Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: City's pioneers lie neglected in a wasteland of shattered gravestones

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Someone with time on their hands this Auckland Anniversary Day might care to pop down to the Symonds St cemetery with a bucket of detergent and give the marble gravestone of city founder Governor William Hobson a good scrub. After removing the acorns and stray leaves scattered over it.

It's true we Kiwis are not big on ceremony. But the way we treat the last resting place of our first Governor and those of the early settlers unfortunate to have been buried nearby is not just laid-back, it's an outright neglect.

To be honest, Captain Hobson's grave is one of the lucky ones. It just looks grubby. Like the adjacent tourist information board. But take a few steps in any direction and the vandals rule supreme. I hadn't been down there since 2003, around the time the city council was debating whether to spend $1,288,823 on repairing 1188 gravestones.

I can't find any record of what happened, but if any were restored, there's no sign of it in the stretch south of Grafton Bridge. Some damage appears to be the ravages of time alone, but much isn't. The clean surfaces on the shards of one large tombstone, lying in pieces just metres from busy Symonds St, suggest very recent vandalism. The wreckage is everywhere.

Under recently modernised Grafton Bridge, the devastation is particularly bad. The marker stone for John Goodman, who died in 1904, now lies broken across his grave, next to a rolled-up sleeping bag, presumably belonging to one of the nocturnal itinerants who dwell there.

It was good to see the monument marking Judge Frederick Maning's last resting place remains standing, but I couldn't find those of French eccentric Baron Charles Philippe de Thierry or first Auckland Mayor Archibald Clark. Hopefully I just mislaid them, and their monuments haven't joined the dozens lying face down and broken in the grass.

Auckland Grammar old boys will be pleased to know the gravestone for their first headmaster, Rev Robert Boyd Kidd, BA, LlD, who died in 1894, remains intact but it's strangely defaced, the etched lettering and surrounding marble covered with stripes of white paint.

Ten years ago, the current deputy mayor, David Hay, who was then chairman of the parks and recreation committee, announced a decision to upgrade the graveyard.

"Captain William Hobson is buried in the cemetery along with many of Auckland City's founding fathers," he said. "I think it is the right time to get on and preserve the historic graves that are there and at the same time open the area up for people to enjoy and walk in." It was a good plan then, and still is. It just needs actioning.

On Friday when I went walkabout, there were signs of recent grass trimming, weed spraying and fallen tree branches partially cleared. There was even a stack of firewood-sized logs left to season. The tombs, though, have been left to the ravages of time and mindless wreckers.

The worst areas are in the gully area below and to the south of Hobson's grave. In contrast, the section alongside Symonds St, north of Grafton Bridge, is the sort of picture postcard vista the rest should be.

In a brief history of the cemetery, David Verran, local history librarian at Auckland City Libraries, points out that neglect is nothing new. He quotes an eyewitness account from 1864 noting the Church of England cemetery - the different faiths have separate areas - was "overgrown with ... rank weeds, heath and fern that give so wretched and forlorn a look ..."

The observer didn't venture into the Jewish section, noting that "the stones, if there were any ... were hidden by high thick gorse and heath".

In 1886, the site was closed for most burials. In 1909, when Auckland City Council took control, Mr Verran quotes a newspaper describing the cemetery as "neglected, desolated and devastated". A century on, little has changed.

To me, the crying shame is the wasted opportunity. With a little imagination, the area could become a tree-filled inner-city park, complete with unique reminders of the pioneering past. The plan would be to preserve and/or restore the tombstones of the history makers, along with a selection of the quaint, the poignant and decorative grave markers and those lucky enough to have survived intact. Then clear away the detritus, provide security and lighting to repel vandals, and create a park remembering the city's pioneers.

- NZ Herald

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