Death and Burial on the Goldfields of Victoria
Pennyweight Flat Cemetery Castlemaine
Mary Skillicorn died at eighteen months in Castlemaine in 1854. She is buried in a tiny rocky cemetery beneath crooked sheltering grey box gums in Pennyweight Flat where the colours are soft greys and browns, with accents of pink and purple and acid green. Around her in the leaf litter and rubble of stones are the graves of two hundred other children of the gold-rush. Most of the graves have been obliterated by time, but a few grey-green lichen-covered headstones with faded lettering mark the spot, tell a fragment of the tale. It is perhaps because these graves have almost, but not quite, returned to the earth that they are so particularly heart-breaking. Mary shares her place with Elizabeth Carbis. On one grave grows a lone wild yellow daisy, the only flower around. The stone here is lettered in Chinese.
Beneath a clear cornflower sky we met in the morning round the prehistoric, strangely horizontal trunk of a gum. We had brought chairs and rugs – an antique floral parasol – from a distance you might imagine we were twenty people maybe having a picnic. This was December 27, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and the priest from the Castlemaine Anglican parish was assembling an altar between a flaking headstone and the scarred fat friendly tree-trunk.
These faded, broken details of the few headstones are so tantalising and so poignant, and yet in their very slender way they begin to form a picture of short lives lived long ago. One simply says ‘Emil’, the rest has dissolved away. All the children died between 1852 and 1857, a time when fetid and polluted water, poor food and deadly diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and whooping cough were everyday features of the diggings. Pennyweight Flat was so named because it was impossible to find more than a pennyweight of gold in an acre of ground in that location, so it was from the beginning a hard, grim place. In fact it seems impossible to believe that a skerrick of gold ever surfaced here. Is it too fanciful to imagine the remains of the children as a treasure buried in the ground, marked by collections and patterns of stones? The place was fenced and restored, to a degree, in 1929, by public subscription.
The scattered little graves have brought the people here today, have attracted us all to the unrecorded stories we know are here, and know will probably never be clearly told. The first child buried here was Henry Baxter, one year and nine months old, on May 28, 1852. His grave is on the highest point, and is the largest assembly of stones. A little web research tells me the name ‘Skillicorn’ was common on the Isle of Man; perhaps it would be possible to discover Mary’s family. There are no Skillicorns in the local phone book. Because Mary is named and framed by her dates, she seems to me to have an identity here under the umbrella of the gum trees. Most of the two hundred are nameless, and are consequently shady presences over whose bones we presumably are walking with our careless and sacrilegious feet.
This land was of course the home of indigenous people long before the diggers came looking for gold. It is inhabited by the ghosts of those other children too. And there is something utterly un-European in the atmosphere of the place. Parched yet pale green fields stretch away from the fenced and raised area of the graveyard, and a line of houses is visible in the near distance. But the mood and texture around the graves is quite different, is filled with a spirit all its own, filled with a hovering silence, gently broken by the words of the Prayer Book liturgy, so English and elegant and dignified. Comforting and musical, but telling today a terrible story, a story that binds itself to the stories of the cemetery babies, some of whom were, in a sense, victims of the common lust for gold.
In the days following the birth of Christ, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all newborn boys in Bethlehem, hoping to eliminate the promised Messiah by overkill. The feast on December 27, after the joys of Christmas day, remembers those innocent victims of Herod’s purge. The ceremony at Pennyweight Flat, an isolated place of peace and sorrow, far from Bethlehem, far from England, constructs an embrace that stretches across time and space to gather in the lives of all children who have died, known and unknown, near and far.
In the midst of the ritual of the service of Holy Communion, the priest invited people to speak personally of their feelings about the place, their reasons for being present. And with great spontaneous eloquence they told of their varying comprehensions of the meaning of Pennyweight Flat. One spoke of a vision of the spirits of the children being welcomed into the company of angels. One drew attention to the most recent news items of the violent deaths of children in a war zone. One woman expressed her gratitude for the health of her own four children. It was a unique and curious feeling to be in such a forlornly lovely place and to hear such a mixture of the spiritual and the terrible and the everyday. Curious indeed to hear voices there at all, for it is a lonely and a silent place. At least three of the people were quietly drawing patterns in the dust with sticks as they listened or spoke, as if in imitation of the actions of a child.
The priest, vested in a striking splash of scarlet among the muted colours of the graveyard, and wearing a neat Akubra, distributed to the congregation small prints of a picture by William Blake. It is an arresting, difficult, disturbing and unexpected image of the Baby Jesus naked and lying, not in a manger, but on a cross, a holy innocent cradled by his own future. And there was a reading of Blake’s poem ‘Holy Thursday’ from the ‘Songs of Innocence’ which ends with the line:
‘Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.’ Poetry seemed to be the right response to the occasion which was so steeped in history and sorrow, as well as being informed by great simplicity and goodness.
As I walked away I picked from the flurry of dried gum leaves on the cemetery floor a little piece of dark grey slate, a sliver of green glass, and a stump of bright orange crayon, and took them home. I am not really sure why I did this, but it seemed to be somehow a necessary gesture. The other thing I did was to return the following day to Pennyweight Flat with a bunch of herbs and marigolds from the garden. I placed them on the grave of Mary Skillicorn and Elizabeth Carbis. I did this with due reverence, but I have to confess that I was probably responding to my own fascination and delight in the odd music of Mary’s name. Maybe the herbs were for the two hundred, but it was Mary Skillicorn who accepted the posy in their name.