If you’re looking for a close encounter with a ghost this Halloween, you’re guaranteed one at Camperdown Cemetery. Bathsheba Ghost, the second matron of Sydney Hospital, died in 1866, and her tomb lies in the graveyard attached to St Stephen’s Church in Newtown.

Ghost arrived in the colony as a convict in 1839 after being sentenced by the Old Bailey to 14 years transportation for receiving stolen goods. She was granted a conditional pardon in 1847, and was installed as Matron of the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary in 1852.[fold]

Ghost is one of 18,000 souls laid to rest between 1848 and 1869 in Camperdown Cemetery, the oldest surviving cemetery in Sydney. Two cemeteries predate it; the fledgling settlement’s first official cemetery was the Old Sydney Burial Ground, first in use in the 1790s and now under Sydney Town Hall. Devonshire Street Cemetery, active between 1820 and 1867, was cleared in 1901 to make way for Central Station. Some of the bodies and their headstones were moved to other metropolitan cemeteries including Gore Hill Cemetery in St Leonards, which was consecrated in 1868 and is now a historic slice of green-space sitting alongside Royal North Shore Hospital.

Both cemeteries are rich in Sydney’s oft-forgotten 19th century history, like the story of the wreck of the Dunbar, one of the largest losses of life in Australia’s peacetime history. On the night of August 20, 1857 the Dunbar ran aground at The Gap in treacherous weather. Camperdown Cemetery is the resting place for the 22 people recovered of the 121 souls who perished in the wreck.

“It’s a great story, Australia’s Titanic,” says Marcelle Rodgers, whose husband is a former minister at St Stephen’s. Many of the ship’s passengers were returning to Australia from England, and the effect on the young colony was profound; twenty thousand mourners lined George Street to witness the victims’ funeral procession.

Another noteworthy resident of Camperdown Cemetery is Eliza Donnithorne, said to be the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ famous literary creation, Miss Havisham. When her betrothed failed to turn up on their wedding day, Donnithorne, also the subject of local writer Evelyn Juer’s book The Recluse (2012), was believed to have left the wedding breakfast laid out untouched on a table in her house until the day she died, as Miss Havisham did in Great Expectations.

It’s possible that Dickens heard about Donnithorne from his friend and Newtown resident Caroline Chisolm, who is also said to have inspired a Dickens character, Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House. “The clincher,” says Rodgers, “is that when the tomb was vandalised about seven years ago, the Dickens society gave us some money towards restoring it.”

Thankfully vandalism is becoming less of a problem, says Rodgers, owed in part to the area’s gentrification. “It has changed,” she says. “Ten years ago, before church I’d pick up condoms and syringes, but you don’t do that now.”

While the cemetery still attracts nocturnal visitors on Saturday nights, and especially on Halloween, the main problem now is age. This cemetery is said to be in state of graceful decay, explains Rodgers, which means that no one’s going to pay to restore it. “Sydney sandstone is very porous and it’s crumbling away, and if a vandal pushes it over it will smash,” she says.

It may be gracefully decaying, but the cemetery is in a much better state now than it was during much of the 20th century. “The cemetery back then wasn’t the beautiful ambient place it is now,” says Rodgers. Run down and overgrown, the graveyard became a dumping ground until the discovery of the body of murdered 11-year old girl Joan Norma Ginn in 1946 triggered a cleanup. The area that is now Camperdown Memorial Park was cleared; the headstones moved and attached to a new wall that was built around four acres of remaining graveyard. No bodies were exhumed but Rodgers says that the soil is so acidic they would have decomposed long ago.

Like Camperdown, Gore Hill Cemetery became overgrown and its buildings derelict after its closure in 1974. Plans to clear it to create a rest park however were blocked by the community, which was keen to see the historic cemetery preserved.

Of Gore Hill’s 14,000 burials, the most famous turned out to be temporary. Saint Mary MacKillop was buried at Gore Hill in 1909 alongside her fellow Sisters of Saint Joseph, however her remains were removed in 1914 to a nearby chapel when pilgrims started visiting her grave.

“People would come along with their washed out jar of Vegemite and they’d take a little scoop of earth when they were visiting the grave,” says Daniel Phillips, who runs Sydney Ghost Tours. “Now one person is not going to make much of a difference, but you multiply this by thousands and the poor old Sisters of Saint Joseph were starting to be exhumed by stealth.”

A close inspection of the headstones reveals insights into the nature of life in Sydney in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The common sight of half and quarter-sized plots are poignant reminders of the high incidence of infant and child mortality; many of these little graves date from 1918 when the Spanish Influenza pandemic claimed over 100000 lives in Australia.

There are stories of “residual hauntings” at Gore Hill, part of Sydney Ghost Tours’ Middle North Shore tour. Phillips says that a number of spirits are said to be those of little children taken by the Spanish ‘flu. Another common sighting is a woman in black Victorian garb perhaps dating from the 1870s, said to be mourning a child. She’s reportedly spotted every couple of months but Phillips says she hasn’t been matched to a specific grave.

Gore Hill Cemetery’s historic value extends beyond the graves that lie within it. The burial ground is a classic example of a Victorian-Edwardian landscape garden, and a major attraction of the cemetery is its flora; gothic bare branches of winter, white hawthorn blossoms as winter wanes, and an abundance of colour in spring as bulbs and perennials flower.

Whether you visit for the haunting or the horticulture, you’ll discover these pockets of history are two of Sydney’s most private and peaceful urban oases.

Camperdown Cemetery & Camperdown Memorial Rest Park

Gore Hill Cemetery
Pacific Highway, St Leonards

Sydney Ghost Tours