Urban Exploring

Exploring Sydney’s Abandoned Tuberculosis Graveyard

Some 2,000 people were buried at Garrawarra Cemetery in the first half of the 20th century. Then it was forgotten.

by David Allegretti
12 February 2017, 6:30pm

About an hour-and-a-half south of Sydney there's an abandoned graveyard, the final resting place for thousands of people who died from tuberculosis in the early 20th century. Many of these victims had be quarantined, forced into sanatoriums outside the city, in an attempt to keep them away from the general public. But in the decades after the graveyard opened in 1909, advancements in antibiotics changed the way tuberculosis was treated and by the 1960s the tuberculosis graveyard had been forgotten. Today, it's completely swallowed by the scrub on the edges of a town called Helensburgh. You can't access the graveyard, and there isn't much information about it online. But mention it at the local pub and you'll hear plenty of secondhand ghost stories, even though nobody seems to have been there themselves. So a friend and I decided to go check it out.

Getting in from the road. All photos by Sean Foster. Check out more of his stuff here.

My friend Sean and I arrived at the graveyard gate just as the sun was setting. Getting in involved a bit of trekking—first along a well-trodden path, which gradually deteriorated into an entanglement of trees and scrub. After pushing through a few hundred meters of unfriendly branches, we reached a clearing and found our first gravestone. I tried hard not to make any sound but my efforts were futile. Every step was met with a crunch of twigs and dry leaves. It was a sad, quiet place. The single grave was surrounded entirely by trees, its epitaph long dissolved from the stone, leaving only a nameless slab.

Me pushing through the trees

"Many headstones have been damaged by time and scorched by severe bushfires, which melted the lead lettering on most of them," local historian Carol Herben had explained to me the day before. Carol said the graveyard had been part of Waterfall Sanatorium, a 164-bed hospital that opened in 1909. From then until the 1950s, hospital staff buried around 2,000 people in the graveyard. "At its peak, Garrawarra Cemetery played host to four or five burials a week," Carol said. Most of the names and records of these people were lost in the 1960s, somewhere between the NSW Health Ministry and the local council. The original sanatorium building is now a retirement complex, about a kilometre from the graveyard.

The first sign of a gravestone

Worldwide, tuberculosis remains one of the top 10 causes of death. The disease is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which most dramatically affects the lungs. It spreads from person-to-person through the air: coughs, sneezes etc. You only need to inhale only a few of these germs for the disease to take hold. If you're a human living on Earth, you've still got a one-in-three chance of hosting latent TB in your system—this means that while you're healthy, you can infect others. Even those with active TB may only see very mild symptoms in the first few months—allowing carriers to spread the disease to many others before seeking medical care. 

The disease starts with small things at first: night sweats, weight loss, cough, and fevers. As time goes on, these symptoms will progress and worsen. Left untreated, TB has a 70 percent fatality rate. But don't worry, between 2000 and 2015, modern medicine saved an estimated 49 million lives through proper TB diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, this was not the case a century ago. Back then doctors thought it could be cured by sending patients away from the cities and into nature, where theoretically the fresh air would purge the disease. While some people were cured by this treatment, the numbers were tiny—most perished without antibiotics. The disease was known as "Consumption" because of the massive weight loss caused as it devoured the sufferer's body.

Most of the graves were completely buried

Waterfall Sanatorium was one such fresh air treatment facility for advanced tuberculosis sufferers. Patients were sent to the sanatorium, often against their will, to take in the mountain air and nutrients provided by the centre's dairy cows and orange plantations. They were not released until cured, or dead. Most patients ended up buried in the grounds of what became known as Garrawarra Cemetery.

It got dark quickly, so I needed to hold the torch over the gravestones so Sean could take photos. Mostly this just made them look creepier

Back when the cemetery was open, tuberculosis sufferers were shunned by society. Most were abandoned by their families in an attempt to rid themselves of the stigma. In town before I visited the graveyard, locals told me stories about patients trekking through the bush to the rail line to wave at passing travellers—a desperate attempt to connect with the outside world. The passengers would toss newspapers to the patients. Some people attempted to escape Waterfall, but the isolation of the sanatorium proved too much for the already weak tuberculosis sufferers.

This was the most legible inscription we could find

Carol Herben told me the youngest person buried in the cemetery was just three days old. The oldest was 101. As I walked through the cemetery, I search the inscriptions for their graves but most of the remaining headstones were impossible to read. Only a handful were legible. Scouring the graves for names, I realised they weren't as few and far between as I'd first thought. Virtually every step I took was across a grave. Grouped so closely together, covered by leaf litter, ground and graves were virtually indistinguishable. I whispered my apologies as we continued exploring.

Spotlighting

As we crunched around through the undergrowth, I wondered whether I'd prefer to be buried in a well-maintained graveyard or a place like this—overgrown and wild. Despite the ghost stories, Garrawarra was surprisingly nice, out there among the trees and the birds. Some of those graves have sat undisturbed in the bush for a century now. It doesn't feel like such a bad place for a body to spend eternity—a final peace for all the people who suffered so horribly inside Waterfall Sanatorium.

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