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Shadows of the past

Cairns is a place rich in history. What better place to learn about some of its stories than in one of the city’s oldest cemeteries at night…

Over many years Cairns & District Family History Society (CDFHS) held afternoon walks through the beautiful heritage listed McLeod Street Pioneer Cemetery. We told the stories of a small selection of the 2501 pioneers buried there and how our local history was affected by their existence. Volunteers from CDFHS researched and compiled the histories of the interred pioneers for presentation to the public.

Although well attended, we wanted to encourage more people to be captivated by the marvellous history that is enclosed inside the fencing of this cemetery and the importance of preserving this history.  We needed to think differently about the walks.

Evening tours are conducted through Herberton Cemetery and are always well attended and loved so I suggested to our committee that we should have similar evening walks but provide a different tour atmosphere.

As the Cairns Brass Band was very involved in many of the burials in the late 1800’s, the current Cairns Brass was approached about being involved in developing dramatised walks and they agreed.

It was also suggested that we apply for a grant to have a professional Community Theatre Director to assist us. The Director not only engaged community actors, who ranged in ages from 10 years to 70 years of age, but also shaped the stories into a theatrical event.  And so “Shadows of the Past” was developed.

Our first eight dramatised walks were held in 2013.  Once our walks were promoted on our local ABC radio, our first 3 walks were booked immediately, the following 5 walks were booked before we had commenced. Last year we were fully booked before commencing and we have a long waiting list for this year.

The Cemetery tours start at sunset, and guests are welcomed by their guide.  As they walk through the gates along the path, they are greeted first of all by music played by Cairns Brass and then the actors, who give a pocket history of the cemetery. Actors then appear beside the graves speaking in first person about the soul interred; swelling brass pieces by Cairns Brass underscore each story as audience walk between graves; ‘ghosts’ move amongst distant headstones evoking an eerie atmosphere, bringing history to life.

Photo of two actors

To date talks have included: James Lyons, mayor of Cairns 1895-96,  Phillip Garland, beche-de-mere fisherman and pilot arrivals to Cairns 1868-76, Dr Koch medical doctor and surgeon c1881-96 and Richard Ash Kingsford first mayor Cairns Town Council 1885 (also Grandfather to Sir Charles Kingsford Smith).

Our visitors have included local people, backpackers and tourists, with an age range of 8 to 80 years of age.  Locals are amazed at the history stories that their cemetery reveals about their own town and many have returned each year.  Visitors also find the history content very interesting and love the way it is presented. Many compliments have been received about how beautiful and peaceful McLeod Street Cemetery is.

We have had comments such as:

“We had a wonderful time – it’s wonderful to see the history of Cairns being shared in such an easy, accessible and appropriate way”

“There was great variety and acknowledgment of Aboriginal people and diversity in early Cairns.  Well done to the teenagers involved and lovely to see the young children.  The costuming was beautiful, the sexton professionally kept everything together and everyone safe.  Loved the touches and the helpers shining the way as we walked.  Candles on the selected graves added to the atmosphere.  The Cairns Brass Band was fantastic, great variety of music and not overbearing.  Beautiful singing too.  Oh yes and of course very informative about the history of Cairns”.

“I would just like to convey my thanks to the actors, actresses, band members and organisers for a most enjoyable and interesting evening. It is so important to keep history alive and relevant and this is a great way to achieve this. I look forward to the next one and will definitely be there! Thank you once again”

For those looking to undertake a similar project be sure to have your Council’s approval, be realistic about presentation, limit audience size and avoid microphones to create an enhanced atmosphere.  This is a great way to engage your community and visitors in your region.

Dell Deed
Dell Deed is the President – Cairns & District Family History Society Inc.

CDFHS provides a range of services to members and the community to assist in tracing their family history.  Our resource centre/library is open to the public, and we provide volunteer research assistants to help anyone who visits.  We undertake projects in conjunction with other organisations, including Cairns Regional Council such as “Shadows of the Past” and a “Student Education Kit: Teacher’s Notes and Student Workbook” in relation to McLeod Street Pioneer Cemetery.  We hold a wide range of events, training sessions, workshops and presentations.  We publish a blog, a public eNewsletter, and a quarterly journal.  We also run several special interest groups and provide speakers to community groups.  We engage with the community via social media and in-person events and encourage them to join, visit and participate.



Image courtesy Cairns & District Family History Society

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