Welcome to Bondi Festival’s Coastal Walk, starting in Waverley’s remarkable cemetery set against a dramatic landscape of ocean, sandstone cliffs and endless horizon. The walk will take you on a journey through the history of Waverley: from this historic burial ground, through its iconic natural setting and deep-time Indigenous history, to Bondi Festival’s heartland: the recently restored Bondi Pavilion.
Welcome to Waverley Cemetery
Welcome to Bondi Festival’s Coastal Walk, starting in Waverley’s remarkable cemetery set against a dramatic landscape of ocean, sandstone cliffs and endless horizon.
The walk will take you on a journey through the history of Waverley: from this historic burial ground, through its iconic natural setting and deep-time Indigenous history, to Bondi Festival’s heartland: the recently restored Bondi Pavilion.
Waverley Cemetery opened in 1875 and was built on the traditional lands of the Bidjigal, Birrabirragal and Gadigal people, who occupied the Sydney Coast for millennia. Bondi Festival acknowledges the Traditional Owners and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on whose land we are privileged to work and play and honours the presence of their Ancestors who reside in the imagination of this land.
Today, the cemetery is regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world. That’s one reason Bondi Festival’s Coastal Walk starts here. Another is that to better understand and celebrate who, what and why we are, we need to know where we’ve come from.
Waverley Cemetery’s dramatic setting amid Sydney’s world-famous beaches. Source: Waverley Council
Here, we meet the pioneers, artists, writers, cultural gear-shifters, natural forces and ancient people who helped create the place we know today.
History of Waverley Cemetery
Photograph of Waverley Cemetery, taken about 1927. Coogee pier is still standing. Source: Theo Purcell, State Library of NSW
Waverley Cemetery is the resting place for more than 100,000 people. Its heritage significance was recognised with a listing on the State Heritage Register in 2016 for the many notable people from who rest here.
It retains much of its original Victorian and Edwardian character and contains a collection of highly intact funerary monuments and furniture dating from 1877, when, Ruth Allen, aged 85, was the first person buried.
The front gates are a memorial to Waverley residents who died in World War I and II. The cemetery contains over 200 war graves, of which 132 are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (more than 100 from World War I and nearly 20 from World War II). At least 11 graves belong to veterans of the American Civil War.
The cemetery began with the purchase of 10 acres of land in 1875. It was laid out like a grand metropolitan burial ground with grid-like patterns on a north-south axis and people separated by religion.
Today, the cemetery’s age means many of the graves are still dug by hand. It contains a wealth of genealogical, historical, architectural and artistic information, which makes it a significant educational resource for NSW.
The stunning setting attracts filmmakers, and the cemetery has starred in many shows including Top of the Lake: China Girl, (Elizabeth Moss); Tim (Mel Gibson); Dirty Deeds (Sam Neil and Toni Collette); the Bollywood blockbuster Dil Chahta Hai; Baywatch; Home and Away; and Water Rats.
One of the architectural gems among the family crypts, dating from 1914, belongs to the Stuart family and is a surviving work of Canberra design competition winners, architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin. The granite tomb, situated on a prominent path junction, features gothic detailing with a pyramid roof.
In this walk, you’ll meet some of the nation’s most famous names, but the cemetery also contains notable and notorious Sydney identities, including Robert “Nosey Bob” Howard, the state’s last hangman. His and other stories can be found on the Waverley Cemetery website.
Writer and poet Henry Lawson, 1867-1922
First stop is the grave of Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson, often described as Australia’s greatest short story writer and was one of the best-known poets of the colonial period. The vocal nationalist and republican wrote at a time of profound change in the social fabric of NSW.
Portrait of Henry Lawson photographed by his friend, the artist Lionel Lindsay, circa 1900. Source: State Library of NSW
Lawson was the son of the poet, publisher and feminist Louisa Lawson. His father, Niels Hertzberg Larsen, was a Norwegian-born miner. On Henry’s birth, in a goldfield tent, the family Anglicised their surname to Lawson.
An ear infection as a child left Lawson with partial deafness and by age 14 had lost his hearing entirely.
He learned poetry from his schoolteacher at Mudgee, in central-west NSW, and was strongly influenced by mother. His nationalist, egalitarian and pro-union stance made him a natural contributor for the The Bulletin journal in the 1890s. His first poem, A Song of the Republic, appeared in 1887.
In 1892, Bulletin proprietor J. F. Archibald gave Lawson a train ticket to Bourke and a five-pound note to seek out stories. He was away six months and experienced the harsh realities of rural life in a drought. One biographer described it as “the most important trek in Australian literary history” because it “confirmed all his prejudices about the Australian bush”. Lawson’s grim view of the outback was far removed from the romantic idyll of brave horsemen and beautiful scenery depicted in the poetry of Banjo Paterson.
Lawson’s most successful prose collection While the Billy Boils, published in 1896, “virtually reinvented Australian realism” in writing. He used short, sharp sentences and honed-to-the-bone descriptions that defined Australians as “dryly laconic and passionately egalitarian”. His are considered the first accurate descriptions of Australian life at the time. The Drover’s Wife, with its “heart-breaking depiction of bleakness and loneliness” is one of his finest short stories.
Rural realism in the frontispiece to While the Billy Boils, published in 1913
In the late 1890s, alcoholism and mental health took a toll and he spent time in Darlinghurst Gaol and psychiatric institutions. He died in 1922 of a cerebral haemorrhage, and became the first Australian writer to receive a state funeral.
Thousands of people turned out for the event at St Andrew’s Cathedral, which was attended by prime ministers Billy Hughes and Stanley Bruce, and NSW premier Jack Lang (Lawson’s brother-in-law). The crowds on George Street were so large those in the church found it difficult to leave. Mourners lined the funeral route through Paddington, Bondi Junction and on to Waverley Cemetery. There, the poet was buried in the grave initially occupied by Henry Kendall.
Henry Lawson’s funeral and burial at Waverley Cemetery in 1922 attracted a huge crowd of mourners. Source: State Library of NSW
‘Orphan’ Wee Davie, 1875-1878
The first person buried in the Roman Catholic section at Waverley Cemetery was an unidentified boy, Wee Davie, who was killed in an accident with a butcher’s horse and cart in 1878. No one came forward to claim the body or identify it and he was long thought to have been an orphan.
The long-held belief was that the cart driver “Joseph Forde” – distraught that no one had claimed the body – arranged the funeral and paid for the boy’s burial under a fictitious name “Wee Davie”, with a headstone inscribed simply as “Somebody’s darling is buried here”.
That was Wee Davie’s story until 2020, when one of the Friends of Waverley Cemeteries found a letter to The Bulletin dated 1917 which read, in part: “A pretty story, but fiction. Wee Davie was my 3-year-old boy, who died at Glebe Point 40 years ago … alongside him I hope to rest my weary bones when the time comes.” The boy’s father was Joseph Forde and he had paid for his son’s grave. Davie Herbert Ford died of diphtheria.
‘Orphan’ Wee Davie. Source: State Library of NSW
Editor and benefactor J. F. Archibald, 1856-1919
For the past 100 years, Australia’s painters have waited breathlessly to hear who has won the annual Archibald art prize, the nation’s most prestigious award for portraiture.
Portrait of the Archibald portrait prize benefactor, J.A. Archibald. Source: Lionel Lindsay, State Library of NSW
Journalist John Feltham Archibald (who later changed his name to Jules Francois because of an infatuation with French life and culture) is the benefactor of the prize. He also gave Sydney the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park and co-founded The Bulletin magazine in 1879-80, which became the nation’s leading outlet for poets, cartoonists, and authors of fiction and humour including Henry Lawson. It was greatly influential in Australian politics.
Archibald had arrived in Sydney from Victoria in 1878, and left for two years in London in 1883. When he returned in 1886, the magazine was struggling, so Archibald bought out his partners. During the 16 years he controlled it, the magazine also became known for its radical, republican and xenophobic politics.
In 1902, Archibald’s health deteriorated, and he resigned the editorship. He continued to work on other projects but soon had a complete collapse and spent several years in Callan Park Hospital for the Insane. Archibald’s health never recovered, and in 1914 sold his interest in The Bulletin, which closed finally on 2008. Archibald, who was known to many in the cemetery, died in Sydney in 1919.
Bondi pioneers, the O’Brien family
Meet the O’Brien family, who once owned all of Bondi, including the beach and were central to Bondi’s development. Their earliest recorded death – Francis O’Brien senior’s first, young, wife Sophia (pictured in this portrait painted after her death) – dates from 1841.
Portrait of the 21-year-old Mrs Francis O’Brien (formerly Sophia Stratham Smith-Hall), painted in 1841 from her death mask. Source: Maurice Felton, State Library of NSW
Bondi’s first land grant, in 1809, was to former convict and noted colonial road builder William Roberts as a reward for his successful completion of the (Old) South Head Road. The grant was finalised by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810 after Governor Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) was stripped of his commission to run the colony. Roberts, who was granted 200 acres and was the first of three individuals to own all of Bondi in colonial times, used the land to run cattle.
Edward Smith Hall – known as “Monitor” Hall after a newspaper he founded in 1826 – purchased the land in 1851. He paid £300, and bought it in trust for his daughter, Georgiana, who was married to Smith Hall’s business partner Francis O’Brien, who had earlier been married to her sister, Sophia.
A year later, Smith Hall and O’Brien attempted to subdivide Bondi and advertised the land for sale in The Sydney Morning Herald. Back then, Bondi was covered in high sand dunes and, without public transport, was too far from Sydney Town, so their land sale failed.
A 1906 real estate poster for land sales at Bondi, including Georgiana Street (now Wellington Street). Georgiana was O’Brien’s second wife. Source: State Library of NSW
O’Brien later bought Bondi from Smith Hall and renamed it the O’Brien Estate, complete with a house known as ‘The Homestead’. It had extensive flower and vegetable gardens and a farm employing many locals. The land also contained freshwater lagoons, including one near Bondi’s old post office on Hall Street. It was two acres in size and was described as “lying like a great mirror [reflecting] the trees and banks, and in places … covered with water lilies. Surrounding it were paperbark trees, swamp she-oaks and large-leafed coastal tea trees, some more than 9 metres high.
Sketch of The Homestead, 21 Sir Thomas Mitchell Rd, believed to be the original drawing by Georgiana Sophia Ormond O’Brien
O’Brien raised his family of 11 children among the lush setting, marrying three times. He built a family mausoleum on four acres of land, and generations of the O’Brien and Smith Hall families were buried there – including two of his young daughters who drowned in the lagoon.
O’Brien sold off the estate slowly until his death in 1896. The mausoleum stood until 1928, when it was demolished and the 17-plus bodies inside were reinterred at the O’Brien family vault, facing the sea in Waverley Cemetery.
An elderly Francis O’Brien outside his family’s mausoleum at Bondi in 1895. Source: State Library of NSW
Aviator Lawrence Hargrave, 1850-1915
Early aviator, inventor, astronomer and explorer Lawrence Hargrave proved to the world in 1894 that it was possible to build a safe flying machine. He did it with a design that connected four box kites with a seat, which he flew almost 5 metres off the ground.
Pioneer aviator Lawrence Hargrave proved it was possible to build a safe flying machine. Source: Australian National Maritime Museum
Hargrave had been inspired by the motion of animals, writing that: It will be evident that a remarkable analogy exists between walking, swimming and flying [and] that the movements of the tail of the fish and the wing of the insect … can be readily imitated and reproduced. These facts ought to inspire the pioneer of an aerial navigation with confidence.
He began experimenting with wing shapes in 1887 and then engine-powered aircraft powerful enough to carry a human. He tested 36 designs before developing a three-cylinder rotary engine in 1889 that became a prototype for engines that dominated the first 50 years of powered flight.
Poor power-to-weight ratio in most engines and inefficient propeller design had hampered aeronautical pioneers focused on powered flight. Hargrave began study box kites instead: I am using kites, and find perfect stability can be got by making them of three dimensions instead of two…
A young Hargrave learned cartography and engineering skills as an apprentice on a steam ship after moving to Australia from England with his family aged 15. He joined six exploration expeditions, including to New Guinea, before returning to Sydney in 1878 for a position at the Sydney Observatory, observing the transit of Mercury and the conditions surrounding the 1883 eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatoa volcano, which produced the biggest eruption in recorded history. To help with his astronomical calculations, Hargrave designed and built adding machines.
Later, a yearly income from his wealthy father allowed Hargrave to experiment fulltime on aircraft design. He used the favourable gliding winds on the cliffs near his home at Stanwell Tops, south of Sydney, to test his box-kite designs, and soon realised that a “simple apparatus can be made, carried about, and flown by one man … without any risk of accident”. Other inventors quickly took on his designs, including the American Octave Chanute, whose designs were later incorporated by the Wright brothers’ aircraft that achieved the first powered flight with a pilot on board in 1903.
Hargrave’s only son, Geoffrey, was killed in action in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 and weeks later Hargrave died of surgery complications in Sydney, aged 65. Today, he is recognised as one of the great pioneers of aeronautics.
Lawrence Hargrave featured on an old Australian $20 note design. Source: Royal Australian Mint
Irish Rebellion Monument and Wicklow Chief Michael Dwyer, 1772-1825
The largest monument in Waverley Cemetery is the memorial to the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Construction began in 1898 and was completed by 1901. The structure is a testament to Ireland’s struggle for self-government. The architect’s brief called for “a monument in Irish architecture” to memorialise the 1798 rebels, with a central theme of martyrdom.
Sydney’s Irish community holds a procession to the Irish Monument in 1966. Source: Search Foundation/State Library of NSW
The imposing scale of the design was calculated to make a strong impact. It is made of white Carrara marble intricately decorated with sculptures, inscriptions and medallions, topped with a 9-metre carved cross. The rear wall is decorated with bronze plaques and the floor has mosaics of Irish thatched cottages and round towers.
Ireland’s then-president Mary McAleese delivers an address at the Irish Monument in 1998. Source: State Library of NSW
The memorial was designed by John Hennessy of the architectural firm Sherrin and Hennessy and is the world’s largest monument to the rebellion. It contains the interred remains of the revolution’s leader, the Wicklow Chief Michael Dwyer, who died in 1825. He had been transported to Sydney as a political prisoner but was released on arrival. His wife Mary, who died in 1860, is also interred there.
The couple were originally buried at Sydney’s Sandhills Cemetery on Devonshire Street (the site of today’s Central railway station), but were exhumed and reinterred at Waverley Cemetery in 1898. An estimated 100,000 people followed the cortege relocating the Dwyers’ bodies and it is remembered as the largest gathering of any 1798 centenary rebellion event in the world.
The monument contains words in the ancient Irish language of Ogham: The bright days of ancient Ireland will dawn once more.
Poet Henry Kendall 1839-1882
Burial near Sydney’s coast would suit Henry Kendall as a pioneer interpreter of the Australian landscape. His work “lent articulate voice to the mute harmonies” of Australia’s plants, rivers, rocks, dells and glades, one admirer wrote. The “dim mystery and eloquent silence, which had hitherto appealed mutely for expression”, spoke first and reverberated in his poetry.
Young poet Henry Kendall photographed in the 1870s and 1880s after spending time working on a whaling boat. Source: State Library of NSW
Kendall was the first of the prominent Australian poets and literary figures – including Lawson, McKellar and Archibald – to be buried in Waverley Cemetery. His importance was still being recognised as late as 1926, when the Historic Memorials Committee decided that a national gallery of portraits should be built in Canberra, and Kendall would be among the first five portraits, along with W.C. Wentworth, Charles Sturt, Sir Thomas Mitchell and Sir Joseph Banks.
Kendall, was born near Ulladulla, in southern NSW, and lost his father at 13. He lived at his grandfather’s home with his mother and siblings before joining his uncle for two years on a whaling boat. When he returned at the age of 18, he moved his mother and family to Sydney and started submitting poems for publication while he worked as a clerk.
By the early 1860s a volume of his verse was published and, at 29, he married 18-year-old Charlotte Rutter. They soon moved to Melbourne to escape his family draining them financially.
Leaves from Australian Forests was published there, containing his most famous poem Bell Bird, which generations of children learned for its melodic phrases of Australian mountain country.
Just on four years after his marriage, he returned to Sydney poor, sick and a drunkard and was consigned to a hospital for the insane. He emerged after four months of treatment and, assisted by two brothers from Gosford who provided him work, recovered sufficiently for reunite with his family and publish more work.
Henry Parkes, the premier and a poet, tried to help Kendall by making him the first Inspector of Forests. However, the frail Kendall was not equal to the job’s punishing travel, and he died of tuberculosis, aged 40. Sadly, a journalist friend wrote that it was ‘pleasanter to review our poet’s works than his life’.
Kendall’s imposing grave in the cemetery’s early years. Source: Scott family collection/State Library of NSW
Ethel Pedley, author of Dot and the Kangaroo, 1859-1898
Writer and musician Ethel Pedley was an environmentalist whose classic Australian children’s book Dot and the Kangaroo highlighted on how humans harm the world around them. The story features a girl named Dot who get lost in the outback. She finds her way home with the help of a friendly kangaroo who takes her on a tour of native bush species. The book was published posthumously in London in 1899.
Dot and her animal friends in an illustration from Ethel Pedley’s children’s book Dot and the Kangaroo, published in 1898. Source: State Library of NSW
The story was also ground-breaking for its attitudes to Indigenous people. Pedley’s kangaroo tells the story from the animals’ point of view and tries to teach humans to live in harmony with nature. She allows her kangaroo to distinguish between Aborigines and white settlers in their attitudes to nature: The Black Humans kill and devour us; but they, even, are not so terrible as the Whites, who delight in taking our lives and torturing us just as an amusement.
Squatters from Dot and the Kangaroo, illustrated by Frank P. Mahony. Source: State Library of NSW
The book begins: To the children of Australia in the hope of enlisting their sympathies for the many beautiful, amiable, and frolicsome creatures of their fair land, whose extinction, through ruthless destruction, is being surely accomplished.
Pedley was born in London and emigrated with her family in the 1870s, before going back to England to study at the Royal Academy of Music. She returned in 1882 and began teaching singing and violin. In 1896, she visited London again and persuaded the Academy and the Royal College of Music to extend their system of musical examinations to the colonies. Pedley was appointed their sole representative in NSW.
After her death from cancer aged 39 at the Darlinghurst home of her musician companion Emmeline Woolley, her brother established the Ethel Pedley memorial travelling scholarship for music students. Woolley is buried close to Pedley in the Anglican section of Waverley Cemetery.
Dot and the Kangaroo was illustrated by Frank Prout Mahony (1862-1916), the first Australian-born artist to have his work purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW. Together with A.H. Fullwood and Julian Ashton, he pioneered the tradition among Sydney’s artistic community of camping at harbourside locations to paint en plein air.
The camps were made famous by the presence of the painters who became known as the Heidelberg School, including Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Condor. Some of Streeton’s most famous painting are of the Bondi-to-Coogee coastline, including the 1890 work Blue Pacific, now on loan to the National Gallery in London.
Describing Streeton’s keen perception of the poetry of Australian landscapes, a gallery curator said: “Streeton first visited Sydney in 1880 and there saw the Pacific Ocean in its vastness and sublimity. Blue Pacific, painted that same year, shows strollers on the clifftops [contemplating] the intersection of sea and jagged shore far below. The vertical format is brilliantly calculated to exploit the contrast between the azure sheet of water and … rock face and sky. Still young but at the height of his powers, Streeton demonstrates here how Impressionism was a capacious and flexible tool for confronting the awesome landscape unique to Australia. National landscape would be one of the central subjects of modern art and Streeton was at the forefront in exploring its implications.”
Poet Dorothea Mackellar 1885-1968
Poet (Isobel Marion) Dorothea Mackellar is best known for her poem My Country, containing the words: I love a sunburnt country / A land of sweeping plains / Of ragged mountain ranges / Of droughts and flooding rains …
She wrote My Country at age 19 while homesick in England and it was first published by the Spectator in 1908 under the title Core of My Heart. It was later republished as My Country, and quickly became one of Australia’s best-known and loved verses.
In the poem, Mackellar contrasted the English landscape – The love of field and coppice/Of green and shaded lanes/Of ordered woods and gardens – with her country that could be loved with a passion, despite its harshness. It resonated with a sense of belonging, home and national pride.
‘I love a sunburnt country’ … poet Dorothea Mackellar photographed in 1927. Source: State Library of NSW
From a privileged Sydney background, Mackellar was the third child and only daughter of physician and parliamentarian Sir Charles Mackellar and his wife Marion. She began writing at a young age.
Although raised in an urbane family, her work is regarded as bush poetry, inspired by her time on her brothers’ farms near Gunnedah, in northern NSW.
She spoke four European languages and moved easily between the society of Sydney’s intellectual and civic elite, life on her family’s country properties, and among their friends in London. She travelled widely with her parents through Europe and especially Britain.
As a woman of independent means, Mackellar published poetry and other works between 1908 and 1926. She was active in the Sydney literary scene of the 1930s and was a founding member of the Sydney P.E.N. (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) Club with Ethel Turner and Mary Gilmore in 1931. It was formed to promote literary understanding and freedom of expression.
In later years she stopped writing and, in poor health, spent some of her last years in a Randwick nursing home. Mackellar was awarded an O.B.E. for her contribution to literature two weeks before her death in 1968 after a fall at her home in Darling Point, aged 82.
Her funeral was held at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, and her ashes were laid in the family vault overlooking the ocean at Waverley.
Mackellar was described as a “lyrist of colour and light” in love with the Australian landscape. Her favourite poem, Colour, was read at her funeral, and aptly contains a verse suited to her current location:
And nights of blue and pearl, and long smooth beaches,
Yellow as sunburnt wheat,
Edged with a line of foam that creams and hisses,
Enticing weary feet.
Dorothea Mackellar’s love of country life is celebrated in a memorial statue along the Oxley Highway, near her family’s property at Gunnedah. Source: Docomomo
From here, the Bondi Festival Natural Coast Walk begins …