Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Auckland's founding fathers rest in badly neglected surroundings

In all the drama surrounding Auckland City's decision to spend $2 million on a memorial to Sir Peter Blake, you probably missed the paltry $100,000 of petty cash councillors scraped together for urgent repairs to the last resting place of the city's pioneering heroes.

Long forgotten chaps like Captain William Hobson, first Governor of New Zealand who died and was buried in Symonds Street cemetery in 1842 and Major General George Dean Pitt, Lt Governor of the Northern Province of New Zealand and commander of Her Majesty's forces in the colony, who died in January 1851.

Those two, resting near the street, are the lucky ones. Down the slope a little, Henry Tucker, Royal Navy paymaster, who died in 1850, is faring less well. His headstone lies shattered, victim of what appears to have been a wave of recent mindless vandalism in the graveyard. So recent has Tucker's memorial been broken, that no attempt has been made to tidy up the remains.

Then perhaps the staff have just given up. From the bent steel rods holding the main shards together, this is not the first time this headstone, and other damaged ones further along, have been damaged.

Tacked to the trees at the main entrances to the cemetery on either side of Grafton Bridge are warnings that rat bait has been laid. Maybe they should electrify the steel rods in the repaired headstones to give the vermin wrecking them, a good jolt.

The report to the council which persuaded members to vote the $100,000 per annum for gravesite restoration is full of despair. As well it might be. Thanks to decades of woeful neglect, this major historic site is a disgrace.

Indeed, I'll only believe the $100,000 is real when it starts getting spent. I say that because back in September 2000, after I last railed against the state of this graveyard, the then chairman of the parks and recreation committee, David Hay, announced in a press release that his committee "had recommended an extra $100,000 per annum every year over the next four years for the upgrade of graves and surrounds."

"Captain William Hobson is buried in that cemetery along with many of Auckland City's founding fathers. 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."

Fine sentiments, but it didn't happen. Looking at last week's report, only $50,000 went into headstone restoration in each of the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 years.

This neglect is par for the course. Officially closed in 1909, the cemetery has suffered nearly a century of being ignored - and with the motorway development, partial destruction as well. In 1996 a conservation and management plan was finally drawn up. At that time, ivy and other weeds had all but engulfed the area. In the four years that followed, just 46 grave sites were repaired.

In late 2000, Hobson's neglected tombstone got a belated spring clean.

The latest report says 120 headstones have now been repaired out of 1200 known graves. By the look of things, several of those now need repairing again. The estimated repair bill for the 1188 graves so far surveyed is $1,288,823.

But as parks manager Jim Doidge suggests in his report, there's not much point in repair work if vandalism isn't dealt with as a priority. He points to the need for the policing of vagrants and the importance of the implementation of an inner city liquor ban. He says $75,000 a year is spent on weed control and ground maintenance and on graffiti and litter removal, but "despite two pick-up rounds a day, litter is especially problematical since much of it is due to the presence of vagrants."

Mr Doidge emphasises the council's responsibility to preserve and manage this historic site of "high heritage value" for future generations in compliance with various acts and charters and so forth. Of course he's right. But we should also be doing it for ourselves.

As I wrote in 1990, where else in the world would the grave of the "maker of the nation" lie in such neglected surroundings.

Anywhere else it would be a major tourist attraction.

It's also a green inner-city oasis crying out to be made into a park for the living as well. I question the plan to spend $1.28 million (the present estimate) or $2.5 million (the 2000 estimate) to restore every decayed grave site. In its time as a graveyard, much recycling of sites went on. In the 1960s, when the motorway went through, 2100 graves were found under just 400 headstones in the Catholic section. In the Anglican section, 2000 graves were found under 1200 headstones.

Let's accept the precedent set by our forebears and remove the monuments beyond repair, preserving only those which are historic, quirky, picturesque or are in good or repairable condition.

Three years ago, Mr Hay's press release was headlined "Local body dead keen to move on grave issue". As it's turned out, what the writer mistook for life was only wind. One can only hope for a better outcome this time round.

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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