemetery deterred the ubiquitous (Sir) Thomas Bent (1838-1909, Brighton Cemetery) from improperly influencing the route of the railway! However, none of the 380 interments that had taken place to that date were buried in the affected area.

The effect of this compulsory acquisition, apart from the Cemetery Trust receiving £50 in compensation, was that the Presbyterian, Methodist, and to an extent the Roman Catholic denominations were to lose a large proportion of their respective areas. No doubt the Presbyterians suffered more having effectively had their area reduced by half.[15] In 1882, an additional 2 acres and 21 perches (2.13 acres) of land was added to the Cemetery.[16]

The current disused office building when built, further eroded the area set aside for the Methodists. There were 17 interments buried between August 1865 and January 1876 in Methodist Section C, Graves 72 to 83, including the first burial of that faith. These twelve graves, all marked on the gravesite map, are located in the backyard of the office, and under the north-western corner of the building. While the date of its construction is not known at present, the architecture indicates around the 1880’s, with the rear accommodation added probably in the 1920’s. It is suggested that the site of the office is not the location of the original timber structure built in the early years of the cemetery. This view is supported if one examines closely the ‘gaps’ between the gravesite numbers marked on the map for Methodist Section A.

With the technological advances in transportation and the rapid expansion of the Melbourne metropolis, it was only a matter of time before all of the various Melbourne cemeteries served districts other than that they were originally intended to serve. Old Cheltenham was no exception and rapidly filled thereafter until it became necessary for the Cemetery Trust to take the necessary steps to cater for this increased demand.

In 1905, the Trustees were unsuccessful in seeking an extension of some 3 to 4 acres comprising the rear of the Cheltenham Primary School.[17] However the original section was increased to include the area directly west of the plantation reserve roundabout. The first interment - John Grieve (c1850-1911) on 3 June 1911 - was of the Presbyterian faith. By this time 46 per cent of the original area was full, and for the combined Presbyterian sections, this figure was 62 per cent, highlighting the scarcity of land for that denomination.[18]

This extension added another 4,823 grave sites, making up 62 per cent of the cemetery of 9.38 acres, thus allowing Old Cheltenham to continue to cater for the expanding local population and Greater Melbourne until March 1933. It was at that time when the "Cheltenham Cemetery No. 2" opened in Holloway (Wangara) Road with 21 acres, later extended to approximately 40 acres over a number of stages between the 1940’s and 1980’s. And despite popular belief, the Old Cheltenham Cemetery is not ‘full’, with as many as 430 gravesites having never been used for interments.

The grave of William Charles Coleman, a pioneer of Mordialloc.

The location of Old Cheltenham, for many years as largely an ‘outer-city’ cemetery and its relatively small size, meant that other inner city cemeteries were favoured by the more notable Melburnians. Because of this, the Old Cheltenham Cemetery is a rich source of notable local pioneers and identities. Moreover, it is an exceptional example of Anglo-Saxon burial practices and tastes pre-World War II, being largely unaffected by the more lavish opulent-styled monuments favoured by certain ethnic groups. As St Kilda Cemetery (Dandenong Rd, East St Kilda) is the only other cemetery comparable in this regard, Old Cheltenham is highly significant and worthy of preservation.


  1. From 29,000 in 1851 to 126,000 in 1861. (Cribbin, J., Moorabbin. A Pictorial History 1862-1994, p25).
  2. The Argus 19 August 1853 p5.
  3. Cribbin, J., Moorabbin. A Pictorial History 1862-1994, p4.
  4. Only one interment is known to have been exhumed from the Beaumaris Cemetery and interred at Old Cheltenham - Elizabeth (Sarah?) Gott located at Church of England Section E, Grave 189.
  5. There was a spring water running through the Cemetery making parts of the area water-logged.
  6. Victoria Government Gazette 24 March 1863 p647.
  7. Victoria Government Gazette 17 April 1874 p731.
  8. "Plan of the Parish of Moorabbin, 1853", cited in Cribbin, J., Moorabbin. A Pictorial History 1862-1994, p14 -15.
  9. Victoria Government Gazette 11 August 1865 p1793 and 11 October 1864 p2275-76.
  10. The name was changed to "Cheltenham Cemetery" upon the request of the Trust in September 1917.
  11. These twelve interments were Baby South (buried 5.9.1865); Angus McLeod (18.4.1866); Baby Morris (26.5.1866); Baby Docwra (20.2.1867); Baby Vangelder (6.4.1867); Baby Mohlundorf/Mokerdorf (1.6.1867); Baby Dougherty (28.1.1868); Baby Falkiner (25.4.1868); Baby Docwra (20.5.1868); Richard Harris (8.3.1875); ‘Eliza’ (1.3.1877); Unknown Man, found at Mordialloc (21.2.1889).
  12. Cribbin, J., Moorabbin. A Pictorial History 1862-1994, p67.
  13. Board of Education correspondence.
  14. Victoria Government Gazette 7 June 1889 p1851.
  15. Presbyterian now made up 10.3% of the total number of marked gravesites; Church of Christ 7.0%; Baptist 9.7%; Roman Catholic 14.1%; Methodist 21.9%; and Church of England 36.7%.
  16. Victoria Government Gazette 3 March 1882 p564.
  17. Health Department file on Cheltenham Cemetery (Part I 1900-1949).
  18. Of the original area, 1,332 of the 2,865 marked gravesites were used, and for the six Presbyterian sections with just 297 graves, 186 were used.
  19. Sellers, T., (1998) Burial Listing Database
  • Private - burial in a grave for which a right of burial (deed) has been issued for a fee. Re-opening, interment and digging fees are charged by the cemetery;
  • Public (common) - burial in unmarked ground [but defined on the gravesite map] at no charge. Interment and digging fees are charged by the cemetery;
  • Pauper (destitute/government funerals/crown burials/free) - burial in unmarked ground [but defined on the gravesite map] for which the cemetery charges no fees for either the land or the interment. A periodic contract is let by the government for the cost of the funeral.
27 June 2018
  • Cribbin, J., (1995) Moorabbin. A Pictorial History 1862-1994, City of Kingston.
  • Lemon, A., & Morgan, M., (1990) Buried by the Sea. A History of Williamstown Cemetery, Rivka Frank & Associates.
  • Longmuir, E., (1973) Early Cheltenham: the Times and Customs of its People.
  • Sellers, T., (1998) Old Cheltenham Cemetery Headstone Inscription and Burial Listing Database. (A microfiche edition is available for purchase from MacBeth Genealogical Services, Hampton, Victoria. Telephone: 9598 0435 or email: sales@macbeth.com.au)
  • Health Department Files on Cheltenham Cemetery.
  • Sellers, T., (1998) Burial Listing Database.
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