On a peaceful patch of a Middle Arm property with frogs croaking in the background, a battle with bureaucracy seemed a dim distant memory on Wednesday.
Gathered there were a Minister, staffers past and present and a grateful community group at a little cemetery, once the subject of a big kerfuffle.
Lands and Forestry Minister Paul Toole was there to hand over the title deeds of the cemetery to new owners, The Forest Cemetery Committee Incorporated, whose members have lovingly cared for the graves over many years.
Though suffering cancer and receiving palliative care, Susan Murphy was determined to attend. She had a front row seat in her wheelchair for the event.
“I wanted to see this,” she told Mr Toole.
Like most attendees, Mrs Murphy is a descendant of the cemetery’s founders, Robert and Harriet Grubb, who are buried there in a quiet spot below the Methodist Church at Middle Arm. The Grubbs’ infant son, Oswald, for whom the facility was established, lies at rest there too.
Another descendant and committee president, Fred Motbey, was visibly relieved.
“It’s been a four-year struggle for us,” he told The Post.
“What an exciting and important milestone we have reached today for the descendants, relatives and friends of the extended Grubb family and for the heritage of Goulburn district.”
The cemetery, established in 1873, is also the resting place of other Middle Arm and Rhyanna residents. Families and friends of the deceased have cared for it over many years.
But all this was jeopardised in early 2014 when Goulburn Mulwaree Council proposed to sell the land for a claimed $1500 in unpaid rates.
So began a protracted search by Grubb family descendants Denise McConnachie and Crookwell historian, Edith Medway to find the legal title holders.
It was complicated by the fact Robert and Harriet Grubb’s son, William, died unexpectedly just six months after his parents in 1893. Although the cemetery had been left in his care, there was no proof of ownership. William’s trustees placed a caveat on the land but again, there was no evidence of legal title.
Mr Motbey said given the impasse, a steering committee was formed to save the cemetery.
“We were successful in having the auction postponed and with the assistance of (then Lands Minister) Katrina Hodgkinson), we were connected with the NSW Cemeteries and Crematoria Board,” he said.
“Fortunately for us, the then NSW manager for Cemeteries and Crematoria John Filocamo adopted our case and was instrumental in providing advice, resources and contacts to push forward with a request and application for resumption of land and title transfer.”
After the council undertook a heritage assessment of the facility, where Australian servicemen were buried, things began to change.
Last April, new Lands Minister Paul Toole decided to sell the newly declared Crown land to the committee for the grand sum of $1.
A model to follow
Mr Motbey described it as a happy, positive and manageable outcome.
“In receiving the title today, we have accepted that the Forest Cemetery is for the public benefit, offering a historical site but also a final place of rest for the local Rhyanna residents as well as the Grubb family and descendants,” Mr Motbey said.
He thanked the many who had played a role in saving the property, especially Mr Toole.
The Minister told the gathering he well understood the heartache and despair the matter had caused.
“When it came across my desk I said ‘that needs attention,’” he said.
Now, the ownership by an incorporated body will be used as a model for similar cases.
Mr Toole praised Mr Motbey, Ms McConnachie and Mrs Medway for their “passion, dedication and leadership,” and for preserving the stories of people buried there.
It’s been a long journey for the family to get to this point and it’s really important to us.Robert Grubb
Mrs Medway has written a book on pioneering families, the Grubbs and the Peters.
The Minister also acknowledged Mrs Murphy’s presence.
“Susan, you’ve made a big effort to be here and I wish you all the best in your journey ahead. I hope today is a little bit of comfort to you,” Mr Toole said.
He presented the title deeds to fifth generation descendants, Mikhala and Daniel Grubb. They had travelled from Melbourne with their father, Robert, for the handover.
“It’s been a long journey for the family to get to this point and it’s really important to us,” Robert said.
“It links us to the land.”
Another descendant, Marjorie Speer, with husband Keith, has maintained the graves for 55 years.
“This is extremely special to me. It’s been part of my life all my life. A lot of my family are buried here,” Mrs Speer said.
Watching on, the now retired Mr Filocamo told The Post he had taken a particular interest due to the case’s uniqueness and the feelings of residents.
“The Minister’s office asked what we could do and we got legal advice,” he said.
“There were a lot of sceptics asking why we were doing it but Katrina’s office was supportive and we pushed on. We got the council onside and, with the committee, started a long process to acquire the cemetery as Crown land and sell it.”
The valuation was zero, which saved the residents from “stumping up.”
Mr Filocamo won the Premier’s Award in 2015 for helping find the remains of a member of the Stolen Generation and returning him to his family at Coonabarabran.
“Today is right up there with that award because of the happiness it brings and the relationships it builds,” he said.