Stories from beyond the grave

By Sophie Bond

Step off Karangahape Rd and follow a rutted path into the Symonds St Cemetery. After a day of rain the fallen leaves are clumped into slimy brown piles and where the path peters out, the grass is boggy under tangled vegetation. Cast-aside booze cans take the place of flowers graveside; toppled and crumbled old headstones' inscriptions are obscured with matted moss. Square slabs on family plots sink ominously in the middle and sections of rusted fencing and ornaments are heaped on the mud.

It's a sorry place for the resting ground of anyone, let alone famous Aucklanders from our colonial past, including the first Governor of New Zealand, Captain William Hobson (d.1842), Judge Frederick Maning (d.1883), adventurer Baron Charles Philippe de Thierry (d.1864) and the first mayor of Auckland Borough Council, Archibald Clark (d.1875).

There are 1200 known graves in the cemetery. Other 19th century headstones are disguised in a coat of moss, inscriptions faded by decades of wear on the soft stone.

Opened in 1842, Symonds St cemetery is a category one historic place but its dilapidated state belies its importance. The first official cemetery in Auckland, it was closed for burials in 1886, other than in existing family plots.

In the mid-1960s, 4100 bodies - much of the Catholic graveyard and part of the Anglican section - were moved and reinterred to make way for the Southern Motorway.

Money from Waitemata Local Board will be spent over the next decade, primarily on clearing vegetation, ensuring tree roots don't break up grave sites, improving pathways, restoring headstones and maintaining graves.

Waitemata Local Board chair Shale Chambers says money spent on the cemetery in the past has barely made a scratch on upkeep.

"It's been an underfunded and underappreciated area of Auckland," he says. "This is the first attempt to move beyond a holding plan and take a proactive approach."

The board would like to establish a Friends of Symonds St Cemetery group once restoration begins on the 5.8ha site. "We see it as being very much in line with parks, which have advisory groups of volunteers."

The board has also asked Auckland Council to include the cemetery in a wider central city liquor ban. Flowers, rather than bottles, at gravesides would certainly be an improvement.


Once restored, the cemetery may even make a decent heritage walk, with fascinating stories about some of the people interred there sure to provide insights into the city's history. When The Aucklander visited the cemetery recently, the inscriptions on some of the gravestones proved so intriguing we researched the people laid to rest beneath them.

Helped by Brad Argent, a family history expert for and some rustling through the archives, the names on the weary stones come to life.

Broken in three places but reassembled, one stone tells of Kenneth Mackenzie and Robert Smith, who drowned in the schooner Rona on the Kaipara Bar in August 1881. A New Zealand Herald article a week after the tragedy reveals the story of Kenneth, the Rona's captain, and Robert one of four crew. The wreck was found, after being "reported by natives", washed ashore south of the Kaipara Heads.

An acquaintance of Captain Mackenzie (spelled McKenzie in the Herald article but Mackenzie on his headstone) is quoted as saying, "He was the finest man that I ever knew, one of nature's noblemen."

We learn the 38-year-old captain left a wife and four children in Oamaru, that his life was insured for £300 and that he had owned the Rona for two years.

Less detail is given about 23-year-old first mate Robert, except that he came from Mangawhai and was Kenneth's brother-in-law.

The article concludes by listing other shipwrecks and bemoaning the lack of lighthouses at Kaipara Heads: "Well may the North complain of neglect!"

Another article from November 1881 reveals the body of Captain Mackenzie has been identified "by the overlapping front teeth". An inquest on the remains was held at the Britomart Hotel. Which, curiously, leads us to the next headstone.


High on a slope and propped against its pedestal, a stone commemorates the three young Fernandez sisters, Katie, Nora and Ethel. One of 13 children, Katie was just 6 when she died in 1883.

A piece from the NZ Herald reveals the tragedy took place at her family's business: the Britomart Hotel. The little girl "took it into her head to feed the pigeons, so she mounted the stepladder, and got through the manhole on to the roof".

She lost her balance and fell through the skylight onto the courtyard, described as being 30 feet below, "expiring immediately". The article informs us "this is not the first time in Auckland that human life has been sacrificed through insufficiently protected skylights".

Two years later almost to the day, Katie's sister, Nora, also died at the hotel, though this was from leukaemia. In 1903, Ethel (pictured below) succumbed to a "long illness of the heart".

The girl's father, Andrew Fernandez, was a Spanish boatman who married Englishwoman Johanna Sarsfield in Auckland's St Patrick's Cathedral in August 1867. Johanna died in 1913 and Andrew in 1922, outliving five of their children.

Across a small gully, two adjacent stones stand forlornly under a large, shadowy tree. A mother and son: Eleanor Smith, who died in 1878, and her son, Alexander Black, who died six years later, age 33. His inscription states mournfully that "he endured many years affliction with much patience and resignation".

His obituary tells us he died at the Whau Lunatic Asylum, having suffered from epilepsy for many years. It adds "by expressed wish of the deceased for many years, the family will not go into mourning".


This week marks the start of Family History Month, a time when people may decide to unearth stories behind family names like these in the cemetery, and in family trees. Auckland Central Library family history librarian, Seonaid Lewis, says though genealogy focuses on dates and names, family history is all about personal stories.

She says how much can be learned about a family history varies from person to person.

"There are people who have tracked back to William the Conqueror but others might only manage to go back a couple of 100 years."

Each country has its own peculiarities in terms of readily available historical information and Mrs Lewis says Auckland libraries provide access to a wide range of databases. (See below, At the Library)

"We try to cater to the wider community, not just those with British heritage. So someone with Maori or Samoan ancestry will find our resources helpful."

She has pointers for anyone looking into their own back story.

"First interview your oldest family members. Note down the anecdotes as well as the facts like births, deaths and marriages. Ask about people's schools, religion and jobs and record the interviews if you can. The stories that get passed down from one family member to another are part of family history. Fill in a generation chart with as many names and dates as possible."

When it's time to fill the gaps, she recommends starting at your local library.

"When it comes to starting on the research stage, bring all your information with you. At all 55 libraries our staff have been trained to know the basics of researching family history."

She says there are several programmes accessible through all libraries which will get you off to a good start.

"When the local libraries can no longer help you, that's when you come to the Central Library Research Centre."

Here, librarians who specialise in research can guide you towards the right resources in the extensive international collection. There are microfiches and microfilms of heritage newspapers from around the world, a collection of parish records from the Pacific Islands and Australian convict records among other resources.

Mrs Lewis says in her experience researching family history can become addictive. "We have people who come here every day, sometimes they are standing at the front door when we open and they stay until we close."

Back to the names from the Symonds St cemetery and it's expected their memory will be treated with a little more respect when work starts on repairing gravestones next June. It costs around $40,000 to restore 30-40 headstones and there's just over $128,000 available in the first year, so it will be a slow process.

But as NZ Herald columnist Brian Rudman points out: "It's much more than a park. It also contains the fascinating headstones - and last remains - of those who helped to found Auckland and New Zealand."


*  Brad Argent from will runs an expert session at Auckland Central Library on Sunday August 5 at midday. He'll share his tips for getting the most out of the website.

* Every Wednesday in August, Auckland Central Library has genealogy sessions from midday to 1pm. There is a different speaker and topic each week, including Genealogy in the Pacific Islands and Researching the NZ Land Wars. Then, from 2pm until 3pm, there are practical workshops teaching people how to get the most out of the library's databases. Bookings necessary.

* The month of events closes with the 8th annual Karen Kalopulu Family History Lock-In. (Karen Kalopulu was a family history librarian at Auckland Libraries who died suddenly in 2009.) From 8pm on Friday, August 31, to 8am on Saturday, September 1, members of the public can be locked in with library staff and members of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists for a night of unlimited research and expert help. For bookings:


Do you know your family history? Any interesting Auckland stories in your family's past? Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook page  Or email

- The Aucklander

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