An Egyptian temple in an Australian cemetery. David Syme's tomb in the  Boroondara Cemetery in Kew.

In 1908 a small temple, a monument to David Syme, a Scot, was built in the Presbyterian section of the Boroondara Cemetery in Kew, the suburb of Melbourne in which he had lived since the early 1880's. It stands a few hundred metres from the main gates of the cemetery and seems ostentatious and out of place amongst the draped urns, Celtic crosses and simple headstones of the Presbyterians who had died before him.

David Syme had chosen his monument himself. In his Will he had stated that he wanted a sum "not exceeding £700" to be spent on "the construction of a family vault in or near my grave in the form of a Doric temple or any other brick construction that my Trustees should consider suitable or appropriate." In fact his Trustees, his widow Annabella Syme and his sons, John Herbert Syme, Francis Syme, Arthur Syme, Geoffrey Syme and Oswald Syme had little choice in the matter since the plans of the tomb were nearly ready at the time of his death on 18th February, 1902.

The plans had been prepared by a firm of architects, Butler and Bradshaw, of 413 Collins Street, Melbourne. Geoffrey Syme, his father's successor as Managing Editor of The Age, presented the drawings and the architect's report to his fellow Trustees at their first meeting, exactly one week after his father's death. These plans were sent back for revision and two weeks later, on 9th March, 1908, Walter Butler showed them again to the Trustees. This time they were accepted, though there was some discussion about the cost. The final details, the beating and casting of the ornamentation, the cutting of the capitals of the granite pillars, the design and making of the special floor tiles and the laying out of the lawn and paths far exceeded the amount that David Syme had set aside for his tomb. There was no demur. The Trustees agreed to find £500 more and to share this and any other additional amount amongst themselves.

David Syme does not seem to have consulted his wife Annabella about the tomb in which one day she was to join him. Although she was one of the Trustees and must have seen the plans and the report, it was not until more than a year and a half later, when the decoration of the tomb was almost finished, that she showed interest in its meaning. In September, 1910, she wrote to Mr. Butler and on 25th November, 1910, he replied with "a few remarks from my report." Presumably this was the same report she had been shown earlier, though apparently he had also lent her some books.

Mr. Butler told her that the tomb was a copy of Pharaoh's Bed, "Neither a tomb any more than it was a bed. It was a part, the most beautiful part, of a temple, the Temple of Isis", which had been built on the island of Philae. He then explained a little about the scarabs, scarab's eggs and pythons of the decoration and emphasised that Osiris, the God who had care of the dead, was "referred to in the most solemn manner, as one who sleeps in Philae." The winged orbs on the lintels of the entrances to the tomb and on the lid of the vault were intended "to secure the complete repose of the soul therein." David Syme's choice for his own monument shows he had considerable optimism about his own immortal life. The symbolic orbs and scarabs gave him more hope than a Christian cross.

In the last months of his life he had been preparing his autobiography. The manuscript is written, principally in two of four notebooks, and is still unedited and unpublished, though it was adapted and used as a source for Ambrose Pratt's biography of Syme which was written in 1908. In it he tells of his childhood and youth, his theological studies in England and Germany, his journey round Cape Horn to California, his voyage across the Pacific, his first years in Australia and details a number of episodes of his working life on The Age newspaper in Melbourne.

There are two principal themes which frequently burst into the narrative of these autobiographical notes; one consists of short, violent outbursts against political enemies, while the other is the questioning of the Calvinism of his youth and the future of those who are not amongst the Elect of God. "What was to become of those who were probably neither better not worse than the Elect?......repentance, prayer won't bring assurance to the soul that he has found forgiveness. It seems strange to me now that amongst the authors of devotional books that have been written on the Christian life there is no definite plan to explain the way of salvation...... the poor sinner is left in a dreadful state of suspense. He has tried to make himself out to be the vilest of sinners and he has tried to pray and pray so that perhaps God in His mercy will forgive him, but he can never know whether he has or not."cript

Although he has cast aside what he describes as "the thraldom of Calvinism", David Syme had remained a somewhat tentative Christian who had not, at least in his later years, tried particularly hard to find any Christian alternative to Calvinism. His time as a student for the Baptist ministry in Birmingham, his short period of theological studies in Germany and his friendship with the pastor of the Unitarian Church in Melbourne do not seem to have had a lasting influence on him. Towards the end of his life both he and his wife Annabella were ardent and surprisingly credulous Spiritualists, members of the Spiritualist Society that met in Richmond, a fact that was not emphasised by Syme's biographer, Ambrose Pratt. Their sons did not approve of their parents' enthusiasm for seances.

Why, then, did David Syme choose a non-Christian tomb? One cannot just say that this sort of symbolism was fashionable at the time or that it indicated he was a Freemason. He would not have cared about being fashionable, nor, according to the records of the Grand Lodge in Melbourne and the Loyal Orange Lodge in Box Hill, was he ever a Freemason, though he was obviously a sympathiser. He had no time to spare for Lodge meetings, nor was he one to appreciate ceremony or obedience to another and it is doubtful that he would have been accepted into a Lodge during the time he was working as a supervisor of gangs of road-builders in the Western District of Victoria, before he came to work with his brothers on The Age.

David Syme had always been fascinated by the problem of whether or not there was life after death. He had come to the conclusion that "Reason has not much to say in favour of a future state of existence, but instinct has...... this desire and belief is as strong as the instinct of self-preservation itself. It is stronger than reason, more powerful than the evidence of sense. It withstands ridicule, contumely and persecution because it is rooted in the innermost nature of our being."colhead

He seems to have been put off Christianity by those who had preached it to him as a child. In his autobiographical manuscripts he comments on those who formed his early beliefs. He writes of his father, "whose love seemed overshadowed by his sense of duty," of his two attendances at church each Sunday and the devotional books he was forced to read.   Extreme Calvinism became repugnant to him. He describes the ministers of the two churches in Berwick-on-Tweed, the Established Church, whose minister was "an extraordinary character. It would be difficult to find a man more unfit for the position he held. He was pompous, vain, overbearing towards his equals and inferiors," and, perhaps worst of all, he read his sermons.  Moreover he never visited the sick or poor and he walked about, not in the garb of a Presbyterian minister, but in the full rig of an Anglican bishop, minus the apron."   The minister of the other Presbyterian Church, known as the Meeting House, seemed to be slightly more pleasing. He "came of pious Presbyterian stock and did not belie his family tradition. He was tall and ponderous, both physically and mentally. He preached his own sermons, prayed his own extempore prayers. But he was dreadfully dull." He also criticised the Free Kirk minister, who came after the Disruption, the time when five hundred ministers of the Established Church left their churches and manses, largely  because of the patronage system, and formed the Free Kirk of Scotland. This minister was "pious, anaemic, young and absolutely satiated with the sinfulness of man and his pulpit was one long, tearful ejaculatory appeal to the Almighty for mercy." Syme comments that in the choice of these two ministers one found opposite examples, one of the evils of the patronage system and the other of the evils of popular idealism.

Despite his disapproval of these men Syme continued to think about God, and after his father's death, when he was staying with his eldest brother in Bathgate, his views on religion changed. His Calvinist upbringing had not made him a Calvinist, "Far from it. The more I thought over the dogmas of John Calvin the less I liked him . The doctrine of original sin, of predestination and the equally arbitrary damnation of the non-Elect. The arbitrary salvation of the Elect was utterly abhorrent to my sense of justice. Any one who believed in predestination has, of course, no need to trouble himself about his soul." He had noticed that other creeds had what he describes as "different processes of salvation" and that "the sinner must be penitent and prayerful to begin with," and he now began to consider the question of the Atonement, "No one can believe in the Atonement and at the same time hold the creed of Calvin, and to realise the full meaning of the Atonement you have to claim your right to the benefit of it, If Christ died for mankind he died for you as an individual member of the human race, Believe that Christ died that you might be saved and your attitude to God will undergo a change."


At about this time he was influenced by a Mr. Matthews, "a man of considerable erudition" and for the next two years he "devoted himself to the necessary theological and linguistic studies" with the ultimate aim of becoming a Baptist, not a Presbyterian minister. He already knew some Latin and Greek, but Hebrew was new to him and he found it an easy language to learn so he began to study Arabic as well. He thought that "the interpretation of the Bible was an essential part of a student's equipment" and he does not seem to have thought that other scholars whose work was already printed may have been better at translating the text than he was. He liked to find things out for himself. However he remarks rather sadly that "my study of the Old Testament also unhinged my faith in its inspiration. With this also went the romance of my studies."

His enthusiasm died and he departed for Germany, to Berlin and Gräffenburg, then to Vienna and to Heidelberg, where for about a year he attended lectures at the University. This was in 1849 and one cannot help wondering who funded his travels and studies at this period, whether the Baptist Theological College in Birmingham still supported him despite his religious doubts or whether his elder brothers gave him some money.

He returned to Scotland, got a job as a proof-reader on a Glasgow newspaper, but he was too ambitious to contemplate life on the lowly pay of a Scotch journalist, so "with no profession or trade, with no business training and with no capital or influence of any kind" he set forth to make his fortune on the gold-fields of California.


The discussion of his religious beliefs is important because these words were written so near to his death and his choice of the little temple with its symbolic decoration of orbs, scarabs, and pythons shows what Syme hoped for after his death. He hoped for the repose of his soul, that it would be purified and that he would continue to live. Nor can one say he was no longer a Christian and had lost his belief in Christ; even though his funeral service did not take place in a church he had chosen two Presbyterian ministers to assist at that service. One, the Reverend Dr. Marshall M. A., was from Scots Church and the other, the Reverend P. J. Murdoch, was the minister of Trinity Church, Camberwell and was at that time the Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church. The minister of the Presbyterian Church in Kew does not seem to have been there and David Syme was unlikely to have been a member of his congregation

Mr Butler had written to Annabella Syme "In as much as Osiris is the God of the dead, so dead persons were called Osirians, and in this connection it seems impossible to overlook the obvious connection of the care of the soul as understood by the Egyptians with the important pronouncement made on the subject by Mr Syme in his work on the Soul.  It seems possible that in giving expression to this wish Mr Syme had in mind the Egyptian tradition of the soul inseparably connected with this building on the island of Philae."  Butler goes on to describe Pharaoh's Bed as "comparatively light and simple in its lines and nearer than anything else in Egypt it approaches to the grace and charm of Greece."  He also tells her that the Uraeus or hooded python is the emblem of leadership. One hundred and thirty-six small pythons surmounted by orbs decorate the inner and outer sides of the cornice of the little temple in Kew and more pythons form the design of the two pairs of bronze gates which close the east and west entrances. These were not part of the original design, since they had to be added later to prevent sightseers from walking though the building. They too have a precise meaning: Horus had commanded Thoth, the God of the Underworld, that the orb and the erect serpent should be brought into every entrance of the gate and there is no opening of the gate unto the land of the living unless one does it oneself. The python is also symbolic of resurrection. In the Book of the Dead it says "I am the snake, the son of earth, multiplying the years I lay myself down and am brought forth every day.....I lay myself down and am brought forth renewed, grown young again every day.tiles

It seems likely that the Book of the Dead was the real inspiration for David Syme's choice of a tomb. He was certainly acquainted with the book which, as C. H. S. David describes it, instructs the soul in what befalls it after death, and contains a collection of prayers and incantations. It is the oldest and one of the most complete accounts of primitive belief and it expresses very clearly the hopes and fears of the Egyptians with reference to the world beyond the grave. It probably would have comforted Syme to think that "He who knows of this Book is one who, in the day of resurrection in the Underworld, arises and enters  in."   Parts of it, notably Chapter 64, were believed to have been written by "the very finger of Thoth himself"  Thoth, who was usually depicted with the head of an ibis, was the god of writing, learning and medicine and was the scribe of the lower regions, but he does not appear on Syme's tomb.

Sixteen scarabs are used in the floor tiling within the walls of the little temple and the pillars and railings outside the two entrances have ornamentation of scarabs and dozens of scarab's eggs. These eggs, warmed and brought to life by the heat of the sun, were believed to be symbolic of resurrection, while the scarab on its journey through life was believed to plead that its will might be given back to it, that its mouth might be opened and that there will be no silence of death.

Also symbolic are the acanthus leaves that are used for the capitals of the granite columns, since acanthus leaves  were supposed to have decorated the thrones of the sons of Horus during the Judgement of the Dead.  There is a winged orb above David Syme's name on the lid of the tomb, which is the entrance to the vault below, and other winged orbs are placed on the lintels of the two entrances to the temple. These orbs are symbolic of a purified intelligence which lives on after death, and certainly David Syme clung to this hope.

tiles2The monument seems a curiously arrogant choice for a man who was supposed to be reticent and shy. But David Syme was never humble, particularly in his estimation of himself. The plans for his family vault were prepared according to his instructions and it would probably have annoyed him that only his wife Annabella, his second son Francis and his two little daughters, Caroline and Gabrielle, who died in infancy, are buried and commemorated with him. Annabella's name is on the lid of the tomb below her husband, and the other three have commemorative plaques on the wall, but although there are still plenty of empty positions for plaques for any member of his family who wished to join him, no one else is there with him.

The tomb was his own personal choice, but one still has to ask how much of the actual detail of its decoration was chosen gates by him. Was the decorative as well as the architectural plan prepared by the architects, then submitted to him? Was it typical of a Masonic tomb of the period and therefore the symbolism was not strictly personal, but simply showing his beliefs as a Freemason. Was he in fact a practicing Freemason? According to the records of the Grand Lodge  and the Loyal Orange Lodge in Melbourne he was never a Mason; though perhaps he was one, very briefly, in his youth in England or Scotland. Anyway he would not have had any spare time to go to Lodge, he was an unceremonious man, but many of his associates in Melbourne were certainly Masons and he was generally sympathetic towards the brotherhood. Two prominent men who were members of the Loyal Orange Lodge  came to his funeral, Simon Fraser and Oswald Snowball. Oswald Snowball was Grand Master of the Loyal Orange Lodge at the time of David Syme's death, but as he was also a member of the Legislative Assembly and Speaker of the House he probably came as a parliamentarian, not as brother of another lodge member.

It seems that in the choice of the design for his tomb David Syme's personal wishes must always have played a large part. It was not a tribute to him by his wife and children since its plan had largely been prepared before his death. There is no record of the specific alterations requested by the Trustees the first time they saw the plan, and the gates were a necessary afterthought. Whatever the reason for his choice, one can argue that his tomb shows his hope of an afterlife, of immortality, and that he, like his sternly Presbyterian father, wanted to be among the Elect of God.



Scores of Symes Vol 1


Extract of pages 49 through to 61 written by Dr Veronica Condon 1982


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Copyright © 2012 Dr Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.