Construction works encroach on Wolston Park Mental Hospital cemetery

Construction works near the former Wolston Park Mental Hospital cemetery on the outskirts of Brisbane have encroached on the cemetery. While some of the patients buried in the now heritage-listed cemetery were exhumed in the late 1940s, some unmarked graves remain.

The construction works on the Qld Government’s new 76-bed youth remand centre started late last year (2023) and are on track to be completed later this year. Recently water pipes were laid within the heritage boundary of the cemetery.

The view from Orford Drive, Wacol. The bushland is the regenerated site of the third cemetery which was closed in 1945. The cemetery boundary fence has been removed during construction and another temporary fence put up. Orford Drive itself was also built over part of the cemetery decades ago.

I am using the term ‘heritage boundary’ because parts of the cemetery have already been built over and are therefore not part of the heritage-listed cemetery. For example, Orford Drive in Wacol was built over the eastern and south-eastern sides of the cemetery. This road development was done way before the site of this cemetery was recognised as a “significant element of the State heritage place 600340 Wolston Park Mental Hospital” in 2022. 

An overlay of a 1946 aerial photograph shows an estimated location of the third cemetery boundary.

The Qld Dept of Environment and Science (who look after Heritage) fobbed me off, so I contracted the Qld Police Service which is overseeing the works.

QPS acknowledged that the water mains connection for the Wacol Youth Remand Centre (WYRC) does encroach on the edge of the former cemetery, though the centre itself is “entirely outside the boundaries of the former cemetery”.

“This work was conducted under full supervision of a certified archaeologist and no gravesites were disturbed. QPS engaged the services of a certified archaeologist and used ground penetrating radar prior to construction. No gravesites were identified on the Wacol Youth Remand Centre site.”

QPS Spokesperson

QPS admits “the water mains connection for the remand centre does encroach on the edge of the former cemetery; however, pipes were laid within an area that was previously built up with fill above the original cemetery ground levels”.

I had asked the Heritage Dept if there was a plan in place should any archaeological evidence of the cemetery be uncovered during the laying of pipes, but they didn’t respond. Nor did they respond when I asked if there were any plans to publicly acknowledge the site via a plaque or information board.

How many graves remain?

It’s not known how many undisturbed graves are in the small pocket of now-bushland. In the 40s, the Queensland Government claimed that the graves of 2,800 hospital patients had been exhumed but there is no record of where they were moved to. (Details in this 2018 blog.) An eye-witness also claims that not all patients were exhumed.

In a previous blog, I interviewed a hospital carpenter, employed as a teen in the late 1940s, whose job was to make small, wooden boxes that were used to hold the remains of exhumed patients.

“They (the boxes) were designed to enclose bones, so the size was about two feet long (to fit a leg bone), by about 10 inches by 10 inches. They were rectangular boxes, not coffin-shaped,” Ferg Brindley told me at the time.

“They were re-sited in the Goodna cemetery. Long trenches were dug by an employee and inmates.

(Known as ossuaries, the method of burying these boxes in trenches is not unheard of in modern-day times. For example, when I worked at the ABC in the Kimberley in 2018, a colleague wrote this story about the burial of exhumed Aboriginal remains in boxes into a trench-like grave.)

“They didn’t dig the whole coffin up. They dug down, smashed the top open and took the remains out and put them in a box. As far as I know all the coffins are still there. But I imagine there are still some whole corpses there. I doubt if they removed the whole lot. They couldn’t dig up anything under 10 years old. That’s what I was told.

“I doubt very much if any identification went with them. They were just dug up and put into a box. That was happening before I went there in 1948 and was still happening when I left there in 1953.”

Ferg Brindley in 2022

What now?

I’m buoyed to see that archaeologists were engaged to identify the potential for disturbing patient remains and that ground penetrating radar was used as part of that process. I’m disappointed but not surprised that the government refused to outline its plan should any archaeological evidence of the cemetery be uncovered during this construction (including human, coffin, grave marker, gravestone remains, and other artefacts and features associated with burial practices).

While the treatment of patients within the walls of the asylum in the 1900s remains shrouded in secrecy, it’s obvious that the secrecy extends to patients’ resting places.

Building on cemeteries is nothing new

If there’s anything Australia hasn’t been very good at, it’s not maintaining its cemeteries, building over its cemeteries, and not keeping accurate cemetery records. There are many, many cemeteries that have more unmarked graves than marked. By the early 20th century councils and private trusts didn’t want the expense and effort of maintaining cemeteries. Only a few decades ago it wasn’t uncommon for grave markers to be removed because they got in the way of the mower! Often the only record is the headstone itself and possibly a newspaper notice. Thankfully, we are now much better at cemetery maintenance and record keeping.

The Wolston Park cemetery is just one of many examples where the government of the day had claimed that all remains had been fully exhumed. Currently in Tasmania, construction at a school has stopped because remains were found during the development of a sports ground. The exhumation of old graves began at Hobart’s Hutchins private school for boys just a couple of days ago. It’ll be interesting to see how many intact graves are found.

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and audio producer, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$11.99 on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

2 Responses

  1. As someone who grew up in Wilruna St Wacol in the sixties and seventies the areas around Wolston Park was a part of our “playgrounds. “
    Wolston Park was a lot more accessible then and patients openly wandered around Gailes and Wacol. It is a place that has many stories and terrible secrets.
    I wish you well in your endeavours but I fear there will be a lot that will never be revealed.

  2. Thanks Lisa for your outstanding journalism about WP cemetery.
    You are right there are so many secrets buried about Wolston Park’s history not just in graves but also in patient records protected with a 100 year embargo.

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