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Vietnam National Museum of History

21/05/2015 09:05 1814
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A group of volunteer historians is shedding light on a little known burial ground in Hobart where 400 orphans were laid to rest.

Nearly two centuries ago the orphan schools at Hobart's St John's Park in New Town were home to hundreds of underprivileged children.

Most were taken from parents whom the authorities deemed to be unfit guardians; convicts, the jobless and those leading "immoral lives".

Historian Dianne Snowden said, like the convict system, the enforced placement of children into orphanages was done in the name of social transformation.

"Aboriginal children were taken away from their parents, in much the same way as the convict children were taken away from their mothers when they arrived in the colony," she said.

"They were for the destitute children of the colony, they weren't necessarily orphans in the sense that we would use the word today."

The orphan schools, one for boys and one for girls, were built in the early 1830s, pre-dating the Port Arthur penitentiary by a decade.

It was open until 1879 and some of the children never left.

Some 400 settler, convict and Aboriginal children were buried behind the school, along with 1,600 adults from the surrounding parish.

Historian Chris Leppard-Quinn said many died from measles and whooping cough.

"Quite a few paupers were buried here and so they would have suffered from diseases associated with their lifestyle, their poverty," she said.

While many were buried in unmarked graves, there are some well-known names who were also laid to rest here

They include the co-founder of Hobart's Mercury newspaper, John Davies, and the great-grandfather of media tycoon Kerry Packer.

"The burial ground was important in its own right, but if there are characters and figures who are known by the community then that does add another facet to the story," Ms Leppard-Quinn said.

Twenty-five years after the last burial in 1938, headstones were relocated to Hobart's main cemetery at Cornelian Bay.

"We suspect that when the headstones went, the human remains stayed here," Ms Snowden said.

The Friends of the Orphan Schools believes it would have been too expensive to move the bodies.

It was not unusual to leave them behind; human remains have been found years later at other former cemetery sites around Hobart, including school grounds.

The volunteer group is hoping to partner with the University of Tasmania to confirm what lies beneath the soil at St John's Park.

"There's a geothermal process, that they use on (BBC series) Time Team quite a lot, that would enable us to determine whether there were human remains still here," Ms Snowden said.

In the meantime, volunteers have researched the histories of the unmarked burial ground's inhabitants and are designing interpretation signs to draw attention to it.

The church already attracts visitors keen to see where relatives were married.

The group also hopes to be able to show them their final resting place.

"Family history tourism is a really untapped source, really untapped part of heritage tourism, I think needs exploring a lot more," she said.