Last week was New Zealand Archaeology Week and as part of this I joined a group of like minded people with the aim of learning a bit more about Auckland’s early history via the evidence provided with one of our earliest cemeteries – the Symonds St Cemetery. The commentary was provided by Dr Heather Battles and our hosts were the Auckland Archaeological Society/NZAA.
The cemetery is one of New Zealand’s oldest urban cemeteries and was established in 1841, the same year Auckland became the capital of this fledgling colonial country. Although today it is part of the inner city back in the mid 1800s it was some distance from the colonial township.
This was unusual for the time – burials were usually found within a churchyard setting whilst in this case the churches for the various denominations were some distance from the cemetery itself. It has been suggested that concerns over public health were what prompted this new urban model but also it “reflected the influence of broader Enlightenment ideas on the new colony, which stressed the seperation between church and state” (from NZ Heritage listing summary).
Enlightenment values could also be seen in the idea of a cemetery for all – here religious affiliations became less important – to an extent…whilst the cemetery is the last resting place of a diverse range of religions, they are segregated within the cemetery itself. One of my earliest pieces of fieldwork as an undergrad student at Auckland University was to do a comparative study of two of the areas within the cemetery looking at the monuments and asking what can they tell us about colonial society. Unfortunately it has been quite some time since then and I do not remember much but what did stand out to me was how elaborate the Wesleyan monuments were when compared to the other parts of the cemetery which is in direct contrast to their sermons on humility and modesty.
The earliest phase of the cemetery was probably about 3.75 hectares but by 1842 it had expanded to around 7.5 hectares. This part of Auckland is one of many ups and downs and today you can see many of the monuments are beginning to tumble down the gully (if they haven’t already). The cemetery was divided into the four main denominations (Anglican, Catholic, Jewish and Wesleyan/non-conformist) on either side of the main route south out of Auckland. This ridgeway later became known as Symonds Street. The land size that each group received was based upon the census of the time.
The 1860s and 1870s saw a change in attitude towards the cemetery and some beautification occured, with trees being planted (some are still there today) and paths being laid. In turn the monuments start to become more elaborate. Eventually, space became an issue and the cemetery was closed to new burials in 1886 unless you already had family members interred there. At the same time a new urban cemetery was created at Waikumete. By 1909 Symonds Street Cemetery became a public reserve suffering from various modifications when the Grafton Bridge was built to span the steep sided gully. Much later in the mid 1960s further damage was done to the cemetery with the southern motorway was constructed. During this time some 4100 bodies were removed and reinterred in two memorial sites within the cemetery.
Today the cemetery is around 5.8 hectares with approximately 10,000 individuals interred there, however it is estimated only around a quarter of those have any kind of visible monuments. Even so it is still an important repository of information on early colonial Auckland and New Zealand.
Below are some images from the Catholic part of the cemetery.
The following images are also from the Catholic part of the cemetery, the first shows the Catholic church some distance away and separated by the southern motorway. The second photo shows the memorial plaque for those whose bodies were re-interred as a result of the motorway construction.
The pictures below are from the Anglican part of the cemetery and show some of the disrepair the monuments are in. The third photo along is of a very distinctive memorial in the shape of a church.
There are several well known New Zealanders buried in the cemetery such as William Hobson, New Zealand’s first Governor who signed the Treaty of Waitangi and died in 1842. The first picture is his memorial whilst the remaining two pictures are of Frederick Manning’s burial, another well known New Zealander.
The construction of the motorway and its impact on the cemetery.
Symonds Street Cemetery – Our Auckland Stuff