'Horrible histories' tour for school group at Karori Cemetery

Senior Outreach Advisor, David Watt, tags along on a school tour of Karori Cemetery, observing flu pandemic graves from 1918, amongst others.

Karori Normal School students walking on path toward the chapel
Karori School leavers make their way to the Category 1 listed 1909 Chapel and Crematorium (List no. 1339)expand/collapse

On a hot sunny day, just before finishing up their year 8, around 100 students from Karori Normal School spent several hours exploring the numerous pathways of their local cemetery and learning its history. Our Senior Outreach Advisor, David Watt, tagged along to support the tour guides, chipping in with information on historic listing structures in the cemetery.

Opened in 1891 and containing over 83,000 interments, the cemetery at Karori is the second largest in New Zealand. It operated until near capacity in 1965 when the City Council opened Makara Cemetery to the south and remains open for those with existing family or pre purchased plots.

The students learned that Karori Cemetery is the final resting place for six former New Zealand Prime Ministers as well as several Wellington mayors, business and community leaders, service personnel, and other local identities.

They uncovered information about the 1917 - 1918 world flu pandemic. The children asked to see the graves. ‘They stood in awe looking at the 700 graves of Wellington victims,’ observed David. There were 9,000 recorded deaths in New Zealand. The 700 in Wellington were recorded in just over one month in late 1918.  At its peak there were 63 burials in one day at Karori Cemetery.

Other graves include those from the SS Penquin which sank in stormy seas in 1909 off the Wellington south coast on a regular sailing from Picton to Wellington, with the loss of 75 lives, and the 151 victims of the 1953 Christmas Eve Tangiwai train disaster.

The students were shown many other graves and memorials, learning about such revered figures as Peter Fraser, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1940 -1949 who is interred with his wife Janet in a special memorial in the cemetery, Harry Atkinson, four time Premier of New Zealand, and motor industry leader, Sir Charles Norwood.

The students were fascinated by the ‘horrible histories’, secrets and stories – especially of murderers and their victims – which they encountered.

The local Karori community owes much to Barbara Mulligan, Vice Chair of the Friends of Karori Cemetery for her passion supporting cemetery conservation work and advocacy for the development of its heritage and ecological values.

- David Watt