Feature Articles

1910c View cemetery site at Pippi Beach

Yamba’s buried history

Yamba’s Yesteryears


Burials took place from 1860 in the area originally designated a “Church Reserve”, opposite Pippi Beach. The original road access from Grafton to Yamba via Glenugie and Taloumbi, surveyed by WAB Greaves in 1863, ran through it at the eastern end. It became the official cemetery from 1891 to 1931. The late Lin McSwan compiled a list of burials at Yamba Cemetery in her book, Lower Clarence Cemetery List. This has been expanded in John McNamara’s book, Yamba, The Next Thirty Years and reveals some tragic stories.

1889 Plan of Yamba General Cemetery

Of the thirty recorded burials between 1860 and 1931, only three died from natural causes; seventeen were children and there were six drownings, two suicides and two work place accidents. The remote location and the lack of medical knowledge/services played a part in most of these deaths.

Several infants were only hours old and accounted as premature births. Some families suffered the death of more than one child. Abraham and Maria Carr of Palmers Island had two children drown in the Clarence: Kerr aged fourteen months in 1869 and Ruth aged eighteen months in 1872. Twenty years later one of their surviving children, James Carr, had two of his children buried here: Thomas Francis (two days old, 1894) and Sydney Sylvester (four months old, 1896). The twin children of a tugboat captain, Charles and Mary Purcival died in 1895, just four days old. James and Mary Emma Tarkalson suffered the loss of two infant children, in 1889 and 1894, while James was a quarryman in Yamba. Childhood illness could be fatal in the absence of medical aid – Lilian Pearl Alger, the five-year-old daughter of another quarryman, died from tonsillitis at Angourie in 1897. Seven month old Isabel Kate Dean died from bronchitis in 1906.

The earliest burial was of John Miley in 1860; he died of an unknown disease while on board a vessel sailing to Sydney.  Two of the adult burials were of harbour workers crushed by trucks laden with stone – William Broughton, aged twenty in 1863 and John Whelan, aged forty four in 1866.

In 1895 a local drunk known as ‘Fat Sam’ dived into the river for a swimming challenge after drinking with mates at the Yamba Hotel and never surfaced. Alcohol played a part in other deaths too. Edward Lee was thirty five when he died after a drunken fight in 1870. The body of Sarah Eite, 51, was discovered floating outside the Breakwater in 1865. An investigation found that she had been drinking heavily and that she had committed suicide. Another suicide was that of Thomas Hutchings, 55, in 1927. His body was found hanging in a well near the Yamba racecourse. A rope was tied to a stump and to his ankles and was long enough so his head was below the water level.

The last burial in the Yamba cemetery was of William Marshall, aged eighty four years, who died in 1931 of ‘senile decay’. The cemetery was then abandoned due to sand encroachment. In 1941, the old cemetery dedication was revoked and a new cemetery site surveyed adjacent to Angourie Road within Portion 114. There is no record of any burials there, despite trustees being appointed. All future local burials were at Maclean Cemetery or the Lower Clarence Lawn cemetery at Townsend.

These tragic stories give us glimpses of the hard life of early settlers in this area.

In 2000, work on the Beachside development at Pippi Beach was halted when the Yamboora Corporation warned that a cemetery was located in the general area and requested an investigation of the site during which it was reported that one of the sandminers who had worked in the area had told a local resident that graves were uncovered during sandmining operations in 1971-72, put in a hessian bag and reburied. Another sandminer declared that a skull was dug up and found in the vibrating grisly screen, a device that sorted sticks, rocks and other matter from the sand scooped up by a front end loader. It was apparently put back where it came from and no further mining was carried out on that area.

No trace of the cemetery remains today, but there are most likely bodies and gravestones still in the area covered by sand.

John McNamara and Sue Spence, Port of Yamba Historical Society.