Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Historic cemetery deserves to be resurrected

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Surely the last resting place of our first governor, Captain William Hobson, is worthy of an approach to central government and funding agencies. Photo / Dean Purcell
Surely the last resting place of our first governor, Captain William Hobson, is worthy of an approach to central government and funding agencies. Photo / Dean Purcell

The good news is the Waitemata Local Board has voted to spend $1.64 million over the next 10 years on the upgrade of the historic Symonds St Cemetery. But on the down side, city fathers have been passing resolutions pledging to rehabilitate the last resting place of New Zealand's founding governor, Captain William Hobson, and other colonial pioneers for 100 years, then walking away with the job undone.

Here's hoping the Waitemata board perseveres a little longer than its Auckland City predecessors.

To me, the old cemetery is one of the wasted treasures of the central city. Despite the obliteration in the 1960s of much of the Catholic graveyard and part of the Anglican section to make way for the motorway, it remains a green island in a sea of tarmac and buildings.

But 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.

With Captain Hobson lie, among many others, Judge Frederick Maning and French eccentric Baron Charles Philippe de Thierry, self-proclaimed "sovereign chief of New Zealand".

Officially closed in 1909, the cemetery has suffered varying degrees of neglect ever since, left to endure the spread of weeds, the invasion of migrating trees and generations of drunks and the homeless.

Hobson's grave gets a clean up every now and again and in 1996 a conservation and management plan was drawn up. By then ivy and other weeds had all but engulfed the area.

In the four years that followed, only 46 grave sites were repaired. In 2003, Auckland City officials came up with another action plan, noting that 120 of 1200 known graves had been repaired, and it would cost $1.2 million to repair the rest.

At the time, the park manager sensibly suggested it was pointless to carry out these repairs unless a security policy was set up to stop vandalism.

Out came the too-hard basket.

The grassed area is mowed fortnightly, litter bins are emptied and there's "general garden maintenance" on a fortnightly or monthly basis. Weed control is done in the bush areas once or twice a year, and dead or dying trees are removed.

As for security, random night patrols are made in the upper parts, but not in the lower parts, which are considered too unsafe for the security guards to venture into.

And $40,000 a year is available for headstone restoration, allowing upkeep on 30 to 40 headstones. This funding, as this month's report to the Waitemata board points out, is not enough to keep pace with vandalism and uncontrolled vegetation.

The proposed10-year funding plan, starting at $128,123 in the June 2013 year and creeping up to $226,200 by 2022, at least offers a certainty of funding for the first time. But I fear, like the old age pension, it is not enough to pay for the facelift this neglected gem deserves. At best, it will arrest the decline.

As for the board's desire to introduce a liquor ban, that seems wishful thinking in a situation where security guards are banned from entering the lower badlands of the cemetery for their own safety.

Almost as an afterthought comes the suggestion in the report that the establishment of a "Friends of Symonds St Cemetery" group might not just attract volunteers to carry out some of the grave maintenance but would also "increase passive surveillance and public perceptions of safety". It's not a bad idea.

Also worth considering, surely, is an approach to the central Government and funding agencies such as the Lotteries Board or the ASB Community Trust. As localities go, surely the last resting place of the first governor, and various of his contemporaries, is worthy of some outside help.

Of course, that would need a definite plan of action. A plan that creates a tree-filled inner city park, complete with the restored tombstones of the history makers, with a selection of the quaint and the poignant and those that have survived the vandals intact.

There'd be improved security and lighting to complement the liquor ban.

The result would be a pioneers' park, worthy of Auckland and the country.

- NZ Herald

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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