Undoubtedly, the intensity of public outrage over the recent defacing of Jewish headstones at Symonds St cemetery had more to do with the Holocaust than the damaging impact of spray paint stains on old stone.

But I couldn't help comparing the instant and widespread indignation of our civic leaders over this random act of destruction with the general indifference to decades of destruction by neglect that's been occurring across the rest of Auckland's pioneer graveyards.

Still, it's not all bad news. Auckland Council's Parks Sports and Recreation department has called on fellow staff member "volunteers" to "make a difference" and join in a "Symonds St Cemetery Tidy Up" this Friday afternoon. It's suggested they wear "suitable clothing and flat shoes" as "we will be tidying up some vegetation and removing debris from gravesites".

Joining the clean-up will be Shale Chambers, chairman of the Waitemata Local Board, as well as volunteers from local Presbyterian and Salvation Army groups who signalled their eagerness to help earlier in the year.


In July, the Waitemata board voted to spend $1.64 million over the next 10 years on upgrading the historic cemetery, which as we all know is just a fraction of what is needed to rehabilitate this long-neglected oasis. Friday's working bee is the first step towards creating the volunteer "Friends of Symonds St Cemetery" group, which was creatively proposed as part solution to the funding shortfall, in the report to the board back in July. Mr Chambers says the "Friends" group will be officially launched in February with a big public clean-up day. Having been hammering away since last century about the need for something like this, I'm delighted such a partnership is finally coming together.

For Mr Chambers, it's personal. He says he's a fifth-generation Aucklander with two sets of ancestors prominently buried in the Wesleyan section of the graveyard, both families arriving in the 1840s, seeking a better life than working down Cornish tin and copper mines.

A couple who have jumped the gun as far as volunteerism is concerned are 73-year olds Noeline and Peter Fairchild. They've been driving across from Birkdale to tend her ancestral graves since September. Mrs Fairchild can trace her family links back to Wesleyan lay preacher William White, who helped set up the first Wesleyan mission in New Zealand at Whangaroa in 1823. They've cleaned up five family sites.

"There's so many of them," she says. "The Lovells, Gittos, Phillips, Lawry, all related by marriage to the Whites ... and so many babies ... very sad."

Armed with old maps, they're still on the hunt for John White's last resting place. He arrived in 1835 after being shipwrecked on Norfolk Island, and became fluent in Maori, recording hundreds of songs and legends. He was Governor George Grey's secretary and translator, was deeply involved in land sales - for both sides - and eventually wrote several books, including a six-volume The Ancient History of the Maori. He died in 1891, but so far, his grave is, shall we say, mislaid. Still, compared with the neighbouring Anglican section, the Wesleyan corner is pristine. Next door, Noeline says, is "a bombsite ... absolutely disgusting".

This month council staff had a couple of volunteer clean-ups to help assess the job ahead. Mrs Fairchild says that thanks to "quite a bit of the forest" being cut down during these exercises, they managed to find her great-grandfather's stone last weekend. Mr Chambers says as soon as the "backlog of filth and neglect" is tackled, it will be a more inviting prospect for volunteers. The board has also introduced a liquor ban in the hope of making it a more unpleasant home for itinerants.

Armed with their rake and the trusty bottle of "Rapid Outdoor Cleaner," which makes the White family graves "stand out like sore thumbs", the Fairchilds can't wait for their February call-up. "I can't go lifting tree trunks," says Mrs Fairchild, "but I can certainly weed and tidy." Peter, she says, is the expert with the cleaner.

Her vision is a "lovely respectful park", with fallen gravestones laid flat and sealed, and with planting and seating for lunch time visitors.

"Whether you can find their plots or not, they'll be there and can all be respected in the same way." More down to earth is Mr Chambers, who says, "We are not mucking around here. We are hoping to get a significant amount of work under way in the new year".