Soul stirring cemetery tours

Napier Hill Cemetery tours are more popular than ever. Hawke's Bay Today photographer Warren Buckland and reporter Pippa Brown joined the first of the guided summer walks.

Closed in 1917, the 157-year-old cemetery on Napier Hill offers an insight into the life and customs of its passing souls and our colonial past.

Stories abound, from the famous, the rich and the poor, some of who were buried without headstones or any notification. Being so close to the peace of the Botanical Gardens, it's a nice place to lie in finality and it is visited often by walkers and the inquisitive.

In this necropolis, real estate was king. The leafy suburbs were divided into religious groups, with the ruling Anglicans having the best land at the top. Slightly lower were the Presbyterians, followed by the Catholics, the Jews, and then on the downward slope the poor and the unwanted, often in unmarked graves.

The famous forefather of all, printer, missionary and parliamentarian William Colenso, has pride of place near the entry gates. When he died in 1899 he asked for a modest headstone and instead ended up with an ornate Cornish headstone decorated from the Cornish place of his birth, Penzance, England.

"As most settlers to the 'new country' came from the British Isles it was important to mark where they came, specifically right down to the village where they were born," said our guide Peter Wells.

A few metres down lies one of Hawke's Bay best-known families, the Williams family plot. Mr Wells points out how ironic it is this long-time foe of William Colenso, William Williams, the third Bishop of Waiapu, and Colenso ended up to lie within metres of each other.

Although a colonial cemetery, it tells us a lot about one of the biggest disasters to hit the area.

In one of the 12 Williams graves lies Kate, who died on February 3, 1931, when the devastating Hawke's Bay earthquake hit.

Further down lies Edith Mary Barry, who was "euthanased mercifully" as she lay trapped in the ruins of the Cathedral as fire broke out. It is one of the remaining areas in Napier where you can see how powerful the earthquake was. The torturous shaking is evident in cracked tombs and headstones, rocked apart by the vicious 7.8 roller coaster, since glued back together.

"The shaking was so great in places some headstones were shifted around and didn't meet up again with their owners," Mr Wells said.

Other headstones are twisted by large tree roots. A yew tree snuggles tightly between graves. Also dubbed the cemetery tree, its dark-leaf adds a gloomy, sombre air. Settlers brought them from England. Poets used them to evoke the ultimate end.

It was an era when death was close.

"Victorians had a lot of rituals around it. Symbols on headstones had hidden meanings," Mr Wells said.

The half-broken stem of a flower on the headstone of young Mabel Kathleen Wellwood tells us she was a child, whose life ended early. She died just after her first birthday. Her mother just six years later.

The upside-down crossed rifles on the grave of Henry Morrison are a symbol to sacrifice, erected by the officers and men of his company, the Napier Rifle Volunteers. The 36-year-old died two weeks after being wounded in action, at a battle at Omarunui in 1866.

Funerals were often a lengthy and elaborate business.

"There were often bands and parades and sometimes 2-3000 people would walk to the cemetery from town, where hymns and stories were told to honour the person."

Another, John Robottom lies beneath a beautiful sculptured headstone of Oamaru stone. A boys' night on the town went horribly wrong. He died after being accidently killed on the Napier Railway, "a little in liquor" said the coroners report.

"The colonialists worked hard, prayed hard and played hard."

As the main mode of transport was by water, drownings account for a significant number of deaths. When someone died young, during an act of bravery and couldn't afford the expense of burial, friends would often get together to build a fitting sarcophagus, hence, the enormous headstone for a 17-year-old boy, who drowned while bathing off Ahuriri Bluff in 1880. Other heroes who assisted in rescues, only to be "sucked under the mountainous seas", to death themselves.

Acts of courage abound. Alex Morris, the 31-year-old first mate who gave up his life in 1886 to enter a burning ship's hold to find the source of a fire. He suffered a painful death, after inhaling mislabelled nitric acid.

Onboard all they could do was administer three doses of medicinal brandy.

At the time dangerous goods were supposed to be stored on deck, where they could be thrown overboard quickly if necessary.

His shipmates marked his bravery with an elaborately engraved marble tombstone.

The most poignant story is of 26-year-old sheep farmer Bright Cooper, who had come to town to enjoy himself on a hot day just before Christmas. He went swimming on popular Marine Parade. To the horror of those onshore a large dorsal fin starting to circle and the water stained red with his blood. His friend Dr Sweet swam out to help. They were followed by the shark all the way to shore. Mr Cooper had suffered such terrible injuries he died and with no family in the district, his friends erected a distinctive headstone in his honour.

Heartbreaking, is the story of Alice Wilson, the 30-year-old wife of Captain James Wilson. During the land wars between the Maori and European prophet Te Kooti took savage revenge, setting fire to their Poverty Bay home, attacking the family and bayonetting to death Wilson and three of his children. Alice's baby Jessie was taken, her brains dashed out and returned to Alice's arms, who had also been stabbed repeatedly. She managed to escape and was found by her young son Jimmie, later rescued and brought to Napier Hospital but died soon after. "Today she lies somewhat forgotten. "Grief can be extremely painful, but memory short," Mr Wells said.

Underneath some of the embellishments lie another story. The ornate marble and Oamaru stone Scottish cairn, in memory of 22-year-old Louisa McLennan, is hardly testimony to a "faithful devoted loving wife", but a monument from a husband who got away with poisoning her with arsenic.

One of the group, Jack Wright, from Napier, said there were a lot of goings-on he hadn't known about. "It's very interesting, they way some of them died and the brutality of some of the deaths," he said.

Napier Hill Cemetery Walking Tours: 2pm Sunday, February 26 and Sunday, March 18. Tickets $10. To book, phone 835 7781 or email Visit

- Hawkes Bay Today

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