Northern Cemeteries on ABC Radio

The return of cemetery tours being held at Macquarie Park in 2021 was announced on ABC Radio Afternoons with James Valentine on Thursday 4 February. Tom Sweeney, Northern Cemeteries’ knowledgeable tour guide, discussed some of the intriguing identities that the Australian Theme tour will feature such as William Morris ‘Billy’ Hughes CH KC (Prime Minister).

A series of historic walking tours will be listed on the Events page here:

You can listen to the radio clip on YouTube or read the transcript below:

James Valentine (JV) with Tom Sweeney (TS)

James Valentine (JV): Well, the year of our pandemic 2020 affected many things, but I know that there will be a great outburst of joy at the news that the Macquarie Park Cemetery Tours are back on. The historic lantern tour series starts again on the 19th of February, and you can wander around Macquarie Park Cemetery, and see if you can track down Billy Hughes’s tomb. So that is something I’m sure you will want to be on. Tom Sweeney is a cemetery enthusiast and tour guide. Hello Tom?

Tom Sweeney (TS): G’day James.

JV: What’s in Macquarie Park Cemetery, what’s so good about that one?

TS: What’s so important? Well, you know it’s funny, years ago when I worked there, I suddenly thought to myself what would make anyone else come to a cemetery other than a burial or a cremation? And I suddenly thought, you know there’s lots of really really interesting people there, so we dug the list out and started formatting some stories and everything. So we started the lantern tours in about 2008 and we’ve got a raft of really interesting people, some you know some you don’t know, but they’ve all got stories to tell, and there’s probably about 150,000 stories to tell, but we’ve picked out a few of the best ones.

JV: I’m seeing you with a lantern on a stick, kind of 19th century style, I’m hoping that’s the case?

TS: Well basically when I started the tours, being a bit of a theatrical person, I thought I would do it as a Dickensian funeral director, like in Oliver, Mr. Sowerberry. So my original costume was very Mr. Sowerberry, and we had hurricane lanterns, but then they thought that’s a bit dangerous we better go to torches. So when I retired, I dropped the costume and now we do it, you know in just casual gear.

JV: Right. And so, I mentioned Billy Hughes is in the Macquarie Park cemetery, William Morris ‘Billy’ Hughes the former Australian Prime Minister. Who else is there?

TS: We’ve got Lottie Lyell Cox, and you might say whose Lottie Lyell? But you go back to the silent film era and there’s Lillian Gish, and the Hollywood ones, but in Australia we actually had our own stars. Our own silent screen stars, and Lottie Lyell’s story is linked with her partner a guy called Raymond Longford and they were basically the beginnings of the Australian film industry in the early 1900s. In leading up to the 20s, and she has a fabulous story to tell and it’s a love story, between the two of them as well, and she was a great star, and well paid, she made about 19 movies. Unfortunately, she got tuberculosis and she died at 35, long before she could really make a major major career out of it.

JV: Yeah. Yeah. One of the things I really like, my local interesting cemetery is Waverley Cemetery, and one of the things I like, as much as I like a famous person, I love a really interesting inscription, I love an elaborate statue, I love a family mausoleum. Are these features of Macquarie Park Cemetery?

TS: Oh absolutely. Macquarie Park has been basically an acting cemetery since 1920, and yes there are the beautiful old-fashioned monuments from the very early days of the cemetery, and there’s literally hundreds of the Italian family mausoleums and crypts, and then you get the more modern lawn plaques and that sort of thing. But there’s some beautiful statues including a lovely obelisk in memory of saint Mary MacKillop’s mum whose buried there. It’s a beautiful undulating cemetery, beautiful tree scape, wide roads, easy paths, so it’s a lovely place to venture around, regardless of why you are there.

JV: Hmm. And there’s also that sort of, you can get a sense of an era and time can’t you, the kind of language that’s being used of the style and fashion of the memorials?

TS: Oh absolutely. On some of the headstones there’s almost little stories, ‘died of an overdose of a toxic ailment’. You know there’s some really fascinating little scriptures on some of the more elaborate ones, where they go into detail of what happened to them and everything, and the beloved brother, sister, uncle of, so there are stories within the actual monument itself.

JV: Mm. And there’s also then often that great tragedy of when you start looking and going, ‘I think this person lost three children under 12?’, you know or, ‘look how short that life is!’, ‘is that a baby?’, or you know ‘mother of three and she’s dead at 27’. You can see that kind of, those historical truths come through as well.

TS: Oh yes, there can certainly be those there as well. We haven’t got them on our particular tours, and we’ve got them all segmented to different themes. Basically, our first tour will be all well-known Australians that have made a name for themselves, and as I said Lottie Lyell you may not know. We will also look at Sir John Kerr, and we will also look at a guy, a footballer call Denis Lutge. He was the first rugby league/rugby union captain of an Australian team that toured New Zealand and won. So there’s people there that you may not know right away but, but the penny will drop.

JV: Tom fantastic, and if people want to find out about it where do they go?

TS: Basically, just give Macquarie Park a ring, there’s a link on the website for booking, and it’s a whole $5 including supper, starts at about 5:00pm at twilight time, and you will get me as the storyteller, and we will have a good time together.

JV: Terrific, Tom Sweeney, will be your tour guide, and just ring or look up Macquarie Park Cemetery website, you will see all the details there.