The Ghosts of Redcastle Cemetery

By Michael Martin

If you go on one of the Club working bees to Redcastle Cemetery, or even just visit the place in isolation, you can’t avoid the feeling that you are not alone. Redcastle is near Heathcote, and in the last half of the 19th century was, from all accounts, a rip-roaring gold mining town which once had 17,000 people – but the cemetery has just 12 graves with headstones or markers. Some of these are multiple graves, of course, but where are the rest?

Many were probably marked with wooden crosses or headboards, which have disappeared over time, and others had nothing at all. There are well over 200 people actually buried there – many of whom, it would seem, are still hanging around keeping an eye on things. The place is full of ghosts.

The main legacy nowadays is several patches of agave cactus, which someone once must have thought would look nice on a grave, but it has spread and we are trying to eradicate it. (Agave must be the most horrible, disgusting, awful plant in existence, and the prickles make you feel intolerably itchy.)

My interest in the cemetery started last Easter, when we were having “Fun in the Flinders”, thanks to the generous hospitality of the South Australian club. We were on the “Ghosts of the Flinders” trip, and were on our way to look at an old cemetery when Margaret Ritchie came on the radio to tell the group about how the Victorian club is maintaining this little cemetery, out in the bush at a place called Redcastle.

“But we don’t know much about it”, Margaret said. “We can pull the weeds out, but apart from a few headstones, we don’t know who is buried there. There don’t seem to be any records.” At that point I had not been to the cemetery, and could not visualise it, but I started to think that there must be records somewhere. So I decided to start digging around on the Internet once we were home.

After many false hits (apparently there is a Redcastle in Scotland) I did actually find a few useful sites, including one put up by the Croatian community in Victoria. (There were many Croatians at Redcastle in the early days. One of them, Andrea Franatovich, discovered the first payable gold in the area.) Another site, put up by the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies, mentioned something called the “Index to Bendigo Region Cemeteries”, produced in 1998 by their Bendigo branch, and said to contain entries for all rural cemeteries in the Bendigo area. It was divided into two documents, one for “Northern Districts” and one for “Southern Districts”, and there were entries for Redcastle in the Northern section. This seemed a bit strange, because if you look at a map, Redcastle is actually south of Bendigo, but in any case it looked promising. The next step was to track down a copy – preferably in or around Melbourne.

After yet more internet searching, I found they had a copy on microfiche in the State Library of Victoria – that’s the one with the big dome, in Swanston Street. As I had to go into town every Tuesday afternoon anyway, I decided to go in early, visit the library, and have a look.

A very helpful attendant in the genealogy section showed me where to find the microfiche and then how to operate a microfiche reader. I discovered that the Northern Section listing runs to three sheets of microfiche, and includes 36 cemeteries in the area, including places like Bridgewater, Dunolly, Graytown, Heathcote, Rochester, Wedderburn and Whroo. Many of these are quite large compared to Redcastle.

A preamble on the first sheet stated that the index contains something over 30,000 individual names, but much to my dismay, they were listed in alphabetical order of surname, with adjacent columns for date of burial, age, and name of cemetery where buried. This was understandable I suppose, as most researchers would be looking for a name rather than a cemetery, but how I wished I could enter a command to say “sort on name of cemetery”. Alas, not possible with microfiche, so I resigned myself to scanning down the “cemetery” column, looking for the magic word “Redcastle”. There weren’t many. Sometimes I would go for hundreds of entries without finding any, and then there might be multiple Redcastles on the same page, for example where there were several people with the same surname. But these would be mixed up with others of that surname who were buried in other places, so I had to be sure to scan the correct line. Talk about going cross-eyed, not to mention just plain cross. After four Tuesday afternoons, I had a list of about 140 names, which I typed up into an Excel spreadsheet.

In my forays around the Internet, I had also come across the name and contact details for a very helpful lady named Lois Comeadow. Lois, who lives in Noble Park, has a keen interest in all things genealogical, and has ready access to the indexes of births, deaths and marriages. I forwarded a copy of the spreadsheet to her, and she was good enough to send it back with all sorts of additional information – mainly in regard to parents and offspring of the people on the list. I was able to include much of this. Thanks again Lois, and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me saying that if anyone wants help with some genealogical research of their own, I can pass on her email address.

Now comes the bad part. (Bad for me, that is.) Lois had also given me contact details for Greg Speirs, who works in the Heathcote office of the City of Greater Bendigo. She suggested he might be able to help me with further information about the Redcastle cemetery. So I emailed him, and he replied saying: “Michael, a number of years ago a Mrs Cochrane completed a full list of the Redcastle Cemetery Burial Index giving all details relating to each burial. A copy of the Index is available at the Heathcote office for viewing.”

Ouch!! You could have knocked me down with a feather!! All those Tuesday afternoons going cross-eyed, and someone had done it already?? So I eventually went to Heathcote to view their list, and was gratified to find that it was almost identical to mine. They had nine extra names which were not on my list, but I could easily have missed nine names out of 30,000 while going cross-eyed in the library, so I just added them to my list.

But the really interesting part was that for every name on their list, there was a separate page of additional information, under the following headings:

Date of death; Surname and Christian names; Age at death; Occupation; Place of death; Usual residence; Cause of death; Duration of last illness; Name of informant; Parents’ names; Occupation of father; Date of burial; Names of witnesses; Place of birth; Date of inquest (if any); Registration number; and Sundry information (a line or two saying something about the person, often with names of children, where married and to whom, etc.)

And, almost as an afterthought, the main list had this comment at the end: “Approximately 50 Chinese burials in unmarked graves, interred along fence near dirt road.”

The one thing they didn’t have (I asked) was a plan of the cemetery, showing who is buried where. Apparently one did exist, but it was lost with the transfer of records many years ago.

I also went out to the cemetery to have another look around and take a few photos. I took a wrong turn somewhere, and finished up in Costerfield on the Heathcote – Nagambie road. Never mind, because there was another sign pointing back to Redcastle, and the drive through the forest was enjoyable. It’s a box-ironbark forest, mysterious trees with gnarled and blackened trunks, and in August there was an understorey of small wattles and other plants just coming into flower. The roads through the forest are well formed dirt roads – you don’t need 4WD, but you do need to drive cautiously so as to avoid the odd pothole and the odd kangaroo.

Eventually you come to a “Redcastle” sign, and you try to work out where the pubs, shops, churches and other buildings had been. The place virtually ceased to exist when mining ended around 1910. Apart from a few farm houses, an occasional mullock heap, and sometimes a hint of what may have been a building site or a foundation, there’s not much. A little further on, and there’s a road signposted “Redcastle Cemetery Road”, and off that, down a short side track, is the cemetery itself.

It’s a forlorn sort of place. Despite the club’s efforts, the agave and other weeds are still much in evidence, and not helped by piles of dead agaves which have been pulled out and left to wither. Of the handful of graves, although some are in good condition, others are crumbling away, or with inscriptions which are now difficult or impossible to read. There are several large eucalypts scattered through the cemetery, and when the wind blows and the sun goes behind a cloud, it sounds mournful and feels very chilly. Once the agave problem is solved, I hope we can do a bit of landscaping, perhaps even plant a few wattles and grevilleas, and cheer the place up a bit.

One of the fascinating things to emerge from the research was family patterns and relationships, and events which must have occurred behind the scenes. Lois had suggested looking in the local press around relevant dates, searching for news items or obituaries, so a few more Tuesday afternoons were spent in the newspapers section of the State library, perusing microfilmed copies of the “McIvor Times” (the local Heathcote paper, still functioning) from the 1860s and 1870s. Here are just a few examples of things which emerged – I’m sure there would be more if you went looking:

One of the first things to catch my attention was an unnamed Thomson child who was stillborn on 19th May 1901, and an Annie Thomson, aged 36, who died on the same day. Annie’s father was William Thomson, so “Thomson” was evidently her maiden name. Was there a story here?

Sure enough, I found the following extract in the edition for May 23rd 1901 of the McIvor Times: “DEATH OF MISS THOMPSON – We are sorry to have to record the death, which occurred at her father’s residence, Toolleen, on Sunday last, of Miss Annie Thompson, eldest daughter of Mr. William Thompson, blacksmith. Miss Thompson, who was 36 years of age, had been ailing for about six months, suffering from a severe form of dropsy, for which she had been under treatment in Melbourne, and returned home recently. The funeral took place on Tuesday and was numerously attended, the remains being interred in the Redcastle Cemetery. Mr. Crowle was the undertaker.” They consistently spell the name with a P, but it has to be the same person. There’s no mention of a baby (shock, horror), but a stillborn baby with the same surname was buried on the same day, and the “fact sheet” for the infant, as held in the Heathcote office, just says under sundry info: “presumed interred with mother”. It seems that Annie had an incurable illness, was also unmarried and pregnant, and took the stillborn child out with her. The poor child was never named, and we don’t even know its gender.

I also noticed that there were two baby Hamilton girls who died on the same day and were of the same age. Twin sisters? This was confirmed by the quite imposing and well preserved family headstone, which includes the words “…also their infant twin daughters”. Infant mortality was rife in those days, of course, but for both to die on the same day suggested something unusual, perhaps an accident of some kind. So I went off to the McIvor Times around the date of burial, and found…. nothing at all. Whatever had happened, it wasn’t newsworthy, and there was no obituary. The records at Heathcote subsequently told me that the girls died of dysentery. It must have been really hard for the parents to see their girls die like that, both on the same day, and only one year old.

There is a headstone for some of the Lonsdales, which starts out saying: “In memory of our dear parents”, and then lists three names: William J. Lonsdale, Jessie M. Lonsdale, and Emma L. Lonsdale. Evidently placed by the children, but how could they have three parents? It seems to indicate a tragic family history. My list shows that William and Jessie had two daughters (Hannah and Leah Emma) who both died as infants, and Jessie herself died at the age of 24 – evidently at or soon after giving birth to Hannah, who in turn died a few months later. It seems that William J. then went on to marry Emma L., and they subsequently had more offspring. The surviving children who placed this stone had a common father and two different mothers.

A few of the people buried at Redcastle have names well-known in the history of retail stores in Australia – Moran, and Foy. During the last Redcastle working bee, we were approached by local residents Dawn and Paul Bruce. They told us they believed that the Morans and the Foys in the cemetery were actually related to the wealthy retailing families. It is possible they got their financial start in life with the gold they recovered from the Redcastle diggings – or maybe they started out as storekeepers to the miners?

Finally, I would like to pass on some words of wisdom as provided by James McKee, who took up residence in Redcastle cemetery on August 17th 1902. James was a local publican during the 1860s and 1870s, and while I was searching the McIvor Times of 1869 for any news of the Hamilton twins, I couldn’t help noticing the following advertisement, which appears regularly over several editions:

“ALBION HOTEL REDCASTLE – JAMES McKEE – Having purchased the premises lately known as Clarke’s Hotel, Redcastle, begs to inform his friends, and the Public, that he has opened the house as the Albion Hotel, where he will be always prepared to supply the best wines, spirits and malt liquors. Good accommodation for man and horse. Families accommodated with apartments. James McKee will also keep on hand a supply of General Merchandise and Colonial Produce.”

This advertisement also provides an insight into John Clarke (another of our residents), who was also a publican, and evidently had this hotel before James McKee took it over. John originally had a pub at Seymour, and arrived at Redcastle in 1859. He is reputed to have made the first discovery of gold in the area, although this was disputed by one Andrea Franatovich – there is quite a diatribe about it on the Croatian web site.

It’s good to know that two of our residents, in turn, had one local pub, and there was at least one other: “Another prominent resident of Red Castle, formerly from Croatia, was Antonio Geronovich who owned a hotel called “All Nations Hotel”. He remained in Red Castle until his death, and was buried in the Redcastle cemetery. After his wife’s death she also was buried at the same cemetery. Geronovich’s children were all girls who were educated at the Redcastle primary school. One of his daughters married and continued to reside in Red Castle, and sent some of her children to the same primary school.” (From the Croatian web site.)

So next time you are at the cemetery, pulling out agave cactuses and feeling like a cold beer, just see if you can catch one of their ghosts passing by.

If you’ve read this far, you might be interested in my Excel spreadsheet of Redcastle burials. It runs to five pages, in landscape format, and is too big to include in the magazine. I can provide printed or email copies, or if you have web access, there is a link to it from the club’s web site.

Some interesting web sites: