Our forgotten tuberculosis cemetery

The council has not touched the site since 1967, leaving it to fall into disrepair. Wollongong City Council staff inspect graves at the overgrown Garrawarra Cemetery. Pictures: WOLLONGONG CITY COUNCIL

Death has done little to restore the dignity of thousands of tuberculosis victims whose remains have lain forgotten in a deserted cemetery north of Wollongong for more than 50 years.

In an apparent bureaucratic bungle dating to the late 1960s, Wollongong City Council has only recently become aware of its role as guardian to the isolated Garrawarra Cemetery, north-west of Helensburgh.

The cemetery, unrecognisable in its current state due to overgrown bush and repeat vandalism, is home to the remains of an estimated 2000 men, women and children who died from tuberculosis between 1909 and 1957.

The victims were patients at the nearby Waterfall State Sanatorium for Tuberculosis, now known as the Garrawarra Hospital.

The complex was converted to an aged care facility in 1957.

The NSW Government gave the council custodianship of the cemetery in 1967, but historic records indicated no work had been done at the site since, leaving it to fall into a state of disrepair.

A staff report to next Monday’s council meeting described the situation as “unintentional neglect” on the council’s behalf, and questioned whether the 1967 aldermen and then-council administration had ever properly acknowledged the responsibility.

However, the report does say that the council was notified of its responsibility in 2000 by historians Carol and John Herben but “little action was taken in response to this notification”.

The matter was again flagged in 2011, in part by the Helensburgh Historical Society, and also during the council’s review of land zonings in Wollongong’s far-northern suburbs.

Council staff who visited the site earlier this year found it was heavily overgrown with vegetation and barely recognisable as a cemetery.

They also believed several fires has swept through the area, burning all traces of wooden crosses and timber markers in the cemetery.

Council officers were able to identify only 43 graves of the estimated 2000 believed to be on the site.

The report said an experienced archivist was attempting to compile a complete burial register for the site using records stored in the basement of the hospital.

Meantime, council staff have urged councillors to plan a course of action aimed at rectifying the mistakes of their forebears.

The staff have recommended a three-stage approach, which includes having a conservation management plan drawn up, estimated to cost about $10,000.

Staff have suggested the council organise a “Friends of the Cemetery” group.

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