Inspirations: the silence and memories of a forgotten cemetery

I’m standing in a cemetery in central Wellington, a splash of green bisected by motorway, shadowed by high-rises; a slice of our history.

Here are the graves of New Zealand’s colonial founders; Edward Gibbon Wakefield among them. One of the largest belongs to William Barnard Rhodes, cousin of Cecil Rhodes – yes, that Cecil Rhodes. Here too are the family of Kathleen Beauchamp – Katherine Mansfield, our greatest writer.

The light was extremely difficult when I took these pictures; contrast was high, made worse by the limits of the CCD in my camera. Building behind reveals how close the city is to the cemetery.

The cemetery was used for years, marching up the hill behind while the city grew around it. Finally it closed, and in the 1960s the motorway slashed through it. Over 3700 bodies were exhumed and re-interred under what was dubbed Settler’s Lawn, where people picnic today, oblivious to what lies beneath.

The cemetery fell into ruin, forgotten and neglected; but in the early 1980s volunteers led the charge to restore this wonderful piece of New Zealand history.

I am here to find the Strang family; Robert and Susannah, and their daughter Susan. Their bodies lie beneath that lawn, but the headstone has been re-positioned in the upper cemetery, further up the hill. I trudge up the footbridge over the motorway.

Headstone of the Turnbull family - founders of what is now New Zealand's premier historical archive and library.

Headstone of the Turnbull family – founders of what is now New Zealand’s premier historical archive and library.

It is a hard climb. Headstones march uphill to each side. I know where the Strang memorial is – there is an index – but I have to look for the markers. Eventually, behind a bush, I find a simple cross in iron, rusted by the years.

I stand in silent contemplation. The tragedy is written there on the iron. Susan Strang’s mother Susannah died in December 1850, devastating Robert. But then, less than a year later, Susan followed, dying in childbirth. And her husband Donald McLean’s life changed forever. I am writing a biography of this complex, devout man, and his diary tells a poignant story of the tragedy of his life. He prayed to God that he might also die and be permitted to rejoin his wife. It is a picture of a very different man from the scheming land buyer usually portrayed by history. A story that captures the essence of human reality.

I walk down the hill and into the city, mixing with the pedestrians going about their business on Lambton Quay. A century and a half ago, this street echoed to other feet. It seems somehow surreal.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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6 comments on “Inspirations: the silence and memories of a forgotten cemetery

  1. Karen Rought says:

    Beautiful words! And very interesting that there are two such different sides to this man’s story.

    • Thank you. Nobody knows the side I’m exploring – he’s usually portrayed as a cypher. But the documentation’s there, and the story is as exciting as any novel. More so, maybe, because it really happened.

  2. The city within the city, good that you are bringing their stories to life once again.

  3. lesa7515 says:

    I do so love headstones – they make for wonderful seriation exercises too.

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