Harkaway Cemetery achieves 150 Years

Published 30th June, 2023 in Our latest news

In June 2023 the Harkaway Cemetery achieved 150 years of service to the local community. The cemetery was officially gazetted as a public cemetery by the State Government on 3 June 1873.

In fact, the cemetery was created before that time.  Local German Lutheran immigrants had settled in Harkaway in the 1850’s and when Henrietta Koenig died in September 1863 a suitable place for burials was required.  An area on Gottlieb Schache’s farm was chosen (Schache had earlier purchased 106 acres from Ernst Wanke after whom the local collector road is now named).

In 1869 a small section of land across the road from the “unofficial” cemetery was set aside for a school house.  This building also served as a church for the Lutheran community.  The first teacher at the school was Jacob Hessell after whom the road was later named.  A bell tower was erected which when rung, announced the start of a new school day, the imminent commencement of the Sunday Church service, or, when rung slowly, the arrival of a hearse at the cemetery.  The bell remains today in its refurbished tower and is still used for funerals and the heralding of a new year.

By 1869 there had been at least 22 burials in the cemetery and so the local residents as proprietors, having unsuccessfully sought to have a “Cemetery Company” registered under the Friendly Society Act, met to discuss future arrangements.  It was agreed that the cemetery should be converted to a public cemetery and that the land should be surrendered to the government provided that each of the original members could retain a portion of the area as a family burial place.  The following were proposed as trustees – William A C a’Beckett MLC, Francis Barr JP, Louis Lensing, Ernest Gottlob Wanke and Jacob Hessel.  The name “Zion’s Hill” was suggested as the name of the cemetery.  In 1870 the Attorney General agreed to the proposal but it seems that the proclamation as a public cemetery was not proceeded with for some reason in spite of a request being received for a Deed of Conveyance to be forwarded to the Department of Public Works.

Burials continued at this site but the formal gazettal did not occur until June 1873.  Upon gazettal, members of the local Lutheran families were appointed as trustees of the cemetery and over the next 140 years the cemetery was managed by local family members – the last member from these families who served as a trust member was Len Wanke who retired in 2016 after having served for 47 years.  Five generations of the Wanke family have served on the Cemetery Trust and 35 members of their family have been buried there.  Other well-known local families associated with the cemetery are the Hillbrich’s and Aurisch’s.

In September 1950 an article in the local paper described the funeral of Bertha Wanke (Ernst Wanke’s daughter-in-law, who had married Immanuel Wanke – Bertha was the daughter of Wilhelm Aurisch) – For Whom The Bell Tolled MRS. BERTHA NATHALIE WANKE.  As the funeral of the late Mrs. Bertha Nathalie Wanke, of “Hillcroft”, Narre Warren, left her late home on Monday of last week, the tolling of the old bell at the Harkaway Cemetery drifted across the stillness of the Harkaway hills, and continued until the lengthy cortege arrived at this burial ground of the old pioneers. It was the first time for many, many years, that the historical old bell had sounded, and its clear tone was a reminder to all that another of the district’s grand old pioneers had gone to her reward after a life-time of friendly and cheerful service.  The late Mrs. Wanke, was a daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. William Aurisch and was married at Harkaway at the age of 22.  She lived all her 93 years on the property on which she was born and was a loving mother to her large family of nine sons and six daughters.”

A significant calamity for the cemetery trust occurred in 1956 when the residence of the Trust Secretary, Herman Wanke in Gibb Street, Berwick was destroyed by fire with many of the records of the Trust being lost.  Following this incident, significant work was undertaken to re-build trust records particularly in relation to the names of people who had been buried at the cemetery.  This was a great challenge but at that time one positive was that many of the Lutheran families still lived in that area and many had detailed knowledge of the location of those graves without headstones.

In 1962 the Wanke family erected memorial gates at the cemetery and later a plaque acknowledging the service of Alan Wanke who served as a trustee from 1923 to 1998.

Ray Exell, great great grandson of Ernst Gottlob Wanke, served as a trust member for 40 years and has cut the grass at the cemetery on a voluntary basis for more than 65 years.  His contribution to the operation of the cemetery has been recognised by the naming of the “Ray Exell Rotunda and Memorial Rose Garden” in the cemetery grounds in February 2017.

In the early 2000’s, an initiative by local Councillor, Norma McCausland resulted in an unused portion of open space owned by the local council (City of Berwick) located to the east and north of the cemetery being transferred to the State Government to enlarge the cemetery land.  The Trust was thus able to construct a new entrance and car park, and to commence using this land for lawn burials.

In October 2014, the Harkaway Cemetery Trust merged with the Berwick Cemetery Trust to form the Berwick and Harkaway Cemeteries Trust which now operates the two cemeteries.  Current Chairman Richard Garvey speaking this week to the Gazette, paid tribute to the members of the Lutheran families who had looked after the Harkaway Cemetery over the years stated – “the considerable efforts of these trust members over such a long period of time is just so commendable.  Overseeing the cemetery for 20, 30 and in some cases 40 years has been such a wonderful example of volunteerism.”  Mr Garvey added “These days we have different challenges in meeting quite detailed legal requirements and procedures.  The pioneers at Harkaway used their local knowledge and practical skills to develop and maintain a place which was so special to them and full of memories.”

A wonderful tradition continues with the ringing of the bell at funerals and at midnight on 31st December each year when the oldest Harkaway resident present has the honour of tolling in the New Year.