Heritage: Symonds Street Cemetery

Symonds Street Cemetery


The Symonds Street Cemetery is Auckland's oldest Municipal Cemetery. It was created from 1841 onwards


Symonds Street (and by extension the Cemetery) was named after Captain William Cornwallis Symonds, although he is not buried there. Symonds was a friend of William Hobson and one of his closest and most effective officials.

William Cornwallis Symonds was one of the first six Police Magistrates in New Zealand and Chief Magistrate of Auckland. In 1841 he was appointed Deputy Surveyor-General of New Zealand.

William Cornwallis Symonds was related to the General Cornwallis who surrendered at Yorktown during the American War of Independence. William's brother Captain John Jermyn Symonds (1819-1883) also lived in Auckland; Symonds Street in Onehunga is named after him.

William Symonds intended to create a settlement on the Manukau Harbour at Cornwallis. The Maori name for that place was Karangahape and Karangahape Road (including what is now Lower Symonds street) was part of the route taken to reach that place - hence the name.


Captain William Cornwallis Symonds 1810-1841, depicted in a lithograph of an 1841 drawing by Joseph Merrett. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library


Captain William Cornwallis Symonds and two others had drowned in the Manukau Harbour in November 1841 while on an errand of mercy. The United Service Magazine lamented:

Thus miserably perished one of the finest young men in the British Service." “Capt. Symonds - has found an early grave in the public service, and in the immediate performance of an act of humanity at great personal hazard"

There doesn't seem to be any record of a funeral for him or burial site so it appears his body was never recovered.

In 1842 Hobson named the main road leading south out of Auckland Symonds Street in memory of his friend and colleague.

Shortly afterwards in 1842 he demarcated several acres at the intersection of Symonds Street and Karangahape Road to be used as a municipal burial ground.

In the 1840s this land was a mile outside of the flegling town of Auckland. Initially this was the area to the east of Symonds Street - comprising a large area for Anglicans to the south and a smaller area to the north or “dissenters" (basically everyone else).

Eventually in 1843 the land to the west of Symonds Street was made available for the other minority religion - the Jewish faith and then areas for the two other Christian denominations located in Auckland at the time - the Roman Catholic Church in 1852 and the Church of Scotland in 1869.

The Symonds Street and Karangahape Road ridge had been used in pre-european times by Maori as a walking route between the two harbours.

The track was demarcated by white shell fragments - small shellfish such as pipi were the most convenient food to carry on trips and any heavily used walking track became littered with discarded shells - this led to one of the interpretations of Karangahape - The Shell Path.

There is the possibility of the area having been used for pre-european burials - certainly its Maori name - Te Iringa o Rauru - was associated with death.

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Grafton Gully in the 1850s This photograph shows the view down the fern clad gully to the harbour. The house on the left is at the bottom of St Martins Lane


The cemeteries occupied a marginal piece of land - the covering of Bracken fern and flax indicated poor soil showing it was not suitable for agriculture.

There was however an attractive view of the harbour down Grafton Gulley and the area was far enough from town to be considered both respectful and hygienic.

The Cemetery was organised in two parts on either side of Symonds Street. On the east side facing the harbour were the Anglican (1841) and Non-conformist areas (first used in 1852).

On the western side were the Jewish (1843), Presbytarian (1869) and Catholic sectors (1852) although it is possible that these areas were used for internment by their respective religions before these dates.

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The Cemeteries


Initially the Presbytarians were not happy because their area lacked any “picturesque" qualities, notably a view of the harbour.

The eastern sectors were certainly regarded as more desirable because of the views of the harbour and Mt Eden.

Auckland had a population of around 2000 people during the mid 1840s and fully 1800 of them were Anglican which is why the Church of England Cemetery occupies the largest area and has the most desirable aspect.

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Council History

Cemetery Gully with view of Rangitoto John Tremenhere Johnston 1850s


Wooden enclosures were a feature of the early cemetery - such enclosures are symbolic protection of the body.

Since prehistoric times people have wanted to avoid their loved ones being dug up by flesh eating animals - this is one of the reasons for being buried 'six feet under'.

In the 18th and 19th centuries bodies were also targeted by body snatchers who would sell the cadaver for medical research.

While this was not a problem here as New Zealand was set up after new legislation was created allowing the legal use of cadavers for such use, it was an ingrained tradition to make burial sites as secure as possible.

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The Anglican Sector in the 1860s


While such enclosures were largely symbolic they did have definite roles in protecting the site physically.

In practical terms they discouraged wandering stock from eating any planted shrubs planted by the family - these plants or their seeds often had to be sourced from Australia or even Britain and so were rather valuable.

But by being often constructed with the same fencing material used around local houses the grave enclosures (and the plants within) also evoked an aura of domestic tranquility around the grave site.

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Page from a 1906 Catalogue showing Bed Posts and Grave Posts.

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The wooden fences and grave surrounds were manufactured by the same businesses that supplied domestic and farming needs.

Note the catalogue page illustrated above from the Kauri Timber Company. Apparently, there is no problem for Bed Posts and Grave Posts to share the same page, ironically illustrating the course of human existance from cradle to grave.

Likewise wrought and cast iron grave surrounds are very similar, and in may cases, identical to those supplied for prestigious residences or businesses such as Banks.

Wooden fencing remained a standard part of grave furnishing up until the First World War, largely because of financial reasons - people were more inclined to put money into a stone grave marker than the grave surrounds.

Towards the end of the 19th century the more expensive cement and iron enclosures were increasingly favoured, both in the case of new graves and people updating existing graves.

Many families would update graves - especially in the case of Family Enclosures - in particular the family plot was “full" a cement pad was often constructed “sealing" the site.

Wooden fencing, often twenty to Forty years old was invariably replaced with new wrought or cast-iron railings.

Because they are so susceptible to weathering and rot, wooden enclosures are increasingly rare survivors in most old cemeteries, the Symonds Street Cemetery is typical in this matter.

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Scoria Rock Walls

Scoria Rock Walls surrounding the cemetery in the 1880s.

Over 20,000 years ago the Grafton Volcanoes to the east of the gully exploded and showered debris over the surounding clay landscape. Only comparatively small scoria rocks made it this far.

These stones were gathered up to make the dry stone walls to divide the various areas of the cemetery, in the same way as they were used to separate pastures from each other or residental plots - as is common in nearby Mount Eden and Epsom.

Remnants of these walls still exist in places around the Cemetery; the largest portion is the wall separating the Jewish Sector from that of the Church of Scotland although the wall has crumbled in parts and a portion has been greatly affected by the growth of adjacent Elm Trees.

The wall separating the Jewish area from Karangahape road has been covered with mortar and rendered with a cement finish to resemble ashlar stonework.

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Hochstetter's 1859 map of Auckland.

Details of Hochstetter's 1859 map

In the centre of this map are the words “Wind Mill" demarcating the location of the Symonds Street Cemetery; to the right are the round craters of the Grafton Volcanoes.

These volcanoes threw out ash and scoria, here coloured grey, unlike Mount Eden to the south which produced mostly solid lava flows which took longer to decay into fertile soil.

The beige landscape is here labeled “Sterile Clay Soil" by Hochstetter as it was markedly different to the fertile soils covered by Volcanic ash to the east and south.

This is one of the reasons the landscape was covered mostly by Bracken Fern and Flax, the hard unyelding clays made the restablishment of larger trees and shrubs very difficult, unlike the much more fertile landscape of Epsom and Remuera to the south and east.

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Historic Views

View south in the late 1870s.

This view from Partington's Windmill shows the scoria rock wall around the Cemetery. Note the absence of shrubs or trees. At the rear can be seen two Gothic Churches; on the left is the 1865 Anglican Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre, on the right of Symonds Street and centre of the image is the 1866 Catholic Chapel of St Francis de Sales.

The small structure sitting by itself in the Jewish sector is a wooden mortuary chapel. The Orthodox Jewish Rite requires a vigil of three days and nights to be held over the body of a deceased person before burial - this vigil shouldn't be held in a residence or the Synagogue - hence the neccessity of the building here.

Note how the Jewish Mortuary Chapel is a very plain structure in comparasion to the other two buildings - this avoidance of any overt symbolism is typical of the austere values of the Orthodox Jewish Faith which would have found architectural extravagance or expense inappropriate for a structure dealing with death.

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View south in the early 1880s

Another view taken ten years later from Partington's Windmill. The two gothic Chapels at the rear have been joined by the Presbytarian Newton Kirk (right centre) also designed in the Gothic style.

An assortment of trees and shrubs have appeared, being Weeping Willow, Cypress, Camellia and Box. Some of the graves will be planted with small flowering shrubs such as roses with underplantings of ivy, violets and bulbs.

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View south 1884

Another view from the Windmill, showing the corner of the Caledonian Hotel (left) and the new St Benedicts (upper right). Upper left is the new Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Khyber Pass Road.

The trees have now grown up obscuring the Jewish Mortuary Chapel. These trees will mostly be evergreen and probably Pinus radiata which was considered a good subsitute for yew.

Pinus radiata actually grew too fast and too big resulting in inartistic straggly trees. It is probable that most of the English Oak trees and Cypresses were planted at this time to replace them.

It is said that the planting of Oak trees was a suggestion of the then Mayor James McKosh Clark.

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View South 1923

Another view from the Windmill. The Jewish Mortuary Chapel has gone as the front part of the Jewish Cemetery has been laid out as a Public Park which is largely obscured by the shops in the foreground.

A jewish mortuary Chapel appears on the maps at this time relocated out of range of the photo to the right - the 19th century gateway was also moved at the same time - relocated from the Symonds Street boundary to its current location.

Note how the Presbytarian area has largely reverted to an open aspect devoid of large trees or shrubs.

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View South 1950

This is probably the last view from the Windmill before it was demolished in 1950.

The corner park has now been redesigned in the post-war modernist style with broad areas of lawn.

The trees in the stream valley to the right background have developed into a bosky dell.

In the foreground is a neon sign on the roof of the Maples Furnishing Company.

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View south 2009

This view from the highrise carpark building approximates the previous photographs taken from Partington's Windmill.

The park in the foreground occupies the part of the Jewish Cemetery which had never been used for internments.

In the middle of the lawn is the “Karangahape Rocks" Fountain of 1968. The trees are mostly evergreens; a mixture of exotics and native species.

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Health and Death

Science made considerable strides in the 19th century. In particular increasingly powerful microscopes allowed many more sources of contagion to be detected.

Cholera, Typhoid and Malaria, for example, previously thought to be spread by foul air, were identified as being carried by microscopic organisms.

This was chillingly spelt out in the investigations of Doctor John Snow “Doctor John Snow") in London in 1854 during a Cholera Epidemic in Soho.

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Dr John Snow 1813 - 1858

The Ghost Map


Prince Albert 1819-1861




By the middle of the 19th century dDiseases such as Cholera and Typhoid were now definately identified as being water-bourne.

The recent death in 1861 of no less a personage as the Prince Consort from Typhoid made the concern about disease extremely topical.

It became a matter of widespread concern that Wells could be contaminated from ground water emanating from cess pits, rubbish dumps and cemeteries.

The fact that such infections were specifically able to be transferred by liquids seeping from the graves of people who had perished from those contagions and not just cess pits made the Symonds Street Cemetery the focus of much scrutiny from the 1860s onwards.

Moreover it was discovered that cemeteries were not just contaminating ground water with biological factors - the water table was also showing traces of embalming chemicals such as Arsenic and Cyanide.

When it had been laid out in the 1840s the Cemetery was well outside the Town of Auckland, but by the 1880s the urban area had greatly increased and Cemetery was largely surrounded by housing.

As early as the mid-1850s the issue was raised about foul smelling water emenating from the cemetery.

By the 1870s it was alarmingly obvious that ground water from the cemetery could, indeed undoubtedly was, contaminating the well water of the adjacent working class suburb of Newton.

Complaints about foul smelling and tasting well water needed to be seriously addressed.

The area to the North of the Cemetery down Grafton Gully might also be in danger as ground water from the Anglican and Methodist sectors drained into the Grafton Stream.

That stream made its way to the harbour passing by the most prestigious housing area in Auckland; Lower Symonds Street.

Central and Local Governments throughout the western world embarked on many Public Health initiatives during this period, and Auckland was no exception.

Many Public works concerning Health Issues were initiated around this time. In Auckland these included; a new Hospital (1876), a Public Water Supply (1877), a Sewer System, having the Ligar Canal covered over (1873), a Municipal Rubbish Collection, Council Pest Control Officers and General Health and Sanitary Inspectors.

New regulations covered the disposal of “nightsoil" and horse manure - no small undertaking during a period when virtually all transportation involved horses.

In 1908 an Act of Parliament closed the Symonds Street Cemetery and handed it over to Auckland City Council as a Public Park.

No new plots were to be sold and the rights to single unused plots were transferred to the new Cemetery at Waikemete.

The only exception was that existing Family plots with occupants could receive internments but only those of close relatives who had atained the age of fifty in 1909. The last such internment took place in the 1950s.

In 1958, Irene Broun and Zara Mettam recorded 1,479 inscriptions from every discernible tombstone, referring to 1,874 graves.

This was collated by the Auckland Public Library and published by the New Zealand Society of Genealogists.

Prior to the clearance for the Motorway in the 1960s a Council survey of the whole site including every visable item was undertaken.

The Friends of the Symonds street Cemetery are currently involved in trying to make this information avaiable to the general public in a usable form.

Friends of the Symonds Street Cemetery


Hobson's Grave

Grave of William Hobson RN


Hobson set aside this land for use as a cemetery in 1842. Ironically he was one of the first people to be buried here as he soon after suffered a fatal stroke.

He is certainly the most important personage buried there.

He is also the only Governor or Governor-General to be buried in New Zealand until Sir Keith Holyoake who died in 1983.

His coffin lies in a brick vault beneath the tombstone and platform.

The three types of stone used on Hobson's grave were intended to be symbolic.

The lowest slab from the 1840s was Tasmanian Sandstone which evokes Hobson's career there before 1840.

This was later augmented by a panel of Italian white statuary marble for the inscription.

Finally a piece of black Irish marble was inserted between them that alludes to Hobson's birthplace in Waterford, Ireland.

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12th April 1930

Each year there is a Formal Ceremony conducted at Hobson's Grave by Members of the Naval Forces and Officals from the City of Auckland.

This happens around the time of the Historic Founding of Auckland on the 18th of September.

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12 September 1939

In 1926 there was a movement to replace the rather plain and unpreposessing monument with an obelisk, this apparently came to nothing however.

In the 1930s a proposal to erect a monument to Hobson in Orakei Bay also apparently got nowhere.

1926 Project

1935 Project

Grave of William Hobson RN (1792-1842)

Hobson's Grave is now the centrepiece of the General Anglican Memorial which was created in 1969 when the motorway system was constructed.

Several graves directly adjacent to Governor Hobson were also removed to create the paved area.

The lamp is a symbolic gesture for the founder of Auckland and New Zealand; it is the only lamp inside the Symonds Street Cemetery.

The pavement is the top of a burial vault in which the remains of around 3000 people were re-interred.

Their names are listed on the Memorial Wall to the south of the paved area where a white marble plaque from the 1910 Cemetery Archway is also included.

A separate Memorial Vault was created on the Western Side of the cemetery in the Catholic Area.

That Memorial contains the remains of just over a thousand people beneath an inclined slab structure on which the names of the deceased are laid out on bronze plaques.

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Te Iringa o Rauru

There is speculation that the area set aside by Governor Hobson for the Cemetery may have been a pre-european burial gound. Certainly it was connected with death in one specific way.

The area where the Symonds Street ridge meets the Karangahape ridge was known as Te Iringa o Rauru - “the hanging up of Rauru's body" .

Rauru was a Ngati Whatua chief slain by the Waiohua. As a warning to others his body was hung up on a tree, which thus became tapu.

This act was a contributing factor in the attack by Ngati Whatua on the Waiohua and Ngati Paoa tribes around 1740 and their subsequent occupation of Tamaki.

Standing as it did on the top of a hill and next to a major walking route the tree would have acquired a terrible and sinister reputation, bespeaking as it did of a horribe and dishonourable crime.

This tree apparently wasn't extant when the first europeans arrived. The area was noted for being a rather bleak hillside and there is no reference to a tree or an image of one in the vicinity.

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Looking north from the Karangahape ridge down the Waihorotiu Stream gulley in the early 1840s

It is therefore difficult to asertain just where it may have stood or at what point in the past it may have vanished.

The survival of it's name is significant; it's Tapu status had obviously impressed itself on the collective conciousness of the Maori frequenting the area.

The tree acquired it's Tapu status sometime before 1740, and presumably it disappeared well before 1840.

In order for the body of a grown man to be hung from it it must have been a fairly large tree.

The body was probably inserted into the cleft of the branches, in which case a large Cabbage Tree is possibly the most likely candidate.

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Cemetery Entrance Arch

The 1910 Cemetery Arch (demolished 1968)

Designed by Miss Mary Pulling, this may have been the first work of architecture by a woman in New Zealand.


Mary Etheldred PULLING [1871-1951]

One of seven children of the Reverend James Pulling and his wife, Elizabeth Mary Hodgson. James was master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and vicar of Belchamp St Paul. Mary attended Truro Girls' High School, Cheltenham Ladies' College and the University of London.

After gaining a first-class degree in English literature, Classics and mental science in 1892, she taught at Cheltenham Ladies' College and Lincoln High School for Girls, trained teachers at St Gabriel's College, Kensington, and St Mary's College, Paddington, and studied the administrative methods of leading English girls' schools.

She also received training in embroidery and had a lifelong interest in design, drawing and architecture.

At the invitation of the Anglican Bishop of Auckland, Moore Richard Neligan, she came to New Zealand in 1904 to establish a church school for girls.

As headmistress of Auckland's Diocesan High School for Girls. In 1926 she retired from the educational field.

From 1930 she lived a reclusive life as Anchoress Mary Etheldred in the Waikato town of Cambridge, devoting her time to intercessional prayer and spiritual counselling for those who requested it.

She died at Tokanui Hospital, Te Awamutu, on 24 March 1951. Her only surviving sibling, Laura, died at Chatswood NSW in 1959.

Biography




The Coming of the Motorway

1966 Aerial View The newly constructed Catholic Memorial is visable centre left. The clearances for the motorway System are well in hand.

Motorway Clearances 1970

Before

After



HISTORIC TIMELINE

1842: Bishop Selwyn applies to Governor Hobson for land to use as a burial ground .

George Augustus Selwyn 1809–1878

1842 July 20th: Hobson grants two eight acre plots to the east of Symonds Street to the Anglican Church.

1842 November 4th: An additional 3 Roods and 30 perches of land are granted to the Anglican Church.

1843 November 24th: One acre of land on the west side of Symonds street is granted to the Jewish Community as a burial ground.

Jewish Mortuary Chapel

1850: A wooden Mortuary Chapel is built in the Jewish Cemetery.

Jean-Baptiste François Pompallier 1802 – 1871

1852 August 16th: Five acres are granted to Bishop Pompallier for use as a Roman Catholic Cemetery.

HMS Orpheus.

1863 February 7th: Wreck of the HMS Orpheus on the Manukau Bar, with the loss of 22 officers, 167 seamen and marines.

The Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre

1865: The Anglican Mortuary Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre is opened by Bishop Selwyn on Symonds Street opposite East Street.

St.Francis de Sales

1866: The Catholic Mortuary Chapel of St Francis de Sales is opened on the corner of Symonds and East Streets. Blessed by Bishop Pompallier.

1869 April 8th: Three acres are granted to the Presbytarian Church on the west side of symonds street between the Jewish and Catholic areas.

1871 November: The “Act to Regulate Burials Near the City of Auckland 1871" is passed by Parliament to promote Public Health.

1872 May 11th: Three acres are granted for the use of the Wesleyan Church and other dissenters. Located on the east side of Symonds Street, north of the Anglican area this is often referred to as the “General Section"

1874: Parliament passes an “Act to Provide for Closing Certain Burial Grounds 1874" This limits further burials at Symonds street to close family members of those already buried.

1876: Between 1876 and 1881 a total of 228 acres of vacant land close to the Whau River in West Auckland is reserved by the Crown as a site for a public cemetery.

The First St Benedicts Church

1882: The wooden St Benedicts Church opens. This seated 1200 people and was probably the largest wooden church in the country at the time.

The First Cemetery Bridge

1885 March 9th: Mayor William Waddel opens the new bridge across cemtery Gully.

1886 March: Waikumete Cemetery is opened by Auckland City Council as a replacement for Symonds Street Cemetery.

1886 December 13th: St Benedicts Church is destroyed by fire.

The second St Benedicts Church.

1887 April 22nd: The replacement brick St Benedicts Church is opened.

1895: The Chapel of St Francis de Sales is dragged down Symonds Street by bullock teams and floated over to Devonport where it is relocated onthe north slope of Mt Victoria.

1904 October: Following a report about its structural worthiness the 1885 Grafton Bridge is closed and a small temporary bridge is constructed for public use.

The Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre

1905: The Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre is moved to Grange Road in Mount Eden.

1905: The Jewish Community gifts the unused portion of their sector to the City Council. Immediately proposals are put forth to use this space for a Public Building such as a Bath House. The wooden Mortuary Chapel is relocated inside the remaining Jewish Area,

Old Grafton Bridge being demolished in 1906.

1906 September 16th: The old Grafton Bridge is demolished

1908: With the passing of the “Auckland (Symonds Street) Cemeteries Act, 1908" the cemeteries are formally closed and handed over to Auckland City Council as a Public Reserve.

The 1910 Cemetery Arch

1908: The wooden fence along the Symonds Street edge of the Anglican area is replaced by a granite wall with iron railings. A monumental Gothic Arch designed by Miss Mary Pulling is erected as the new entrance from Symonds Street.

1908: Construction starts on the third Grafton Bridge. Eight graves are disturbed and the bodies reinterred at Waikemete Cemetery.

The New Bridge

1910 April 28th: The new Grafton Bridge is formally opened.

1910: The Tram shelter and public toilets are built

Thomas Edward Pearson F.R.H.S 1857-1930

1919: Thomas Pearson, City Parks Superintendent, reorganises the Cemetery - in particular the two sites on the corner of Symonds street and Karangahape Road and Symonds street and East Street are laid out as parks with basalt walls, rockeries, lawns and seating.

Church of Christ Scientist 1928

1928: The Church of Christ Scientist Building is constructed on the corner of St Martins Lane and Symonds Street. The Neo-classical building is the only church adjacent to the cemetery which post-dates the closing of the burial ground and thus has no representatives buried therein.

1945: The great basalt rocks are removed from the Symonds Street Park. The lack of man power and budget constraints during the War period resulted in the rockeries becoming overgrown. These features are removed from several Auckland Parks and replaced by plain lawns ans simpler shrubberies..

Ladies Restrooms by Tibor Donner

1952: The City Council erects a Ladies Rest Room in the Symonds street Park designed by Tibor Donner (1907-1993), the City Architect. The brick tool shed in the adjacent Presbytarian area was probably part of this project.

1954: The Jewish Centennial Memorial Hall by Albert and John Goldwater is opened.

1958: Irene Broun and Zara Mettam record 1,479 inscriptions from every discernible tombstone, referring to 1,874 graves. This was collated by the Auckland Public Library and published by the New Zealand Society of Genealogists.

1963: The “Reserves and Other Lands Disposal Act 1963" is passed which allows for the removal of monuments and bodies for Motorway Development.

1964: Construction of the Motorway commences which involves the disinterring and reinterring of 4100 bodies.

1968: The 1908 Arch is demolished

Photo: Motorway Construction: The area lower left and lower right are being cleared for the motorway - the Catholic Memorial is being built and is surrounded by its own temporary wall. centre left

1968: The two Memorials are constructed, one in the Anglican and one in the Catholic area. Those bodies disturbed by the Motorway construction are reinterred beneath these memorials which display lists of those people able to be identified.

“Karangahape Rocks"

1968: The Bronze Fountain “Karangahape Rocks" is installed in Symonds Street Park.

1970s: Large volumes of railings and masonry elements are removed by Council .

1982: Work commences on path refurbishment and some monument repairs. This is made possible through Government Sponsored PEP schemes.

1993 March: Work on “The Symonds Street Conservation Plan" commences.

1994: A new survey of all graves is undertaken by Auckland City Council.

1994: Council grants consent for sale of easement on part of the St Martins Lane frontage.

1995: All new and older survey records are collated into a single database by Auckland public Libraries.

1996: Guidelines prepared for Memorial Repairs and Gravesite Restoration.

2000: The Tibor Donner building in the Symonds Street Park is demolished.

2013: Friends of the Symonds Street Cemetery is formed.



The Wreck of the Orpheus

Wreck of the Orpheus HMS Orpheus

The 1706-ton steam corvette HMS Orpheus, launched in 1861, was one of the most modern and powerful ships in the British Navy but it was no match for the treacherous entrance to the Manukau harbour, where channels and submerged sandbars move frequently.

It was a clear and sunny day. A series of minor errors and bad luck caused the disaster. Commodore William Burnett was in a hurry and decided to berth at Onehunga instead of rounding North Cape to reach the Waitemata Harbour.

This was unfortunate, since the charts carried were outdated and the channel had moved. After signalling the ship to take the bar, port staff issued a warning when they realised it was off-course.

The Orpheus missed the message, and the protests of the only seaman aboard who knew the harbour were ignored. Commander Burton and the Master were at the helm.

At 1.15pm the ship hit the sandbar, its engines seized, pushing it onto its side.

The seas pounded the Orpheus murderously, and only one small boat got away. As the ship sank into the sand, the men climbed into the rigging. Unfortunately neither the signal station nor the crew of a steamer that was leaving the harbour realised what was happening.

Rescuers arrived too late to prevent a catastrophe. The masts eventually collapsed, throwing officers and men into the sea. The Commodore, the Commander, the Master and the First Lieutenant were amongst the earliest swept overboard and drowned.

Maoriland Memories

Of the 259 aboard, 189 died, only 8 officers and 62 men survived. The Wreck of the Orpheus remains New Zealand's worst maritime disaster.

Around one third of the bodies were recovered and buried mostly in unmarked graves at Kakamatua. The Royal New Zealand Navy erected a plaque by the graves of three sailors in 1974. From Cornwallis Road there is a short walk to the Orpheus Graves site.

Haslewood Grave at St Peters Onehunga

Some were interred at St Peter's Anglican Church in Onehunga, including the Ship's Chaplain the Rev. Charles Haslewood. Those few interred at Symonds Street include Commodore Burnett, William Taylor, acting second Master and John Pascoe - Chief Boatswain.

Most of the sailors who drowned were very young, some being boys aged 12 to 18 who were still “learning the ropes" to become able seamen. The average age of the crew (including the Marines) was only 25 .

HMS Orpheus

Orpheus Relief Fund



Upper Queen Street and the Cemetery View from the roof of George Courts in 1926

Two views of the Presbytarian area - 1928 and 2010