The Northern Cemetery is of outstanding historical significance. It is an excellent example of the way New Zealanders adopted and modified the model of the large landscaped public cemeteries that replaced overcrowded churchyard burial grounds in Britain during the nineteenth century. The Cemetery demonstrates the principal characteristics of the movement with its mixed formal and picturesque layout, well chosen site, ornamental plantings and handsome grave monuments. It also reflects changing attitudes and tastes in memorialisation over the past 150 years. The Northern Cemetery is significant as an early example of a large public cemetery which remained undivided into denominational sections, and catered for the burial of all creeds.
In addition through the histories of the individuals buried there, the cemetery provides insight into the local and regional histories of individuals and communities in Otago.
The Northern Cemetery has strong architectural significance as a cultural landscape which acts as a repository of nineteenth century monumental arts. The funerary monuments include fine examples of monumental masonry in a diverse range of styles representative of the taste of New Zealanders from the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The Sexton's Cottage and Larnach's Tomb are architecturally significant structures in themselves, being rare examples of their type as well as forming the greatest single architectural components of the cemetery landscape.
The Northern Cemetery has archaeological significance. Past attitudes to death and changes in taste are revealed through the headstones and grave monuments, as are cultural beliefs about death, and associated symbolism. While the burials themselves have archaeological values, which could reveal information about the lives of those buried (including age, ethnicity, general health and the like), deliberate archaeological investigation is not expected or encouraged.
The Northern Cemetery has high aesthetic value arising from the combination of handsome funerary monuments, a calm and melancholy air of decay, ornamental and wild indigenous and introduced plantings, winding paths, its picturesque situation in the Town Belt and views over the city and harbour. Such a combination is rare in New Zealand, and is largely due to the fact that the cemetery was planned according to nineteenth century ideals of picturesque cemetery design. Although many monuments are in a state of decay, this contributes to the aesthetic value of the Cemetery.
The funerary monuments and grave surrounds of the Northern Cemetery gives the place a high degree of technological value. They provide information about construction techniques, unusual craft skills and types of expertise which are no longer widely practised due to changes in taste and technological advances. These particularly include iron working and elaborate stonemasonry. The monuments demonstrate a high degree of technical accomplishment, reflecting the skills of the artisans who created them.
The Cemetery is of cultural and spiritual significance to a many communities, and provides insight into burial practices, community values, and is a place of spiritual remembrance and associations.
The Cemetery has traditional significance as a place for the burial of the dead. Cemeteries differ from many other historic places in that they almost always fulfil their original purpose. The Northern Cemetery has been a place where the dead rest and the living remember them for the past 130 years. Closely related to this is the spiritual significance, being so intimately related to religion and mortality, which gives the Cemetery strong symbolic and commemorative value.
The Cemetery continues to have social significance. For many the Cemetery also provides a genealogical link between present and past communities. This link is being increasingly recognized with the growing popularity of New Zealand history in general, and the researching of family histories in particular.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:
The Northern Cemetery represents both the history and burial practices of nineteenth and twentieth century Dunedin and Otago. As a microcosm of the community which created it, the Northern Cemetery reflects the tastes, religious beliefs, and attitudes toward race, class, gender held by nineteenth century New Zealanders through their monuments, inscriptions, carved symbols, symbolic and ornamental plantings and layout. Its evolution over time means that the Northern Cemetery reflects the development of these attitudes over time, from the 1870s to recent decades. The Cemetery also reveals patterns of immigration and human settlement in the region, as well as aspects of maritime history, overseas military actions, epidemics, and other health matters, natural disasters and tragedies such as mining accidents and shipwrecks. The Cemetery provides an historical record of significant events in the life of the city and its inhabitants, as well as events of greater importance to New Zealand history, including the Otago gold rush of the 1860s.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:
The Northern Cemetery is historically significant at local and national levels for its strong associations with a number of individuals and families important in the settlement of Dunedin and the Otago region. Those buried in the Cemetery include many instrumental and influential in the establishment and development of the city and the region, including Thomas Hocken, R. A. Lawson and Thomas Bracken. The Cemetery is just as significant for representing a cross-section of society however, not merely its association with the city elite, and acts as a microcosm of colonial New Zealand society. Burials include people from the military, the judiciary, merchants, teachers, doctors, engineers, architects, the working classes, as well as paupers and prisoners of war in unmarked graves.
(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history:
The inscriptions on the headstones provide considerable biographical information about these people, their occupations, ethnicity, and in some cases, the manner of their deaths. This genealogical and biographical information is of great historical significance. In some cases they may be the only surviving record of the life of an individual, particularly for burials prior to the compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages in 1875. The Cemetery has great potential to provide knowledge of New Zealand history at local and regional and national levels.
(d) The importance of the place to the tangata whenua:
There is particular significance to Taranaki Maori. Maori prisoners from the wars in Taranaki who were imprisoned in Dunedin, and who died during their incarceration are buried in unmarked graves in the Cemetery. The prisoners developed close ties with Ngai Tahu community at Otakou during their time in Dunedin. The Cemetery has a monument to these prisoners.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place:
After long periods of neglect, vandalism and public disinterest, there is today much public esteem for the Northern Cemetery as it becomes recognised as a significant historic place, and part of the famous Victorian townscape of which Dunedinites are justifiably proud. Public esteem is reflected by in public outcry over instances of vandalism, in efforts to document the inscriptions on headstones, in the voluntary maintenance carried out by individuals and community groups, and in public interest in cemetery tours organised by the The Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand.
(f) The potential of the place for public education:
The Northern Cemetery has considerable potential for public education. As noted above the HCCTNZ runs tours of the cemetery, and contributes a weekly newspaper column on figures buried at Dunedin cemeteries, including the Northern Cemetery. The Southern Heritage Trust, which is based at the Sexton's Cottage provides historical information and is setting up an information centre for the Cemetery.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:
The Cemetery is an outstanding example of nineteenth century cemetery design. As noted above, in its layout, siting and planting it captures the ethos of nineteenth century design principles.
The grave monuments show outstanding technical accomplishment, and provide an important representation of the work of monumental masons' work from the 1870s until the 1970s. The range and class of monuments is wide. These range from simple upright slabs to elaborate columns and obelisks, many of which are fenced by attractive cast iron enclosures. Materials include granite, marble, Oamaru limestone and Port Chalmers breccia. Important is a rare timber stele.
Individual elements, such as Larnach's tomb and the Sexton's cottage also show outstanding technical accomplishment.
(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place:
The Northern Cemetery has symbolic and commemorative value as a place of remembrance of the dead buried there.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:
The Northern Cemetery along with Dunedin's Southern Cemetery, appear to be the only main centre public cemeteries exemplifying nineteenth century cemetery design principles emphasizing the picturesque. However, the Northern Cemetery alone expresses the nondenominational nature and the layout. Other contemporary cemeteries had denominational divisions, and other important cemeteries, such as Bolton Street Memorial Park and the Symond Street Cemeteries have been compromised by invasive development.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:
The Northern Cemetery is a historic landscape in its own right. The Cemetery's mix of grave monuments and surrounds, mature plantings and the former morgue form an important cultural landscape, expressing the nineteenth and twentieth century commemoration of the dead. It is also part of the wider townscape of Dunedin. The Cemetery sits on a prominent hillside site, at the northern edge of the Town Belt. As such it is part of a landscape feature that stretches through the city all the way to the Southern Cemetery.
Cemetery Reserve (See Appendix 1)
Sexton's Cottage, Larnach's Tomb, notable Grave Monuments, Grave Monuments of Noted Individuals, Memorial to Taranaki Prisoners of War, Maori unmarked burials and paupers' graves, plantings and Layout.
The Northern Cemetery was Dunedin's second cemetery, opening for burials in 1872, with the first recorded interment in December of that year. The Cemetery is sited on a prominent hill adjoining the Town Belt overlooking North Dunedin. The last burial plot was sold in 1937, and the cemetery closed in 1975.
The Town Board had anticipated the need for a second cemetery in 1857 when they had attempted to reserve a northern portion of the Town Belt at the same time land was appropriated for the Southern Cemetery. This demonstrated considerable foresight. The discovery of gold in Otago in 1861 drew a flood of prospectors, merchants, entrepreneurs, and their families from all over New Zealand, Australia, America, China and Europe. Dunedin was transformed into a thriving city, its harbour being the gateway to the goldfields, the population swelling from 12,691 in 1860 to over 67,000 within a decade. This huge increase naturally created a demand for places to bury the dead. On 27 August 1868 a Bill was introduced
to enable the Corporation of Dunedin to acquire in fee and to entrust and manage certain portions of the Town Belt as Dunedin's public cemeteries for burial of the dead.
The people of Dunedin did not appreciate the intention to apportion any land from the Town Belt and the Corporation's intention met with great public opposition. The Bill was defeated following a public meeting attended by 300 people. It was successfully re-introduced in 1872 and the dedication of 20 acres of the Town Belt for a new cemetery was confirmed.
Original estimates of £1,000 for the cemetery allowed for the construction of a new road from Signal Road and Dundas Street (which included the lowering of Dundas Street) (£300), fencing 2½ acres of ground (£120), supply of painted nickel fencing (£250) and clearing, leveling and forming paths etc. (£150), with all work to be undertaken by Council.
In September 1872, the Parks and Reserves Committee recommended that tenders be called:
for the completion of the necessary work at the northern cemetery and for the erection of a four-roomed cottage within the cemetery enclosure.
Twelve months later, the firm of Hooper and Moir were engaged to form the roads and pathways at a cost of £142 and Roach and Martin were the successful tenderers for the construction of the sexton's lodge and outbuildings with their estimate of £412.
The Northern Cemetery in Dunedin was heavily influenced by developments in cemetery design which occurred in early nineteenth century Britain. The repulsive and overcrowded state of parish churchyards prompted the construction of public cemeteries in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. These new cemeteries were planned along the principles of picturesque cemetery design established by the creation of Pere Lachaise cemetery outside Paris in 1804. The first of the modern cemeteries, it was based upon picturesque landscape design, with many varied botanical plantings, winding paths and pretty views forming the setting for the family or individual monument, creating a place for melancholy remembrance and morally beneficial recreation. In Britain such ideas were disseminated through works such as John Claudius Loudon's Laying out Planting and Managing Cemeteries (1843). Tempering the picturesque with a more formal tone, Loudon advocated heavily planted and attractive landscapes for cemeteries, as he believed that the cemetery should be more than just a place of interment. It could be a place of instruction and education in many and varied disciplines including architecture, sculpture, botany "a scene calculated to improve the morals and taste, and by its botanical riches to cultivate the intellect". Places to visit, cemeteries were now located outside towns, losing their association with the church.
In laying out the Northern Cemetery nineteenth century Dunedinites certainly had many of these modern ideas of cemetery design in mind. This is reflected by their promotion of the picturesque properties of the cemetery, its views of the city and harbour, its convenient and safe siting away from town, and its value as a place of recreation and reflection. Actual cemeteries, such as the recently opened Southern Cemetery in Dunedin, planned along these lines no doubt provided inspiration for the Northern Cemetery.
The experience of Scotland is particularly relevant to the creation of the cemeteries of Victorian Dunedin. Glasgow's Southern Necropolis opened for burial in 1841. It was heavily ornamented with a typical mixture of plants including traditional cemetery evergreens such as holly, yew, cypress and cedar, as well as deciduous trees such as walnut, chestnut, cherry, and elm. The picturesque nature of the Necropolis landscape was enhanced by the construction of a lodge in 1848, designed in a neo-Roman style. Edinburgh's Southern Cemetery opened May 1847. The advantages of the cemetery as listed by the Directors included its picturesque situation and views, proximity to the city, convenience of access, peaceful seclusion, the highest attainable security and all within the reach of all classes of the community. The Directors offered a sliding scale of fees and a general section for public use, which meant all classes could avail themselves of plots. There were also similar developments in England, including the creation of Highgate and Kensal Green cemeteries in London. They contained a wide range of eclectic memorials based on ancient architectural forms and Victorian sentimentalism including, Egyptian buildings, obelisks, statuary, angels and urns set among wooded landscapes, and were designed to encourage contemplative reflection and moral improvement. Dunedin's Northern Cemetery is an exceptional colonial interpretation of these large landscaped cemeteries of the old country.
By October 1874, it was reported by the Otago Witness that including the planting of ornamental trees from the Botanic Gardens:
a great deal of work has been done in improving it [the Northern Cemetery] from the rough state in which it had been left by nature. Much heavy scrub has been cleared away, walks and plots have been formed, and pipes for surface drainage have been laid down. More drainage is however wanted as parts of the ground though on a hilltop are of a spongy nature and retain the surface water. All around the cemetery a twelve feet border has been laid out. The outside of the border is planted with a hawthorn hedge and close to the hedge are shrubs and trees. This hedge will, with the trees, act as a break-wind to the ornamental plots within the cemetery. Only the main path will be graveled [sic]. That path is 16 feet wide and is the one to be used by carriages coming within the enclosure; it has numerous windings and goes through every part of the cemetery. It has yet to be graveled [sic] and it does need gravelling near the entrance, where some of the other paths have been sown with grass seed, the object being to make firm turf on them. Most of the trees and shrubs planted have been obtained from the Botanic Gardens. Some of the young trees have to be surrounded by wire screens to protect them from the depredations of rabbits. Much work has already been done, but the greater part of the cemetery is still in a rough state and much remains to be done. The work is carried out under the supervision of Mr Somerville, Corporation Gardener.
The paper also noted that "from the hill on which the cemetery is situated, a really beautiful view is to be obtained. The scenery well repays the walk." The cemetery is still notable for its views of the city and harbour today.
As with the Southern Cemetery the rules and regulations were laid out by the Town Board in March 1858 (See Appendix 4 for full text). The Cemetery was divided into three classes: Class I was ground of which perpetual and exclusive right could be acquired with the privilege of enclosing the ground and of erecting headstones and other monuments there, with lots being 8 foot by 10 foot, each having frontage to the road around the cemetery, and costing £3; Class II was ground for which perpetual and exclusive rights could be acquired but the purchaser did not have the right to enclose the same or to erect a monument, other than a horizontal flat stone, no more than 6 inches above ground, with Lots for single graves were 8 foot by 4 foot having frontage to the road and directly opposite lots of First Class, and cost £1/ 5 shillings; Class III which was a portion of ground set aside for the interment of people who had not purchased a right to private ground. There were to be no monuments or memorials allowed. All graves were to be 6 ft deep. The Town Board was to provide furniture and attendants for burials.
The Northern Cemetery opened for burials in 1872, the first recorded interment being that of Ada Massey, infant daughter of the Town Clerk, on 2 December of that year. Unlike the Southern Cemetery, the Northern Cemetery was not divided into denominational areas, making no difference between people of various religious beliefs (although, as noted below there were reports of denominational divisions, these never eventuated).
Like its picturesque counterparts in Britain and America, the new Cemetery was envisaged as a place for wholesome recreation. By 1870 the Otago Daily Times noted approvingly that the main road to the cemetery
from near the Dundas Street bridge has now been completed and it is expected that the road will be widened and the footpath formed thus making it a very nice walk for citizens. There are to be boundary paths of the different denominations and a main road sixteen feet wide is to take rather a winding course, and will bring a person following it to the point from which he started - the Cemetery entrance. The area of the cemetery is 20 acres of which 14 or 15 acres are available for interments and the remaining portion which is bushland, will have ornamental walks formed through it.
The Otago Witness also commented on the scenic nature of the cemetery in October 1874.
The paper also observed that "[a] pretty brick lodge with slate roof containing three dwelling rooms and a public waiting room is to be erected for the Sexton." The Lodge, or Sexton's Cottage as it is now more generally known, was first thought to have been designed by Robert Lawson. However, plans of the cottage signed by Samuel Haywood Mirams, dated November 1872 have been located in Council's archives. Mirams was employed as City Surveyor between 1866 and 1901 and was responsible for a number of significant improvements in Dunedin.
The Lodge originally consisted of 4 rooms: a public waiting room, kitchen and sitting room and a bedroom, connected by a single central passage. With various additions the cottage was used as a residence for the sexton for 54 years. Following the closure of the Cemetery in 1975, the cottage fell into disrepair. In 1986 Council applied to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) for financial assistance to repair the cottage, and in 1994, the cottage was registered by NZHPT (Category II).
The day to day management of the Cemetery was the job of the sexton and his staff. By the 1920s there were concerns about the state of some of the graves. An investigative report by the Otago Daily Times concluded that this was a problem with the families not maintaining graves, rather than the work of the Sexton:
Neglect does not lie with the Reserves Department which has general oversight of the cemeteries, but rather at the doors of the individual owners of the plots who show no interest in them. After all the plots are the private property and strictly speaking not the concern of the Reserves Department at all. People might indeed resent interference. Nevertheless, for the sake of the general appearance of the cemeteries, the department has all the sections cut once a year in the Northern Cemetery and twice a year in the Southern Cemetery. For a moderate fee the Department will arrange to care for any plots if the owners desire it, but many do not avail themselves of this opportunity. The neglect arises from family and friends long since left the district but many of us give no thought to the place where their relatives are buried and allow the graves to become an eyesore.
He reported that the Northern Cemetery employed one sexton, one permanent workman, and others when required. On his visit to the cemetery on 9 February that year he saw three men at work, one weeding the main drive, two trimming grass from paths and plots and that the cemetery looked "very well indeed. All the paths were in excellent order and a remarkably large proportion of the plots tended with faithful care. Many were disfigured with weeds and rank grass, and there was a steep hill where graves had not been touched for some time", although he noted that "when the men get to that part there will be little to complain about".
D. A. McLeod of Caversham who was employed as a sexton with Council for over 45 years and worked at both the Northern and Southern Cemeteries recalled that:
a sexton's job is a varied one and one of the duties of the sexton in a cemetery like the Northern, (which is closed to other than family plots) is checking to see if persons seeking burial in family plots are in fact entitled to do so. When the undertaker rings, the sexton has to check back through the records and find the name of the last one of that family who was buried there. I liked to check the last two, just to be sure.
Then he would check the grave lot from the cemetery plan, find the section, check on the site, and then take a test with a rod to see just where the other coffin is sited. If it is more than 5 feet down you can put another on top, but if it's too shallow you test the sides. Then you dig the hole and when the funeral is over you fill it in again. A sexton has to cut the hedges, keep tracks and roads clear and tend to the graves, many of which have been willed for perpetual care, that is money has been left for their upkeep in perpetuity or for a set number of years. Then there are the records to keep. People come looking for family graves especially at holiday time and it can take anything from five minutes to two hours to check through the records and locate the particular grave.
The last plot in the Northern Cemetery was sold in 1937, although burials continued to take place in family-owned sites. It is estimated that by the time it closed in 1975 there had been over 17,000 interments in the Northern Cemetery. Today the cemetery is closed for disposal of human remains, other than for the placement of ashes in established family plots.
Report Written By
Stephen Deed and Heather Bauchop
Chris and Margaret Betteridge, 'Final Draft Conservation Management Plan for the Northern & Southern Cemeteries, Dunedin, New Zealand.' MUSEcape Pty Ltd for The Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand, 25 December 2005
M.M. Cotter et al (eds), Heritage Landscapes: Understanding Place and Communities, Southern Cross University Press, Lismore, 2001.
Chris Betteridge and Lisa Murray, 'Landscapes of the Dead: The significance and management of cemeteries as designed landscapes.'
Curl, 2002 (1)
J.S. Curl, Death and Architecture: An Introduction to Funerary and Commemorative Buildings in the Western European Tradition, with Some Consideration of their Settings, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2002 [3rd Edition]
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
W. S. Broughton, 'Bracken, Thomas 1843 - 1898', updated 7 July 2005, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/
Gordon Parry, 'Begg, Charles 1825? - 1874, updated 7 July 2005, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/; F.R.J. Sinclair, 'Larnach, William James Mudie 1833-1898'. updated 7 July 2005, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/; Trevor Williams, 'Blair, William Newsham 1841-1891', updated 7 July 2005, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/
Dunedin City Council
Dunedin City Council, Building Records
Plan of the Southern Cemetery, 1872, S. H. Mirams, DCC 1996/20.
P.G. Edgar, 'Ideological Choice in the Gravestones of Dunedin's Southern Cemetery.' MA, University of Otago, Dunedin
D. Harold, Maori Prisoners of War in Dunedin 1869-72: Deaths, Burials and Survivors, Hexagon, Dunedin, 2000.
Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand
Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand
(n.d.) Cemetery Conservation: Identifying Materials, Grave Site Maintenance, Reading Inscriptions, The Trust, Dunedin.
(n.d.) Heritage Values of Historic Cemeteries in New Zealand: Assessing Heritage Values; Why Are Cemeteries Important? We Protect What We Value; How Do We Propose to Conserve Our Cemeteries, The Trust, Dunedin.
Otago Provincial Government Gazette
Otago Provincial Government Gazette
March 30, 1858. Rules and regulations made in pursuance of Section V, Cemeteries Ordinance 1856 for Management of the Dunedin South Cemetery.
A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Southern Region Office.