July, 2008, Page 2.
You’d never know it from the look of the ZanziBar in Newtown now, but a stroll on King Street has you passing the site that gave the suburb its name. Newtown’s namesake was commemorated as part of the National Trust Heritage Festival in April, with a plaque recognising the site of the former ‘New Town Store’.
Newtown takes its name from the weatherboard store opened by John Webster, a grocer and draper. Webster named his store the ‘New Town Store’ to distinguish it from the established settlements at Camperdown, Cooks River and O’Connell Town.
The name Newtown itself was recorded as early as 1832, when the Sydney Gazette wrote: “the neighbourhood about the spot known as Devine’s Farm has obtained the name ‘Newtown’”. A long history as a hotel then followed at the site, first as the Daniel Webster in 1863, then as the Oxford Hotel from 1875. By the 1980s this had become the Oxford Tavern and from 2001, the ZanziBar.
The Heritage Festival put the focus on local history and for Newtown this unearths some intriguing characters, macabre events and weird wonderful sideshows.
Eliza Donnithorne is one of the most famous people in Newtown’s history, a woman around whose lonely vigil much local legend has grown. Miss Donnithorne has been credited with posthumous fame as the basis for the spinster character of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens‘ Great Expectations.
Like the character, she was a jilted bride whose grief, according to literary folklore, prompted her to leave her wedding meal untouched for years at the family mansion, Camperdown Lodge, on King Street. Until her death in 1886, some 30 years on from that fateful day of loss, she is said to have lived as a recluse, never leaving Camperdown Lodge again.
According to local legend, the front door was always left slightly ajar, yet fastened with a chain, in case her fiancé would appear. Dickens was thought to have heard the story through correspondence with his nephew visiting Sydney at the time or else from her neighbour, his friend Caroline Chisholm.
Eliza Donnithorne is buried in Camperdown Cemetery, in the grounds of St Stephen’s Church, Newtown where her nuptials were to have taken place. Cemeteries advisor for the National Trust, Rebecca Ward, said ‘Miss Havisham of Newtown’ is a great local legend that certainly has some truth. “Even in her day, people knew the story of Eliza Donnithorne,” she said. “Those stories built up when she was alive with children afraid to walk past her house and talk that she was a witch.”
Camperdown Cemetry itself contains many people of note including Napoleon’s harpist, Nicolas Bochsa, the mass grave from the 1857 wreck of the Dunbar, and the self proclaimed illegitimate son of King George IV, William Augustus Miles. Less than 100 metres from Newtown’s pubs, restaurants and pawnshops, it’s as calm as King Street is chaotic and provides a sanctuary from the bustle for locals in the know.
A murder in the cemetery was the catalyst for converting the larger part of it into a public park, now home to the Newtown Festival every year. In 1946, 11 year-old-old Joan Norma Ginn was raped and murdered after she had been sent out in the early evening by her mother to buy some bread.
The shocking murder resulted in much of the neglected 4.8 hectare cemetery being turned into Camperdown Memorial Rest Park it is today. Four acres were cordoned off for the cemetery and the headstones from the park were relocated within the new bounds. “Most people don’t know but all the graves are still there,” Miss Ward from the National Trust said. “They didn’t move the bodies, just the headstones so throughout the Camperdown Memorial Park the graves are still there.”
Miss Ward has written a National Trust booklet, The Darker Side of Newtown and Surrounds, that provides a self-guided tour and taps into its rich yet sordid past. “I’d been working on heritage for a while and came across so many weird stories about Newtown over time,” she said. “Lots of people knew about these stories and so many of them happened to be quite macabre,” she said.
Newtown started as quite upmarket, Miss Ward said, but from the mid to late 1800s went steadily downhill. “It was a very poor area at one stage, with many people on low incomes or unemployed. When there’s hopelessness and poverty, you may also have some crime,” she said. Perhaps the most disturbing of the 41 tales chronicled in the booklet are the crimes of John and Sarah Makin, the notorious baby farmers.
In October 1892, workmen digging in the backyard of 25 Burren Street uncovered the decomposing remains of two babies, with further investigation uncovering four more. John and Sarah Makin, the former residents, had made a living by taking in the illegitimate babies of single women for a fee or weekly instalments.
But instead of raising these children, the Makins killed them and pocketed the money. Police investigated eleven houses where the Makins had lived in the previous two years and found the bodies of thirteen more.
It’s not all gruesome episodes for Newtown, however, with the self-guided tour also taking in weird wonderful moments of the suburb’s past. A gold rush hoax in 1870 had people from across Sydney storming into Bedford Street. Suspicions fell on Jemmy Richards, who ran a line of horse drawn buses through Newtown and did very well out of the extra business.
A fitting end to trams running up City Road was also provided in 1957, with students from the University of Sydney setting up an altar, holding a funeral service, and following the last tram through King Street, singing Auld Lang Syne.
The Darker Side of Newtown and Surrounds, a self-guided tour for the misguided of the more macabre side of local history, is appropriately enough available at Better Read Than Dead bookstore in Newtown.