History in the headstones

For some, it sounds like it could be bordering on the macabre but for many, a cemetery is filled with fascination, or as authors Helen Goltz and Chris Adams like to put it, stories about ordinary people who have been involved in extraordinary events.

It could be the young girl serendipitously boarding the Pearl ferry on the Brisbane River in 1896, or the young man from Clermont who gallantly served his country at Gallipoli only to die in poverty in a West End boarding house; bushfire, the shearer’s strike or murder.

The headstones seldom tell the story or the historic event that led to their demise – but Helen and Chris do.
And it has been a fascinating journey for them – and one that is ongoing.
“In cemeteries throughout Australia, gravestones hint at our history – tales of early settlement, unsolved murders, love lost, mystery, tragedy, health epidemics, scandal and sacrifice,” they say.

“We reveal more than the headstone can ever convey by tracing the tumultuous journeys that led to these final resting places; people who willingly or unwilling, were participants in events that made local and national headlines. They may have lived in the same suburbs, streets, and even the same houses as exist now.”
Their first book Grave Tales – Stories Not Laid to Rest which covers some of the occupants of five Brisbane cemeteries is out now, and a second Grave Tales – Great Ocean Road is to be launched this month, with a third about Sydney and a fourth covering the towns along the Bruce Highway, already in the pipeline.
“I had been thinking about the concept for more than a decade, but never really did anything about it,” says Chris. “Then we moved to Port Fairy in Victoria for a seachange and found it was so isolated that we had time to start working on it.”

They returned to Brisbane and although they had collected a lot of information from their Victorian experience, decided home should come first and set to work covering not just the people, but the history that necessarily comes with them – the train crash of 1947; the only woman to die on the gallows in Queensland; the man who introduced the world to Goanna Oil; a murderous surburban housefire; and the Douglas DC-3 that went down in 1943.

Together, they have the perfect mix of skills for the task. Both journalists, Chris worked in radio and television documentaries and Helen on newspapers and as a television and radio producer. They were both well familiar with the art of telling the stories of people and their lives – how to “spin a good yarn” as Chris puts it.
“I grew up in Toowoomba and I would go with dad to visit the old Drayton cemetery where his parents were buried,” Helen says. “I was always more fascinated than fearful even as a kid. Cemeteries are very peaceful places.”

They started by wandering through old cemeteries looking at headstones for hints. From there it was solid research, haunting the state library and reading old newspapers.
“We didn’t want to make it a family history, although we do get a lot of families who happily provide their own research and photos,” Helen says. “It’s like winning the lottery when you find something. I get really emotionally connected with these people.”

One of her favourites is the story of Grace Yorsten, who was 27 when she drowned in the Brisbane River.
Part of the Victoria Bridge had been washed away in the great flood of 1896 and the Pearl was one of several small boats pressed into service to carry commuters across the river.
It capsized at the cost of at least 40 lives although it was never known just how many people were on board at the time.

“For me it was a sliding door moment,” Helen says. “Grace had been observed dawdling towards the ferry and in no rush to catch it, so she took the next one, the Pearl.”
For Chris, a favourite is the story of the only man shot in the 1894 shearer’s strike.
“I had never realised just how close we came to civil war,” he says. “I never really knew the details and I had never even heard of some events. Stories are being lost.”

They agree though, that the biggest frustration has come from parents naming their children after themselves.
“It’s the hand-me-down names,” says Helen. “There have been times when it wasn’t even the person that we thought was buried there, but their son or father. Historical societies and cemetery trusts have been brilliant in helping us sort these out.”

They are also giving back to the cemeteries, with $1 from every book sold going towards cemetery heritage restoration in Brisbane and with their new Great Ocean Road book, to see that a headstone is finally put up for a 17-year-old sailor whose ship went down on the “shipwreck coast”.

It’s an ongoing labour of love chasing up the stories of everyday people and Chris has also found himself on the talk circuit, speaking to library groups and various clubs and organisations.

“But we are doing what we love,” he says. “It’s the whole history of it and telling the story for those who never got to tell it for themselves.”

Visit gravetales.com.au to find out more or order the book.