Sunday, 20 January 2013

All Aboard: Sydney's funeral trains

What I'm reading: Legend Beyond the Stars, by SE Gilchrist; Bruce, by Peter Ames Carlin (bio of Bruce Springsteen), and Burial, by Graham Masterton. 

 Yes, another morbid topic. Other bloggers have posted on this subject, but it's so fascinating I had to investigate it myself. Why? A while ago I was wandering around Newcastle's Sandgate Cemetery, as you do, and I noticed an old railway track alongside the graves and thought, hmm, this is interesting, what was a train doing way out here? So naturally I googled it.

Also, on Regent Street, Redfern (or Chippendale - there seems to be some confusion), next to Central Station, is a beautiful, restored building (except that some plonkers have tagged all over it) - you see it whenever you come into Central above ground on the northern lines - and I've always wondered what it is. So I googled that as well, and looked up a few archives, and it turns out that and the railway line at Sandgate are connected.

Mortuary Station today, view from Regent Street side.
Photo by J. Bar.
 The building at Central is a railway platform, originally a station dedicated to the trains that carried the dead and their mourners out to Rookwood Necropolis at Haslam's Creek (now Lidcombe), about 17km from Sydney's centre. Over the years the station has been known as both Necropolis Receiving Station and Mortuary Station. Officially opened in June 1869, it was designed by colonial architect James Barnet (not Florence Taylor or James Blackett, as some internet sites and newspaper articles state), incorporating elements of Gothic style, and embellished by sculptors Thomas Ducket and Henry Apperly, who carved leaves, flowers, fruit, angels, cherubs and, my favourite, gargoyles.

Mortuary Station - platform.
Photo by Thortful at en.wikipedia.
Barnet, Ducket and Apperly were also responsible for the design and decoration of the train station built within the grounds of Rookwood Necropolis, and opened in April 1867. This station was originally known as Haslam's Creek Cemetery Station, then Haslam's Creek Receiving House, then the Mortuary Station Necropolis, followed by Mortuary Station No. 1, then Mortuary General Cemetery Station, and finally Cemetery Station No. 1. This must have been quite confusing for people getting on the train at the other end.

There was plenty of room at Rookwood for the rail network to expand, and it did. In May 1897 a second station was built, originally known as Mortuary Station, then Mortuary Teminus, and finally Cemetery Station No. 3. This was followed by a third station in December 1901, known at first as the Roman Catholic Platform, then as Cemetery Station No. 2. Finally, No. 4 Mortuary Station opened in June, 1908. Only Cemetery Station No. 1 was grandiose - the latter three stations were quite modest structures.

The funeral train ran twice a day from Mortuary Station at Central, the coffins placed on shelves in 'hearse' vans at the rear of the train. En route to Rookwood, the train stopped to pick up other coffins and mourners. At the cemetery, the train came to a halt inside Cemetery Station No. 1 and the coffins offloaded using wheeled litters. Presumably, after Cemetery Stations 2 and 3 and No. 4 Mortuary Station were built, coffins and mourners were trained straight to the station closest to where the deceased were to be buried. On the other hand, you shouldn't presume anything when it comes to history.

For those cultures who held wakes to farewell their dead, the train trip to and from Rookwood could apparently be quite eventful. According to one source, whose father attended many funerals between 1918 and 1938, some funeral parties would load cases of beer, cartons of spirits and quite substantial feasts onto the train at the Central end, and start the wake before even reaching Rookwood. At the cemetery the coffin would be transferred to wheeled litter, accompanied by the refreshments on any spare litters, and the funeral procession proceed to the grave. After the burial service, to demonstrate to the departed the high level of esteem in which he/she was held, material evidence of the wake - bottle tops, chicken bones, oyster shells, meat pie crusts, etc. - would be tossed onto the coffin. Occasionally the litters came in handy to transport tired and emotional mourners back to the cemetery stations. Less amusingly, now and then fights would break out on Cemetery Station No. 1's platform, between drunk and grieving funeral parties of different nationalities, as they waited for the train to depart.

Cemetery Station No.1 at Rookwood. Photo dated c1865,
but this is a couple of years too early.
The funeral train service was at its busiest around 1900 (be interesting to find out why then, though I haven't), but had tapered off by 1930 as travel by road improved, except for Sundays and Mothers' Days. The service was revived during WWII due to petrol rationing, but in 1948 was terminated. All four cemetery stations were closed and the majestic Cemetery Station No. 1 fell into complete disrepair. In 1957 Reverend T. Buckle of All Saints' Church of Ainslee tendered £100 to remove the stonework, shifted the lot to Canberra for £8,000 and resurrected the building as a church for £6,000.

After Central's Mortuary Station ceased to service funeral trains in 1948, it was  used as a platform for livestock (no pun intended) - dogs, horses and poultry. In 1950 it became a parcels station and the name subsequently changed to Regent Street Station. The State Rail Authority restored the station in 1981 at a cost of around $600,000, it was heritage registered by the National Trust and the Australian Heritage Commission, and reopened April 1985. Then, unbelievably, the following year it opened as a pancake restaurant called the Magic Mortuary, at which patrons bought tickets for their meals from the former ticket office. It failed and the restaurant cars were removed 1989. It has since been used to launch special train services and public displays of trains.

What's all this got to do with Newcastle's Sandgate Cemetery? General Cemetery Platform at Sandgate was opened in 1881, the same year as the cemetery, and was the terminus of the funeral train that ran north from Sydney's Mortuary Station. In 1890, General Cemetery Platform was renamed Sandgate Cemetery Platform, and operated until 1985. A funeral train also ran south from Sydney, to Woronora General Cemetery in Sutherland. So now I know what those railway lines are doing in the middle of Sandgate Cemetery.

Monday, 14 January 2013

This week's blog...

This week I guest blogged at

Well, I'm not really a guest, as I'm actually a member of Hunter Romance Writers. Have a look if you're interested.

Here's the cartoon that should have gone with that blog, except I couldn't get the layout to work on Wordpress:

'"So far all her dreams have not come true but she wants high romance and a baby while
 her husband wants to be, and is, a very successful broker, who takes graduate courses
at night and wants no baby and at the same time she has more or less recovered from
being in love with the well-digger who dug her well, which is good since he is married
with three children and is a drug addict and an alcoholic and he claims he's dying,
although there are no signs of this and she says once she finds an outlet for her unrequited
love she will lose eighty-five pounds."   I enjoyed that sentence.'

Cartoon from Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:
how to edit yourself into print
(illustrations by George Booth) 


Sunday, 6 January 2013

Creating interesting characters

What I'm reading: The Writer's Journey: mythic structure for writers by Christopher Vogler; The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott; Spirit House by Mark Dapin

While I'm certainly not the world's foremost expert on literary craft, these days I've got a reasonable handle on how to at least write my own books. I thought, therefore, from time to time, I might share some of the knowledge I've picked up - and mistakes I've learnt not to make quite so often.

I'll begin with character development, because as far as I'm concerned you can have the most original and exciting plot ever, but if your characters don't appeal to your readers, they won't care. And if your readers don't care, they won't finish the book.

There is a belief popular with some writers, which I admit I subscribed to myself for some time, that characters actually come to life when you're writing them, and sort of magically do things off their own bat that drive the story along, and all the writer has to do is type like mad to keep up. It was great fun, and easy, writing like that, until I started getting comments from editors about gaping holes in character arcs and flawed plots.

Why? Because I hadn't laid the foundations for my characters' motivations. My characters were doing things I hadn't set them up to do, and as a result their actions in the story didn't ring true. For example, if in Chapter 1 Mary Ann is a happy girl full of sweetness and light, and in Chapter 7 she suddenly wallops someone's head off with an axe, as the writer I needed to have built into her character a plausible reason - otherwise known as motivation - for her to do that. Note that 'the plot says she has to' is not an acceptable motivation.

And don't blame your characters and moan, 'But I can't control them. They just do it!', which is what I once said to an editor. I won't repeat in full here what she said back, but it included 'grow up'. So I did. Fictional characters are not real, no matter how much writers might feel they are. Every  dimension of a character comes out of a writer's head, therefore you, as that writer, have total control over what they do. So set them up properly right from the start. Give them all the motivation they need, and try to make it original while you're at it - which is a big ask as these days there isn't much  new under the literary sun - and if you can't make it original at least make it intriguing.

Fabulous character Fagin, from
Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist
In real life people do all sorts of things for a range of reasons. If it's something bad, it's often due to anger, resentment, jealousy, etc. If they do something good, it can be for love or altruism, or  sometimes for less noble reasons, such as self-aggrandizement. Your characters' behaviours should mirror reality, so your readers can recognise and connect with them, even your 'baddies'.

Understand, too, that real people often aren't driven by just one emotion - there will usually be a combination of feelings festering away under what the world sees. Just watch Dr Phil. If you're writing about a character's anger, be aware that people get angry because they're frightened, or lonely, or they've been betrayed or whatever. Focus on these 'invisible' or secondary emotions, not just the anger, to give your characters more depth. One dimensional characters are boring. The most interesting characters can be the ones who have a mix of both good and bad in them - just like normal, real people.

To keep track of my major characters, I set up one-page 'passports' for them. I'll include their name, date of birth, hair and eye colour, height, distinguishing physical characteristics like scars, tattoos, missing teeth, etc, habits such as whether they smoke (pipe or fags), personal quirks, eg, pushes hair back from face or taps foot when agitated, family members, and dates of major life events from their backstory. I'll also attach a picture, if I can find one that works perfectly for them. The better you know your characters, the better you can tell their story. It's a handy tool for reference to avoid silly mistakes, and when writing a series I can add to it as characters change.

Names are important. I always take care to choose the right one. Because I write historical fiction, obviously I use names that were popular in the era in which I'm writing. Modern names like 'Crystal' and 'Tiffany' just SO don't work for 19th century characters. This is a good site for 19th century names: or you can go to various 19th century birth, marriage and emigration records for authentic names. Be aware, though, that the Americans favoured slightly more religious-sounding names than the English, particularly for boys. Sometimes, for a particularly flamboyant character, I'll choose a suitably out-there name, such as Friday Woolfe, whom I named after St. Frideswide. But names, really, deserve a blog all to themselves.