The Graveyard of the Church of St Mary Magdalene St Marys Sydney
Years ago Phillip Parker King stood on a hill near his property Dunheved. I imagine he felt very pleased with himself, his success and the building project that was about to take place. A small church was about to be built on the hill, a church that would fulfill the wish of his mother, Anna Josepha King. The land had been set aside some time ago and now, at long last, building had commenced. The resulting church was named, Church of St Mary Magdalene, consecrated in April 1840. It still stands today in a suburb of Sydney, St Marys, on South Creek near Parramatta.
John and I visited the historic church and graveyard a few months ago. The church had very little decoration on its concrete grey exterior. There is a major crack in the spire above the locked green doors. Although its architecture is nothing out of the ordinary, it is extraordinary that the building is still there, a very important symbol of our colonial past. A record that the King family have left behind for us as a key to help us step through the door of time, to see and touch something that was part of their lives and give us something to build our imagination around.
We went around to the back of the church and were pleased to find easy access through an iron gate to the graveyard. The sandstone graves, lit by the afternoon sun, contain the final resting places of many of our early colonial settlers. As you walk through the yard you can see the names of famous families such as the Macarthurs, Kings and Lethbridges. Other names hold your attention as you read and find fascination in the words carved into the headstones. The names, dates and stories hold meaning and touch your heart.
Within the graveyard is the King family’s tomb, it contains Phillip Parker King, his wife, his mother and his nephew. Very close to the tomb is a new grave. Within this very recent addition to the graveyard, are the remains of Phillip Parker King’s father, Philip Gidley King, who came to Australia with Captain Arthur Phillip on the First Fleet and he was also Governor of NSW between 1800 and 1806. He died in England in 1808 and was buried in Tooting far away from his family. In 1991 the Fellowship of First Fleeters arranged for his remains to be brought over from the UK to Australia where they could be laid to rest next to his family. As an historian I’m a bit attached to Phillip Parker King and his family, so the act of laying his father beside his wife and son felt right.
A couple of kilometers away from the graveyard are the remnants of the King property, “Dunheved”. Sadly the historical homestead was demolished in the 1950’s, a time when we Australians and our government didn’t value the past like we do now. The image below shows the properties owned by the King Family near South Creek St Marys.
It was at “Dunheved”, South Creek, where a letter from Allan Cunningham, dated 23rd April 1836, arrived from Strand-on-the-Green London, addressed to his friend Phillip Parker King.
The letter opened with the following words:
“My Dear Sir, The sad afflicting intelligence of the loss of my poor brother twelve months since! While attached as Botanist to the explorative expedition of Major Mitchell was first made known to me and the public . . . 25th February last . . .”
This letter is part of the King Family papers at the Mitchell Library Sydney.
Phillip would have settled himself into a comfortable chair to read the twelve page letter from his friend and fellow adventurer. He may have read it aloud to his wife Harriet who knew Allan well. I hope he was familiar with Allan’s handwriting because it is very difficult to decipher. I’ve deciphered this letter one word at a time over a period of months and I have yet to finish it. Each word deciphered brings the meaning of its paragraphs into focus, very slowly you are given a window into Allan Cunningham and Phillip Parker King’s relationship.
South Creek is now known as St Marys and the property of Dunheved is covered by a manufacturing desert. At its height Dunheved was considered one of the most successful and profitable properties in NSW. Archaeologists are sifting through the remnants of the property seeking to learn more about Dunheved and where it stood.
Allan Cunningham and Phillip Parker King first met in 1816 just after Allan returned from an expedition along the Lachlan with John Oxley. He received instructions from Sir Joseph Banks, his patron, to accompany Phillip on his voyages to map the coastline of Australia. Over four years the two men shared amazing adventures and near death experiences and a lifelong friendship was created.
Phillip wrote these poignant words after Allan died:
“Alas, poor Allan! He was a rare specimen-quite a genus of himself; an enthusiast in Australian geography; devoted to his own science, Botany; a warm friend, and an honest man; and, to crown all, when the time came, he resigned himself into the arms of his Saviour, without a murmur.” Captain Phillip Parker King R.N
Phillip lived much longer than Allan and had many more adventures but that’s another story and his story is very well told by Hordern Mardsen in his book “King of the Australian Coast“.
Eventually when the King family members passed on they were laid to rest in the graveyard of the Anglican Church of St Mary Magdalene. Their graves and the church are still there. Why not visit and pay homage to remarkable people who laid the foundations for our modern day Australia. The address is corner Magdalene St and Great Western Highway St Marys