In my lifetime, I would guess I've walked past Regent Street Station at least 1000 times. Of those, I can tell you exactly how many times I pondered its actual purpose: one. And that time was last week, when I turned to my friend and asked, “What is that building? Is it a church?” and they replied, “No, it’s an abandoned train station for the dead.”
I’m sorry, what?
It turns out the Chippendale station, sandwiched between Sydney’s Central Station and Railway Square, originally opened as Mortuary Station on June 29, 1869, and was used to transport the dead and their grieving relatives to their final resting place, Rookwood Cemetery. I don’t mean that in some kind of poetic, metaphorical sense, either; I mean the literally, clinically dead.
Adorned with angels, cherubs and gargoyles, the Venetian 13th century Gothic-style building was designed by James Barnet as a central stop to pick up the dead and their living families. Those families had to pay for their return tickets on the grave-y train, but the dead — I imagine due to their inability to access their wallet — generously rode free.
Apparently, the train timetable saw two trains leaving a day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. On board, there were two types of hearse carriages used to transport the dead. The largest could hold up to 30 coffins, while the other could fit 10 at most. Mourners were held in a separate area of the train, and all disembarked at an almost identical station at the other end, aptly named Cemetery Station.
The station and train line were in use until 1947, when the last railway timetable was recorded. It read, “Sydney 2.17pm to Strathfield 2.33pm to Rookwood #1, 2.50pm." By that time, roads were in better shape and cars were a much more popular mode of transport. As such, most funeral processions travelled by car and the need for Mortuary Station was no more. It’s Rockwood sister, Cemetery Station, was dismantled in the '50s and actually rebuilt stone for stone in Canberra to become the All Saints Church. But good ol’ Morty still stands, and if its walls could talk, they’d have a lot to say about its colourful life since those dark early days.
In the 1950s, it became a depot to dispatch animals, namely horses, then moved into a new role as a parcel depot, before taking on its most ambitious role as a pancake restaurant in the '80s. That’s right, from 1986-89, two men by the name of Peter Shield and John McNally had the sweet idea of taking the original railway carriages and turning them into dining areas to eat breakfast. I don’t know about you, but nothing makes me hungrier than thinking about dead people. Know what I mean? Pass the syrup, please.
Bewilderingly, the restaurant flopped, and by 1989 it was a ghost town once more. Over the last 25 odd years, it’s been refurbished, heritage listed, vandalised and used as a wedding location. Because that’s the other thing thinking about the dead makes me want to do: marry the one I love.
Another fun fact I would like to impart from this whole bizarre discovery is that there is a decently high (though unproved) chance that when I have walked through the Devonshire tunnel of Central Station, I may have been stepping on some toes — literally. Turns out there used to be a cemetery right smack bang in the middle of Surry Hills and that when it was forced to close due to public health concerns, relatives of the dead were given two months to arrange for exhumation and reburial elsewhere in 1901. It is said some 30,000 bodies were unclaimed, leaving it up to some pretty overworked and underpaid public servants to ensure the dignified and lawful transportation of all those remains. Just saying, pretty sure they left a toe or three… thousand.
Abandoned is streaming now at SBS On Demand. Watch the first episode right here: