Heads Road Cemetery

Heads Road, Guyton Street And Ridgway Street, Whanganui

  • Heads Road Cemetery, Whanganui. An overall view of the main cemetery looking towards Heads Road..
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Wendy Pettigrew. Date: 1/10/2005.
  • Heads Road Cemetery, Whanganui.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Wendy Pettigrew. Date: 1/10/2005.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 7700 Date Entered 22nd June 2007 Date of Effect 22nd June 2007


Extent of List Entry

The registration includes the land comprised in Pt Res C, Town of Wanganui; Pt Lot 30, DEED 133; Res F, Town of Wanganui; Sec 545, Town of Wanganui; (all in Block IX, Westmere Survey District) the cemetery, the morgue (including fittings and fixtures) and garden thereon. See Appendix 2b of the registration report.

City/District Council

Whanganui District


Horizons (Manawatū-Whanganui) Region

Legal description

Main Cemetery (also known as General Cemetery): Pt Res C Town of Wanganui (NZ Gazette 1914, p. 4076), Pt Lot 30 DEED 133 (RT WN20C/838),Catholic Cemetery: Res F Town of Wanganui (NZ Gazette 1988, pp.2249-2250), Jewish Cemetery: Sec 545 Town of Wanganui (NZ Gazette 1968, p.578), Wellington Land District.

Location description

Heads Road Cemetery consists of three parts:

(1) the main cemetery area (also known as the General Cemetery) located between Guyton Street, Heads Road and Ridgway Street;

(2) the Catholic cemetery on the opposite side of Heads Road, and

(3) the Jewish cemetery on Heads Road next to the Catholic area. (See Appendices 2a & b of the registration report.)


Wanganui was the second European settlement planned by the New Zealand Company after Wellington. The land was first purchased in May 1840 and the first European settlers arrived in February 1841. Heads Road was set aside by the New Zealand Company for a cemetery in its plans for Wanganui (or Petre as the town was first named) and it is one of the four earliest European public cemeteries in New Zealand, having been used for burials since at least 1843. Unlike Bolton Street in Wellington and Symonds Street in Auckland, Heads Road remains intact within its original area and has not been destroyed in any way for roads or other development. Therefore, it retains a high degree of historical integrity; only the gravestones from the Jewish section have been removed and replaced with a single memorial.

In active use until its closure in 1915, Heads Road is an excellent example of a Victorian/Edwardian cemetery that retains its original layout as well as many of its memorials demonstrating the development of monumental masonry from the 1850s to the 1920s. Therefore, Heads Road differs from Wakapuaka Cemetery established in the 1840s for Nelson, another New Zealand Company settlement; the latter was in active use until 1952 with many additional burial areas having been added to the original layout as well as having a greater quantity of 20th century headstones and memorials.

Heads Road also has particular historical significance in terms of the graves of casualties of the New Zealand Wars 1840-1872.

The morgue was used, together with the nearby drill hall, when the bodies of victims of the Tangiwai disaster in December 1953 were brought to Wanganui for identification. The role of Whangaehu Valley farmers in recovering the bodies of victims of Tangiwai is also linked to the cemetery morgue.

Wanganui's early European history is evident throughout Heads Road. Memorials identify the early settlers, missionaries, merchants, politicians, government officials, surveyors and benefactors who were responsible for the establishment of the city and district. For more than 30 years from 1901, Wanganui was the fifth largest urban centre in New Zealand and the wealth of many of the city's residents is reflected in the memorials at Heads Road.

Many of these memorials commemorate people of significance to Wanganui and New Zealand's history, including John Ballance (Premier), Richard Taylor (missionary), John Tiffin Stewart (engineer), Thomas McDonnell (awarded the NZ Cross), AD Willis (printer and lithographer), Henry Sarjeant (farmer and benefactor) and SH Drew (jeweller and Museum founder).

Heads Road also provides the focus for the Cemetery Circuit motorcycle race held on Boxing Day since 1951.

Amongst the four earliest public cemeteries in New Zealand, Heads Road Cemetery is of outstanding historical significance. Linked to both people and events of significance in Wanganui's and New Zealand's history; Heads Road Cemetery also retains historical integrity as an example of a Victorian/ Edwardian cemetery, the cemetery having undergone few changes over the years and containing examples of monumental masonry styles from the 1840s through to the 1920s. Heads Roads Cemetery remains part of the social fabric of Wanganui linking the community and visitors that come in search of their personal history to the past.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

As the second New Zealand Company planned settlement in the country, Wanganui has a long history of European settlement dating from the first arrivals in 1840. Heads Road was identified as a cemetery site by the New Zealand Company in its 1842 plan for Petre (the first name for Wanganui which honoured Lord Petre, one of the Company directors). The town of Petre was laid out by the Company surveyors in their favoured grid pattern, which suited the mainly flat area selected for the future town, with public parks on the two sand hills named Cook's Gardens and The Queen's Park, space for markets, squares and a crescent (the latter two features never built). Provision was made for land uses such as cemeteries, abattoir, asylum, barracks and even a female penitentiary on the edge of or just outside the town.

Of the other three New Zealand Company settlements, Wellington's Bolton Street Cemetery dates from 1841 (but was largely destroyed by motorway construction in the 1970s), Nelson's Wakapuaka Cemetery dates from 1842 and was in use until 1952 and New Plymouth's Te Henui Cemetery was not opened until 1861 (see Appendix 6 of the registration report). Auckland's Symonds Street Cemetery also dates from 1842 but has been partially destroyed by bridge and motorway construction. Therefore, with its first known burial in 1843, Heads Road Cemetery is the one of the four earliest European public cemeteries in New Zealand. However, unlike the other public cemeteries established in the 1840s, Heads Road retains its historical integrity. It has not been destroyed by roads or development and it retains its Victorian layout and style of monumental masonry without further areas having been added in the 20th century, unlike Nelson's Wakapuaka.

Heads Road Cemetery has particular historical significance in terms of the graves of casualties of the New Zealand Wars 1840-1872, including both soldiers and civilians who died as a result of events during those years of conflict.

Wanganui's evolving status as a New Zealand Company settlement, garrison town and then important provincial centre (for more than 30 years from 1901 it was the fifth largest urban area in New Zealand) is evident in the monuments which commemorate the early settlers, missionaries and clergy, politicians, merchants and traders as well as benefactors to the city.

Many individuals of significance to Wanganui and New Zealand's history have memorials in the cemetery, including John Ballance (Premier), Revd Richard Taylor (missionary), John Tiffin Stewart (engineer), Thomas McDonnell (awarded the New Zealand Cross), AD Willis (printer and lithographer), Henry Sarjeant (farmer and benefactor) and SH Drew (jeweller and Museum founder).

The morgue was used after the Tangiwai rail disaster in December 1953, when some 60 bodies retrieved from the Whangaehu River by local farmers and volunteers were brought to Wanganui for identification before being transferred to Waiouru.

The records relating to the cemetery, including Trustees' Minute Books from 1863 to 1915 when the cemetery closed, provide much information that adds value to the historical significance of the site.

The cemetery as a whole is a place of significant aesthetic value. The original mid-Victorian layout of both the main and Catholic cemeteries is still evident as well as the plan designed in 1869 by Henry Claylands Field for the main cemetery. No other New Zealand public cemetery dating from the 1840s retains such a high level of historic integrity. Nelson's Wakapuaka is the only other early cemetery not destroyed by motorways, but it was in use until 1952 and has had several areas added to the original Victorian cemetery layout and also includes monuments reflecting both 19th and 20th century styles. At Heads Road only the Jewish cemetery has been cleared of monuments with one memorial erected in their place.

The memorials at Heads Road Cemetery include examples of all styles used from the 1840s through to the 1920s, providing a significant resource for the study of monumental masonry from the earliest period of European settlement in New Zealand. Many of the monuments were imported from Australia, England and Scotland and are significant pieces of sculpture and architecture in their own right.

Heads Road Cemetery is part of the social fabric of Wanganui. The memorials provide important links with the past and are a focus for the many people who travel to Wanganui from elsewhere in New Zealand and abroad in search of their own personal history. The Jewish and Catholic cemeteries reflect the cultural values of those religious faiths, including the simple graves for the Sisters of St Joseph. Many of the memorials testify to family pride in their achievements and origins, such as those that clearly state the place and country of origin of early settlers.

The predominance of existing headstones in the southeast part of the main cemetery reflects this decision; less well-off citizens were buried on the northwest side and were less likely to have headstones.

The Cemetery Circuit motorcycle race held on Boxing Day since 1951 provides another example of the social importance of the cemetery to Wanganui.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

Heads Road is one of the earliest public cemeteries in New Zealand, dating from New Zealand Company 1842 plans for the European settlement of Petre. The development of Wanganui as an important provincial centre from the 1840s to1930s is evident throughout the cemetery with memorials to early settlers, missionaries, merchants and politicians. The cemetery is particularly significant with its graves of casualties, both military and civilian, of the New Zealand Wars 1840-1872.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

The graves of casualties of the period of the New Zealand Wars 1840-1872 are evident in the cemetery, including those of the Gilfillan family whose death in 1847 was a significant event in Wanganui's early history, as well as those of many soldiers who died as a result of conflict. A number of people of significance to Wanganui and New Zealand's history have memorials in the cemetery, including John Ballance (Premier), Revd Richard Taylor (missionary), John Tiffin Stewart (engineer), Thomas McDonnell (awarded New Zealand Cross), AD Willis (printer and lithographer), Henry Sarjeant (farmer and benefactor) and SH Drew (jeweller and Museum founder). The morgue was used after the Tangiwai rail disaster in December 1953 when bodies were brought to Wanganui for identification.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

The cemetery provides evidence of the development of Wanganui from its days as a New Zealand Company settlement in the 1840s to its designation as a city in 1924. The memorials to the early settlers, clergy and missionaries, merchants and traders, benefactors, artists, engineers and surveyors all testify to the wealth of Wanganui during this period. The soldiers' graves are a reminder that for nearly 25 years Wanganui was a garrison town.

(d) The importance of the place to the tangata whenua

Although Heads Road is primarily a European cemetery, there are a number of graves commemorating people and events that are significant to the history of the Whanganui iwi. For example, early churchmen and women, including Richard Taylor, George Stannard, Pura and Gregor McGregor, Jock McGregor plus the Gilfillan family and other casualties of the New Zealand Wars.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place

Descendants of those buried at Heads Road visit the cemetery, traveling to Wanganui from elsewhere in New Zealand and abroad. Many families have paid to have new inscriptions or memorials restored to ensure that their history is kept evident. There has been recent interest in setting up 'Friends of Heads Road Cemetery' group to undertake maintenance and recording work. Guided walks are proving to be very popular. The Boxing Day Cemetery Circuit is so named because the motorcycle race incorporates the cemetery perimeters.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

The Heritage Trail leaflet published 1997 still provides visitors with information about many of the significant memorials. A self-guided trail could be developed as well as guided walks (e.g. Artists Open Studios weekends 2006 included two cemetery walks focusing on artistic links with people and monuments). Art and history students can both gain much from studying the monumental masonry in the cemetery. The well-documented history of the establishment and management of the cemetery can provide information for those studying the history of public cemeteries in New Zealand. The establishment of a Friends group could stimulate further interest. The morgue building could be adapted to serve as an interpretive centre and headquarters for the Friends' activities including guided walks and school visits.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

The number of upstanding memorials and the variety and style of monumental masonry at Heads Road is similar to that found in European cemeteries, such as Kensal Green and Highgate in London that date from a similar period. Many monuments were imported from Britain and some are the only examples of their type still extant in New Zealand.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place

The cemetery is part of the social fabric of Wanganui. It is the focus of all interested in their family and local history with connections to this place. The size and sculptural design of the monuments are an expression of a family's social standing in the community. The number of aesthetically significant memorials testifies to the wealth of many citizens at the time. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery is a reminder of those people who contributed much to Wanganui's business and social development. The morgue and the involvement of local people at the time of the Tangiwai rail disaster provides another opportunity to commemorate this event in New Zealand's history. The Cemetery Circuit motorcycle race, operating since 1951, is a significant part of Wanganui's sporting culture.

(i) The importance of identifying historic places known to date from early periods of New Zealand settlement

The cemetery dates from the New Zealand Company settlement of Petre (Wanganui) and is one of the earliest public cemeteries in New Zealand. The graves of casualties of the New Zealand Wars 1840-1872 remind us of that period of early conflict between European settlers and Maori. The history of the European settlement of Wanganui and the origins of these early colonists, many of whom were Scottish, are evident on the monuments.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places

Heads Road is an example of an early public cemetery that retains its historical integrity with its layout not compromised by later development and subdivision. It is also a significant example of a Victorian/Edwardian cemetery, with headstones primarily dating from the period prior to 1915 when the cemetery closed.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape

The cemetery is at the centre of the history and culture of the district surrounding Wanganui. It is located on one of the early reserves set aside for the Town of Wanganui, which included the nearby racecourse, and as such is part of the historic 'Town Belt' landscape surrounding Wanganui.

Summary of significance

Amongst the four earliest public cemeteries in New Zealand, Heads Road Cemetery is registered as a Category I historic place to recognise its outstanding historical significance. Linked to both people and events of significance in Wanganui's and New Zealand's history; Heads Road Cemetery also retains historical integrity as an example of a Victorian/ Edwardian cemetery, the cemetery having undergone few changes over the years and containing examples of monumental masonry styles from the 1840s through to the 1920s. Heads Roads Cemetery remains part of the social fabric of Wanganui linking the community and visitors that come in search of their personal history to the past.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Field, Henry Claylands

Planned the revised main cemetery layout of Heads Road Cemetery, Wanganui, in 1869. Field was a local surveyor, responsible for the layout of Putiki township in 1865 and in the late 1870s for surveying the route from Wanganui to the Central Plateau that became State Highway 4, 'the Parapara' and Field's Track. He was also an architect who designed Christ Church in 1866 (now St Peter's, Gonville, Category II Registered Historic Place) and his own house at Aramoho (Field House, Category II Registered Historic Place) built in 1868.

Stroud, Harry Herbert

Architect of Heads Road Cemetery morgue built 1930. Harry Herbert Stroud was registered as a Fellow of the NZ Institute of Architects by Sept 1915. He practised as an architect in Wanganui and developed the Veandhor system of reinforced concrete construction for houses. He joined the Borough (later City) Engineer's Department around 1919 and was still working for the City Council in the late 1930s.

Bignell, Arthur G.

Arthur Bignell was one of the most prominent contractors in Wanganui since the 1890s, having formed a partnership with Robert Russell (who retired in 1918) in the early part of that decade. Their company was responsible for the erection of a number of prominent buildings at Wanganui, including the Wakefield Chambers, Selwyn Buildings, CML Building, Grand Hotel, Trafalgar Building and Perrett's Building, as well as a number of renowned homes in the area and the Patea and Taihape hospitals. Bignell was also prominent in the public life of Wanganui, serving on a number of local bodies (including the Wanganui Borough Council, Harbour Board, Board of Trustees of the Wanganui Collegiate), and having held the position of Wanganui Mayor for one term from 1904 - 1906.

Builder of morgue, Heads Road Cemetery, Wanganui, in 1930. Bignell was in partnership with Robert Russell from 1892; as 'Russell & Bignell' they were respected contractors undertaking work throughout the North Island.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Maori History

In pre-European times, Maori had seasonal fishing villages on either side of the Whanganui River. The sandy hills now occupied by Heads Road Cemetery on the right bank of the river would have been an ideal location for such a village; the archaeological evidence of midden in this area substantiates this. Archaeological information also indicates that Heads Road Cemetery lies between two known pa sites, Te One Heke and Te Ahituatini, which were occupied in the 19th century. Maori used sand hills in the area for their burials, but there is no evidence thus far that they used the Heads Road Cemetery site. The major early Maori burial ground was on the other side of the river, the Pihaia Sandhills urupa (located near Landguard Bluff), was the ancestral burying place of the Putiki people. After 1840, when the Church Missionary Society (CMS) first sent John Mason as resident missionary at Putiki, most Maori burials took place at a new burial ground beside the mission church built in 1842. This cemetery at Putiki is still in use today, together with other urupa at lower Whanganui River sites, such as Kukuta and Kaiwhaiki.

The Origins of the European Cemetery in Wanganui

European settlement began in Wanganui once the New Zealand Company had completed its (later discredited) Wanganui land purchase in May 1840. Later that year the Company sent surveyors to begin laying out sections for the anticipated European settlers. The town plan for Petre (the name given to the town by the Company in honour of one of its directors) would have been drawn up in more detail following the initial survey and once details of the town sections on the right bank of the Whanganui River had been formalised by October 1841.

The 1842 town plan for Petre had a formal layout, complete with English parks, gardens, squares and crescents. The location for the main cemetery is clearly shown in the Town Belt area outside the town boundary and near the river. Another cemetery site was also identified at the northern end of town, at the foot of St John's Hill. However, this area was very swampy so the site would have proved unsuitable and was thus never used.

The first New Zealand Company European settlers arrived in Wanganui in February 1841. Although there may have been European deaths in town after that date, the first known burial to take place in the Sandhills Cemetery (the first name given to Heads Road Cemetery) was on 25 November 1843. James Bailey had drowned in the Whanganui River and his burial is recorded in the register maintained by the second CMS missionary to Wanganui, Revd Richard Taylor, who arrived in April 1843 following the untimely death by drowning of his predecessor, John Mason, who was buried in the Putiki churchyard. At the time, Richard Taylor was the only cleric in Wanganui, administering to the needs of Maori as well as the Anglican and Presbyterian settlers on the right bank of the river.

In 1844, an Episcopalian church was erected in Victoria Avenue, Wanganui - the first European church in town. As was still the English custom, the church had a consecrated churchyard that was used for most Anglican burials from 1845. The many Scottish settlers in town also worshipped at the Anglican Church until 1853 when the first resident Presbyterian minister arrived and started to hold services in the Mechanics' Institute prior to the building of the first St Paul's in 1856. However, the Presbyterians would have been more likely to have been buried in the main cemetery as the Scottish tradition is to have burial grounds located away from churches (although still sometimes referred to as 'kirkyards').

With the arrival of the first British regiments in 1847, Wanganui's population grew considerably. Many of the soldiers in the 58th (Rutlandshire), 65th (York and Lancaster) and other regiments brought their wives and families to Wanganui; deaths in the settlement increased and thus the use of the main cemetery by non-Protestants.

In 1851, two French Marist fathers arrived in Wanganui, Fathers Pezant and Lampila. Fr Stephan Pezant established a chapel on Taupo Quay and his Register of the Baptisms, Confirmations, Marriages and Burials of the Catholic Station of Petre (Whanganui) commenced in February 1852. No location is given for the first Catholic burial, that of William Laird on 16 February 1852. However, the second burial, of four-year-old Mary Cockley on 27 January 1854, took place in the 'Catholic church-yard' (the Catholic cemetery of Heads Road Cemetery). This follows the Special Grant, No 77, awarded to Bishop Viard of Wellington on 14 August 1853 of one acre of land within the Town Belt reserve area for the purposes of a cemetery.

There had been considerable concern expressed by Wanganui settler Dr Peter Wilson about the continued use of the Anglican churchyard in Victoria Avenue. In February 1847, Wilson wrote to his friend Donald McLean on the subject:

"I have been obliged of late to beat our parson [Revd Richard Taylor] out of one of his ridiculous prejudices - that of burying in the town. We have a capital cemetery selected by the company - out of town, but in every way convenient. But he [Taylor] is far too self-willed, and without consulting anyone enclosed a piece of ground around the church and has done all in his power to get that adopted. It is a vile wet place for you cannot dig in it beyond a few feet before you come to water".

Wilson's lobbying and letters to the Wellington Independent eventually had an effect. Provincial legislation was passed early in 1854, becoming law the following March, to prohibit all burials in churchyards in Wanganui and elsewhere in Wellington Province. From this time on, all European burials in Wanganui took place in Heads Road Cemetery.

Early Cemetery Management

The land for Heads Road Cemetery was formally set aside 'for the purposes of public utility to the Town of Wanganui and its inhabitants' as part of Reserve L in Letters Patent dated 3 June 1861 under the public seal of Thomas Gore Browne, Governor of the Colony. The following year the Town Board of Wanganui was established. Because the cemetery was located outside the town boundary, it required separate legislation to provide for its management. The 'Act to provide for the management of the General Cemetery at Wanganui' was assented to in June 1862 and vested responsibility for the main cemetery in Trustees who were to be appointed annually by the Provincial Superintendent. The Act included provisions for penalties against anyone damaging fences, trees or monuments and also prohibited playing games or causing a nuisance in the main cemetery.

The first Trustees of the main cemetery were Thomas Waters, Thomas Ballardie Taylor, John Handley, Henry Ireson Jones and Henry Lyon. Their first meeting was held on 24 February 1863, when they agreed a scale of charges for interments. Ordinary interments without gravestones would cost 12 shillings but people could choose to have the 'exclusive right of interment in a selected spot' with a brick grave or vault, with fenced surround and monument, for the higher charge of 15 shillings.

The first Trustees appear to have met infrequently, but did raise subscriptions in 1864 to erect a post and rail fence around the main cemetery (see Appendix 5a of the registration report). In contrast, the Catholic cemetery was neatly surrounded by a picket fence. With the resignation in January 1866 of the first Trustees , the resident magistrate, David Stark Durie, arranged for a new group of trustees to be appointed. As well as himself, these Trustees were Thomas Harper, William Hogg Watt, William Hutchinson and Francis Williamson. Durie forwarded the names of these gentlemen to the Provincial Superintendent on 7 January 1867 and their appointment was notified in the Wellington Provincial Gazette on 31 January 1867 with the new Trustees meeting on 21 February 1867. The Trustees met frequently over the next few years with Durie acting as chairman until his death in 1874.

The Trustees were concerned about 'irregularity in the laying off of graves' and in September 1867 agreed to ask local surveyor, Henry Claylands Field, to make a plan of the main cemetery. This plan was eventually prepared by Field at the cost of £8 2s and the Trustees resolved in December 1869 to divide the newly laid-out cemetery in two parts: the part next to the (old) entrance and extending to the hill was to be reserved for those who would purchase burial sites in advance, while the remainder would be open for selection for burials as required. The predominance of existing headstones in the southeast part of the main cemetery reflects this decision; less well-off citizens were buried on the northwest side and were less likely to have headstones.

The Origins of the Jewish Cemetery

As with the Catholic cemetery, the Jewish cemetery may have been subject to a Special Grant as the Superintendent of Wellington Province appointed William Robert Gilling Samuels and Henry Levy as Trustees on 14 June 1867. The consecration of the Jewish cemetery took place on 13 March 1870 prior to the burial of Mrs Marian Nathan, the 27-year old wife of local storekeeper, David Nathan. The Hebrew minister of Wellington, Rev BA Selig, consecrated the ground according to Hebrew rites. The newspaper report of the funeral, 'one of the largest that have ever taken place in Wanganui', noted that the land had recently been granted by the Provincial Government of Wellington for the purpose of a Jewish cemetery.

Cemetery Extension Planned

Following the Abolition of the Provinces Act 1875 Heads Road Cemetery became Crown Land. Subsequently, the Public Reserves Act 1877 (amended 1878) granted the area known as Reserve L to the Mayor, Councillors and Burgesses of the Borough of Wanganui (the Borough having been established in 1872). This was formalized by the Crown Grant No 6160 dated 15 July 1880 which identified certain sites within Reserve L as being excluded from Borough control: the Racecourse (marked a), the English Cemetery (marked b) (see below), the General Cemetery (otherwise known as the main cemetery) (marked c), the Jail Reserve (marked d), the Jewish Cemetery (marked e) and the Catholic Cemetery (marked f). From this time, the General Cemetery was referred to as Reserve C, the Jewish Cemetery as Reserve E and the Catholic Cemetery as Reserve F. The plan in the Deeds Register is faint, but the cemetery areas are clearly shown in the later Plan 11573 (see Appendix 4c of the registration report). At this time, the area set aside for the main cemetery was much larger (but the additional area was never used) and the area of the Jewish cemetery area extended further along Heads Road.

The Crown Grant and Plan 11573 both show the new road formed as an extension of Guyton Street in 1878, which was first called Cemetery Road. The Trustees contributed £50 towards the formation of Cemetery Road and wanted an avenue of trees to be planted.

The English Cemetery

As early as 1868, the Anglicans had wanted a separate section of the cemetery for their burials. A further request was made by Edward Churton in June 1879 for a piece of ground to be consecrated for a Church of England cemetery. The Trustees considered they had no power to grant this request. Since the 1880 Crown Grant identifies an English cemetery site, clearly the Anglicans did succeed in getting an area set aside. However, this 'English cemetery' site was never used and later became part of the rugby ground, Spriggens Park.

The Mound

When Reverend Richard Taylor died in October 1873, he was buried on the mound in the main cemetery (shown as 'hill' on the 1863 cemetery plan in Appendix 4b of the registration report) so that his grave would be visible from Putiki where he had served as missionary from 1843. In March 1874, the Cemetery Trustees agreed to hand over the burial site, measuring 9ft by 12ft, to Taylor's widow for the sum of £5. This was the first burial in this prominent part of the main cemetery. Major Nixon made an application in May 1881 for a family burial site in this area. The Trustees considered the request and decided that the southwest corner was an area where burial sites would only be allowed if they were at least 10ft in size and would cost at least 30s. This principle appears to have been upheld for some time as most of the burial sites on and adjacent to the Mound, including those of Henry Sarjeant and Gifford Marshall and family, are larger than many on the flatter parts of the main cemetery.

Sexton Appointed

While gravediggers had been employed from the 1860s, it was not until 1881 that the Trustees considered employing a full-time sexton. In January 1882, Mr G Woods was appointed at a salary of two guineas a week. However, by 1885 Mr Woods was apparently neglecting his duties so the Trustees dispensed with his services and advertised his position. Mr William Wilkins was chosen from 27 applicants and the Trustees arranged to purchase the cottage formerly occupied by the previous sexton so that Mr Wilkins could live close to the cemetery. The lease and repair of the sexton's cottage would give concern to the Trustees for many years.

Bill Wilkins remained sexton of the General Cemetery, and most likely the Catholic and Jewish cemeteries, for the following 42 years until his death in 1927. When the Aramoho Cemetery opened in 1915 he became sexton there for a couple of years but continued to serve as sexton at Heads Road Cemetery. His daughter married Andrew Anderson who took up the trade of monumental masonry; this continues to be run by his descendants as Anderson Memorials and Stone Co Ltd. Bill Wilkins 'took a great interest in his work and the care and attention he bestowed on the surroundings of the old cemetery reflected the greatest credit on him'. The sexton's record books dating from 1868, and maintained by Bill Wilkins from the time of his appointment, are retained by Anderson Memorials.

Between approximately 1930 and 1960, Alexander Beattie Cairns looked after the cemetery. Initially employed there as a labourer, Cairns went on to become a qualified sexton. Cairns' son tells that during his father's tenure as sexton he had the whole cemetery re-surveyed by a council surveyor (likely the main cemetery). Using council records he marked in the names from every grave site into the plan and then, not content with this, he carried out research in the cemetery to fill in any blanks. Using an 8 feet long steel rod to probe sites he located graves not recorded anywhere, including several under the pathways. On some occasions on digging a grave for a burial he would discover that the name plate on a previous burial differed from council records, suggesting the headstone was either erected on the wrong grave or the wrong person buried on that site. It seems likely that the plans and research are with the sexton's records at Aramoho Cemetery.

Cemetery Developments

In 1884, the Heads Railway Company decided to realign the railway line to Castlecliff, taking it alongside the Catholic cemetery on Heads Road. This caused concern at the time, as the entrance to the Catholic cemetery became unapproachable. The railway company agreed to improve the entrance. The line remained in this position until 1903 when it was moved back towards the river. The legacy of the railway is the wide verge beside the Catholic cemetery.

In 1896 the Cemetery Trustees considered a new cemetery would be needed in a few years, but this would be an issue for the Borough Council to pursue. The Trustees even visited a potential site that was for sale on part of the Nixon Estate in Wanganui East, but no action was taken by the Council. A building had been erected just inside the main entrance of the main cemetery, which would have served as a room for the Trustee's bi-monthly meetings. New footpaths were formed at this time also.

In 1899, Trustees considered the need to construct a better fence on the main frontage of the main cemetery, but did not proceed with this work at the time. Uncertainty over the precise boundary line of the main cemetery hindered plans for the fence for several years. A further complication was the decision of the Trustees in 1901 to ask the Borough Council to take over responsibility for the Cemetery Trust. This had first arisen in 1890, but the Town Clerk at the time had written to say that the Council could not take over the Trust. The Borough Council again declined to take over the Trust in 1902, at which time the Colonial Secretary asked the MP, Mr AD Willis, to nominate new trustees. With a new chairman, Mr Sharpe, (replacing the late Mr Laird who had served in this capacity for 30 years) and secretary, Peter Bell, the Trustees appear to have taken on a new lease of life. Alfred Atkins surveyed the cemetery in 1904, enabling the Trustees to determine a line for their fence. That same year, the Borough Council decided it was in a position to take over the main cemetery and discussions began about handing over to the Council the unused portion of the cemetery reserve. Despite continued discussions about these matters over the following nine years, nothing happened formally until 1913.

In the interim, in September 1907 the Cemetery Trustees decided they wanted to have title to the land and applied through their solicitors for a Crown Grant to be issued. This request was subsequently referred to the Under Secretary for Crown Lands who responded on 3 January 1908 that 'it is neither customary nor desirable to grant the fee-simple of public cemeteries to trustees' whose interests, he considered, were sufficiently defined in The Cemeteries Act 1882.

In 1907 a local architect, Thomas Battle, was asked to prepare plans for both the fence and a new cottage for the sexton (to be located on the unused cemetery reserve). The delay in erecting the fence was noted in the newspaper on 19 February 1909 when the Herald reported that 'after discussing the matter for about a quarter of a century, Wanganui [General] Cemetery Trustees decided to construct a brick and concrete fence along Guyton Street.' John Jones was awarded the contract to construct the wall. The brick wall remained until 1969 by which time it was in dire need of repairs. The City Council had a quotation for repair work that amounted to $971. The decision was taken to demolish the wall and a contract for this purpose was let to Mr R Stinson of Wanganui by August 1969.

With the development of the tram service in Wanganui, in 1911 the north side of the ridge had to be partly cleared to accommodate the tramlines along Ridgway Street. No further burials were to take place in this area.

The Need for a New Cemetery

By 1912, the Trustees were concerned about diminishing space for burials at the main cemetery. They met with the Borough Council, who agreed to secure a site for a new cemetery within twelve months. Progress was slow, with nothing definite decided about the site for a new cemetery by February 1913. Later that year, the Trustees approved the steps by which the Borough Council would take over the cemetery and the unused portion would be discharged from being a cemetery reserve.

By January 1914 the Borough Council had agreed to purchase 14 acres of the McNeill estate at Aramoho as the site for the new cemetery. This was not a universally popular choice, with Waitotara and Wanganui County Councils reported as not being keen to contribute financially to the new cemetery development. However, the development of the new cemetery at Aramoho went ahead, with the Closure Order for the General Cemetery (otherwise known as main cemetery) signed by the Governor on 16 November 1914, to be effective as of 1 June 1915 (see Appendix 1a of the registration report). From that date, the General Cemetery was vested with the Mayor, Councillors and Burgesses of the Borough of Wanganui. This order, however, only related to the main part of the cemetery; it did not apply to either the Jewish or Catholic Cemeteries that form part of the Heads Road complex. On 26 February 1915, the Trustees signed the agreement that the cemetery be closed; this was the last entry in their Minute Book.

Variations to the Cemetery Closure

Pressure from people who wished to be interred alongside their relations at the main cemetery began almost as soon as the cemetery was closed. The Cemeteries Act 1908 had set out the rights of relatives to be buried in a closed cemetery. Husbands/wives, fathers/mothers, brothers/sisters were all entitled to be buried alongside their relatives and many were, especially during the 1920s and 1930s.

However, Charles Burnett was moved to take action against the Cemetery trustees when he discovered in 1916 that he would not be able to use the plot he had been encouraged to purchase before the closure. Burnett considered the £15 he had paid for this plot was 'the most expensive land purchase I have yet been guilty of' and comments that he was not told that 'either a member of my family or myself had to depart this life immediately' in order to qualify to hold the land. He asked for his money back and instructed his solicitors to act for himself and others in this matter.

Others took a different route to ensure they could be buried at the main cemetery. The first Modifying Order in Council Closing Wanganui Cemetery was gazetted on 8 Feb 1916 and named 10 people who could be buried at the cemetery, together with their relations. Those listed included William Wilkins, the sexton, and Nicholas Meuli, builder of the Opera House and Collegiate School. A further Modifying Order was gazetted on 15 Feb 1916 to allow Edward Liffiton, ex Mayor, to be buried in the cemetery. Even as late as 1969, Mrs Dorothy Earle and Mrs Ann Earle were granted permission to be buried in the cemetery; although widows of men buried in the Earle family plot, they were not directly related to the original family member buried there.

In 2000, local solicitor John Tripe first contacted the District Council to seek formal reopening of the main cemetery . Following the death of Ted Britton, a local businessman, and his expressed desire to be buried at the cemetery, in June 2001 the Community Services Committee resolved to apply to the Minister of Health to reopen the cemetery. This proposal was notified and on 18 April 2002 the Reopening of Heads Road Cemetery Order was published in the NZ Gazette. The cemetery was reopened from 26 April 2002 for burials of those 'who are descendants of persons buried in the cemetery, provided there is sufficient room to accommodate the extra burial within the existing plot'.

Jewish Cemetery Developments

On 3 June 1902, an agreement was prepared between Messrs JH Keesing and I Salek, representing the Jewish Community, and Wanganui Borough Council by which the unused part of the Jewish cemetery reserve was to be handed over to the Council. This was formalized in 1903 when it became a municipal reserve and in 1904 when it was vested in the Borough Council. The agreement also required the Council to set aside an area for a future Jewish cemetery in the event that a new cemetery was to be established for Wanganui.

By 1950 the Wellington Hebrew Congregation became concerned about the state of the Wanganui Jewish cemetery. By this time, the Jewish community in Wanganui was much reduced in size. In 1956 the Commissioner of Crown Lands asked the City Council to take over responsibility for the Jewish cemetery, which the Council declined. The Wellington Hebrew Congregation then assumed responsibility for the cemetery and advised the Commissioner that it had no objection to the unused portion being used for commercial purposes. By this time, the unused portion was overgrown with boxthorn and had to be cleared before the sexton could investigate to ascertain whether there were any graves in this part of the cemetery reserve. This work was done by January 1957, when the grave of Abraham Goldsmid was uncovered. Following further investigations during 1957, the remains of Mr Goldsmid were moved to the used part of the cemetery on 20 February 1958.

On 22 May 1959, the Commissioner of Crown Lands advised the Town Clerk that the Wellington Hebrew Congregation no longer wished to have responsibility for the Jewish cemetery. The City Council was asked to take on this responsibility with reference being made to the 1902 agreement (see above), but once again declined. However, the City Council did recommend that the unused portion of the cemetery should be transferred to the Transport Department or leased with revenue going towards cemetery maintenance. The site was eventually transferred to the Transport Department where the vehicle testing station is now located. In June 1961, the remaining portion of the Jewish cemetery was declared a public reserve, now known as Section 545 (formerly part of Reserve E), Town of Wanganui.

During the early 1960s, descendants of those buried in the Jewish cemetery wrote a number of letters to the Town Clerk expressing their concern over the state of the cemetery. The inability of the City Council to take responsibility for the cemetery continued to frustrate the Department of Lands and Survey. On 8 March 1967, the Commissioner of Crown Lands wrote to the Town Clerk noting that 'progress has been hindered by the unusual method of administration of this cemetery'. While the land had now been declared a public reserve, it had never been vested in any local authority or trustees and the Department had no powers under the Burials and Cremations Act 1964 to deal with the cemetery. The Commissioner gave 'considerable thought to the best way of dealing with the situation' and proposed that the 1964 Act provisions should be used to clear the headstones, replace them with a common memorial and grass the land to make future maintenance easier. The Department was prepared to pay for this work to be done provided the City Council would agree to accept vesting of the cemetery reserve and take on its future administration. The City Council finally agreed and work began on planning the clearance of the cemetery and design of a memorial.

The Jewish cemetery was officially closed by means of the Wanganui Jewish Cemetery Closing and Clearance Order 1968 that vested control and management of Section 545 with Wanganui City Council (see Appendix 1e of the registration report). The memorial was designed by Anderson Memorials in Wanganui, engraved with the names of those known to have been buried in the Jewish cemetery and finally put in position in 1969. (See Appendix 3b of the registration report, photograph 5).

In September 2004 vandals attacked the Jewish cemetery memorial, breaking part of the stone but not defacing the lettering on the memorial itself. This act of vandalism occurred at a time when a number of Jewish monuments in New Zealand were under attack; the memorial was quickly repaired and reconsecrated on 1 November 2004.

The Catholic Cemetery

The history of the Catholic cemetery differs from the Jewish one in several respects: it was never consecrated, has never been officially closed and retains many original headstones.

Although set aside as a burial ground for Catholics in 1853 when Bishop Viard received a Special Grant, no 77 , for one acre of land, this part of Heads Road Cemetery was not consecrated. This is not unusual, in that no Catholic cemeteries in New Zealand were consecrated for burials. Unfortunately, no early church records exist relating to the establishment of the Catholic cemetery, although the Parish Burial Register indicates that it was in active use, especially for burials of soldiers and their family members, during the 1850s and 1860s. A photograph shows the Catholic cemetery with a neat picket fence surrounding the entire area, indicating that it was well managed at this time (c1860s-1870s). The Catholic cemetery is also shown in the 1863 plan included in the Cemetery Trustees Minute Book, indicating that it was then in active use.

The Catholic cemetery is mentioned in the Crown Grant 6160 dated 15 July 1880 which refers to this as the area marked as 'f' within Reserve L of the Town of Wanganui. The cemetery was the responsibility of St Mary's Parish in Wanganui, never coming under the auspices of the Trustees of the General Cemetery, and was not included in the 1914 closure order for the Wanganui General Cemetery (see Appendix 1a of the registration report).

By 1920, the Catholic cemetery was 'in a rather neglected condition' as noted by Edith Statham of the Department of Internal Affairs. By April 1936, the cemetery was 'about full' and the parish priest contacted Archbishop O'Shea in Wellington to 'again mention the idea of handing it over to the Council' as he considered 'with the present Council I have a big chance of them taking it and it would relieve this Parish of a burden in the future'. The Archbishop replied on 1 May 1936 that there would be no objection to the City Council taking on the Catholic cemetery. In response to Fr Hoare's query about title to the cemetery land, the Archbishop responded that their Chancery appears to have never held the Deeds to the cemetery. Subsequently it was suggested that the Archbishop should apply to the Commissioner of Crown Lands for a certificate of title for the cemetery.

No action appears to have taken place until 1969 when the Diocesan solicitors applied to the District Land Registrar to have title to the cemetery vested in the church. This resulted in the District Land Registrar authorising what he described as 'extensive inquiry and research into both Head Office and District Office records of the Land Transfer Office and the Lands and Survey Department extending back to 1853'. Research undertaken by ML Larsen provides important background information about the Catholic cemetery , including the 1853 Special Grant, and enabled the District Land Registrar to determine that the status of the land was that of unalienated Crown land. On 4 December 1970, the Commissioner of Crown Lands decided that the land known as Reserve F should now be formally reserved for a denominational burial ground and vested in trust with the Roman Catholic Archbishop. The Director-General of Lands agreed and recommended to the Minister of Lands that this vesting should be gazetted. In his 1971 Minutes, the Director-General noted that 'the Catholic Cemetery is not Crown land but a Public Reserve by virtue of the fact that it is shown as such on the original survey plans of the Statutory Authority being the Royal Instructions of 1840 and the New Zealand Company plan'. The Gazette notice was published on 20 May 1971 declaring Reserve F, Town of Wanganui to be a public reserve for the purpose of a cemetery for members of the Roman Catholic faith and was vested with the Archdiocese of Wellington, with reference to Plan 11573 (see Appendix 4c of the registration report). A Certificate of Title 26A/788 was issued on 29 June 1984 and the vesting of the cemetery reserve was subsequently transferred to the Bishop of the Diocese of Palmerston North (see Appendix 1c of the registration report).

By 1987, the parish was negotiating to gift the cemetery to the City Council. At this time, burials were still taking place in family plots and the parish had been organizing working bees to clear the cemetery from the overgrowth of bracken and blackberry. The transfer to the City Council was completed the following year when the vesting with the Archdiocese of Wellington was cancelled and Reserve F was vested with Wanganui City Council, as notified in NZ Gazette 2 June 1988 (see Appendix 1d of the registration report). In 1989, Mrs PH Kaveney donated $700 to enable the City Council to purchase 70 flowering cherry trees that were planted in the oldest part of the cemetery (see Appendix 3b of the registration report, photograph 1).

Soldiers' Graves

The main cemetery contains the graves of at least 17 soldiers who died during the New Zealand Wars, from wounds, drowning or illness, with a further 27 men buried in the Catholic cemetery, although only two of these graves are marked. The condition of the soldiers' graves in Wanganui was first assessed by the Department of Internal Affairs Inspector, Miss Edith Statham, in February 1915. Miss Statham had been appointed Inspector of Soldiers' Graves in 1913, having previously been secretary of the Victoria League graves committee in Auckland.

While in Wanganui on that first visit, Miss Statham met with the Mayor, Town Clerk, chairman of the Cemetery Trustees (Peter Bell), Sexton (William Wilkins), James Burnet (then Tongariro Lodge Grand Master), the Catholic priest and Anglican vicar as well as the local Scout master, who was encouraged to get the Scouts to clean up some of the graves. A full report on the condition of the known graves was sent to James Hislop, Under Secretary, Department of Internal Affairs on 18 February 1915, together with a request that the Department should consider funding the renovation of a number of the headstones. Miss Statham was subsequently asked to obtain an estimate of the cost from Mr AP Anderson, the monumental mason in Wanganui; this amounted to £46 18s 9d and was approved by the Minister of Internal Affairs on 22 May 1915.

By early July 1915 the renovation of the soldiers' graves was under way. This involved recutting inscriptions (with research to ascertain some of the details, especially for the headstone of the shoeing smiths Laycock and Barnet and the Unknown Soldier), lifting the stones and placing them on concrete slabs. This latter task was a requirement of the Borough Council who agreed to take on the responsibility for maintaining the graves, Miss Statham having decided that her initial plan for the Boy Scouts to do this work was a 'most unsatisfactory arrangement'.

In September 1919, the local Society of St Vincent de Paul requested, via Mr WA Veitch, MP, that a monument should be erected at the Catholic cemetery to all the soldiers buried there in unmarked graves. The Department of Internal Affairs was not keen to fund the erection of such a monument at this time but asked Miss Statham for her view on the matter. Miss Statham again visited Wanganui in December 1920 and recommended that a marble cross could be erected at the Catholic cemetery and the names of the soldiers engraved on the base. However, no such memorial was erected at the cemetery; the names of all but one of the soldiers are commemorated on the Soldiers' Monument now located at the base of the Veterans' Steps in Queen's Park, Wanganui.

In 1990, the Department of Internal Affairs commissioned historian, Jim D'Ath, to report on three of the soldiers' graves, those of Jason Hassard of the 57th Regiment and Octavius Lawson and George Jenkins of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment. The Department subsequently spent $10,000 on refurbishing 14 headstones, this work being completed by August 1996.

Today the Ministry for Culture and Heritage's Heritage Operations Unit is responsible for the care in perpetuity of the graves of military casualties from the New Zealand Wars. The Ministry also has responsibility for the graves of those who died as a result of the two World Wars of the 20th century. There are five 'true war graves' from WWI at Heads Road Cemetery, two of them in the Catholic cemetery, and these graves are inspected every two years together with those relating to the New Zealand Wars and refurbished as and when necessary.

The Morgue

The brick building on the northern ridge of the main cemetery was constructed in 1930 as a morgue. The architect was Harry Herbert Stroud of the City Engineer's Department and the contractor AG Bignell. Two sets of plans exist for the morgue. The first were dated 8 October 1928 while those that depict the building actually constructed are dated 1 July 1930 and countersigned by AG Bignell, the contractor, on 6 August 1930. The contract price for the building was £298. (See Appendix 2c of the registration report for plan).

The previous morgue was located on the corner of Taupo Quay and Heads Road. Cemetery Trustees had discussed the need for a mortuary chapel at the cemetery during the 1870s , but no further reference is found in the Trustees Minutes relating to any such building, although it may have been the building referred to on 9 September 1896. By July 1928, the Medical Officer of Health had condemned the old morgue as being in a deplorable condition, noting that 'the building is totally unsuitable for the purpose for which it is used and I must ask your Council to take immediate steps to replace it with a more modern and convenient structure'. The City Council acted on the matter and by September 1928 made application to the Department of Internal Affairs to erect a new public morgue within the boundaries of the cemetery. The application letter notes that the 'proposed location for the morgue is quite the best available, being only shortly distant from the present site...and accessible from all parts of the City'. However, because the location of the proposed morgue was on reserve land, it was subject to legislation. Clause 14 of the Local Legislation Act 1929 enabled the City Council to erect the morgue on a portion of the Cemetery Reserve. The Wanganui Hospital Board was delighted to learn that the 'Council intends to erect a Mortuary in keeping with the demands of a city the size of Wanganui'.

The hospital morgue, probably also built in the 1930s, now serves as the main morgue for Wanganui. The morgue at the cemetery is leased for storage but is retained for use as a back-up morgue in the event of a pandemic or other disaster.


The cemetery morgue became a focus of attention following the Tangiwai rail disaster on Christmas Eve 1953. Farmers and their families all along the Whangaehu River valley from Field's Track down to Mangamahu and Kauangaroa played an important role in retrieving bodies of victims which were then brought to Wanganui for identification before transshipment back up to Waiouru. The role of the Mangamahu farmers in this tragedy is little known outside Wanganui; families gave up their Christmas and Boxing Day celebrations to take part in the massive search, working alongside police and Search and Rescue volunteers. At Kauangaroa marae, Gray Matthews organized some 30-40 young Maori men to patrol the river; in doing so he gave up the opportunity of going to Rotorua to meet the Queen.

Of the 131 bodies eventually retrieved, 62 were found by Wanganui people and processed through the cemetery morgue as well as the nearby newly built Army Drill Hall that was commissioned as a temporary morgue once the scale of the disaster became clear. The impact of the police traffic in and around the morgue on Boxing Day meant the Cemetery Circuit motorcycle race had to be stopped for the only time in its history (it was to have been stopped in the early afternoon as the enormity of the tragedy became clear, although the wet weather that day also hampered racing, according to the newspaper report).

Cemetery Circuit

The motorcycle race known as the 'Cemetery Circuit' started in 1951 when, for the first time in New Zealand, public streets were closed off for motor racing. Practice runs were held that first Boxing Day with the actual races held the following day (27 December 1951). Wanganui motorcyclist, Rod Coleman, was the instigator of the event that was conducted by the Wanganui Sports Motor-cycle Club. From the beginning, the Cemetery Circuit has attracted competitors of standing; the first event attracted three world-class contestants and one world record holder. The Boxing Day event has grown over the years, now attracting crowds in excess of 10,000. Although the term 'cemetery circuit' was used by the Wanganui Chronicle to describe the first event in 1951, the usual name given to the races in the early years was 'Round the Houses'.

The Cemetery Circuit is an important part of Wanganui's sporting history, having been held for more than 50 years on the same circuit. Stopped only once in 1953, as the enormity of the Tangwai disaster became clear, and not held for 3 years between 1963-1965, due to a proposal to put through a motorway, it has become the oldest continuously used motorsport venue in New Zealand.

The race circuit begins (and ends) on Ridgway Street, going along Wilson Street, Taupo Quay, Heads Road, Guyton Street, and back to Ridgway Street. The circuit does not bisect the cemetery but there are management issues relating to the event and its impact on the cemetery (for further information see Appendix 7 of the registration report).

Heritage Interest

The Wanganui Old Cemetery Heritage Walk was published in July 1997 as one of the Heritage Trails in and around Wanganui. The heritage trail was researched and compiled in 1996 by Historical Society and Historic Places Trust Branch Committee members, June and Randal Springer and Judith Crawley.

Guided walks around the cemetery are organized upon request; prior to his death in 2004, Randal Springer was a popular guide as he had a particular interest in the soldiers' graves and had been researching Wanganui's military history for a number of years. More recently, the Whanganui Branch of the Historic Places Trust has organised guided walks around the cemetery; for example, a Cemetery Walk was included in the March 2006 programme for the Artists Open Studios Weekends that proved to be very popular.

Family historians are frequent visitors to the cemetery. People come to Wanganui from other parts of New Zealand as well as abroad to research their family, usually combining research at the Alexander Library and the Regional Museum with a visit to Heads Road.

Local people have shown concern and interest for the cemetery on a number of occasions. The proposal in 1999 by local photographer, John Souter, to remove the cupola commemorating Joseph Hart, an aerated water manufacturer, was greeted with protests from many in the community. Souter wished to relocate the cupola at Kowhai Park to serve as a birdcall station. The Mayor, Chas Poynter, intervened and the decision was taken that the cupola should remain at the Cemetery. In 2001, the Scots pines on the ridge alongside Ridgway Street were to be felled. Again, local people had concerns about this as the pines are a distinctive part of the cemetery landscape; the proposal to fell the trees was reversed.

The development of a 'Friends' group for the cemetery began in 1978 under the auspices of the Whanganui Historical Society. Local historian, Athol Kirk, was chairman of the group that encouraged the erection of headstones on important unmarked graves. The Friends were responsible for arranging a headstone for William Hogg Watt and his wife in 1979; Wanganui's first Mayor had no headstone erected after his death in 1893. While the Historical Society and Historic Places Trust Branch Committee encouraged the renovation of headstones over the ensuing years, the 'Friends' group itself did not develop any further as an independent body. Proposals from the Historic Places Trust Branch Committee to re-establish a Friends group in 2005 received a warm response, with a number of people attending the first working bee in October 2006.

Physical Description

Heads Road Cemetery covers an area of approx 3.4 hectares in total, bounded by Ridgway Street to the north, Guyton Street to the west and industrial sites to the south and east. It is bisected by Heads Road which runs from Guyton Street to Taupo Quay between the main cemetery (also known as the General Cemetery) (2.6 hectares in size) and the Roman Catholic (8094 sq metres) and Jewish cemeteries (520 sq metres). The area is primarily flat apart from the sandy ridge along Ridgway Street and the distinctive mound near the Guyton St/Heads Rd corner.

The landscape of the cemetery is enhanced by numerous trees, including the distinctive Scots pines on the Ridgway Street ridge, yews which mark the avenue leading from the original Heads Road entrance, flowering cherries in the oldest part of the Catholic cemetery, plus camellias and a variety of native and exotic specimens, including a number of large macrocarpas. Agapanthuses line some of the edges of the cemetery and have self-seeded in other areas including a number of gravesites. The cemetery has a grass sward that is mown regularly by District Council contractors.

The Guyton Street entrance has relatively new cast iron gates and rails (erected in 1997) but the rest of the main cemetery has a low wooden post and rail fence delineating the boundary. The Catholic cemetery has no fence along Heads Road although the Jewish one has the same low wooden post and rail fence as the main cemetery. Corrugated iron fences surround the boundaries, which are adjacent to industrial buildings on the perimeters of the cemetery. The Cemetery Circuit organisers erect safety fences for their race day; some permanent fence posts have already been put in place on the southeastern corner of the cemetery. (See Appendix 3 of the registration report for photographs).

The cemetery is generally well maintained by the District Council, with the grass mown on a regular basis as well as some weed control. Most of the monuments are in a good condition but many require repairs, cleaning or renovation/duplication of inscriptions. Several historic headstones have restored or new inscriptions (e.g. Gilfillan headstone and Richard Taylor memorial) and many families have restored or replaced their own inscriptions.

Comparative information

To help establish the significance of Heads Road Cemetery, the following information is supplied about early European public cemeteries elsewhere in New Zealand, starting with those established for the other three New Zealand Company settlements:


Bolton Street was established in 1841 close to the centre of Wellington for use as a public cemetery. It was later subdivided into three sectarian areas in 1851 (for Anglican, non-conformist and Jewish burials) with the separate Mount Street Cemetery for Catholic burials. Bolton Street was closed in 1892 when Karori Cemetery opened. The building of the motorway in the 1970s resulted in the destruction of much of Bolton Street, with many bodies exhumed and buried elsewhere and monuments shifted. Today the remaining area is known as Bolton Street Memorial Park with an active 'Friends' group providing information and guided tours.


Wakapuaka Cemetery dates from 1842 and was in constant use until 1952 when Marsden Valley, behind Stoke, was developed as the new main cemetery for Nelson. Located 12km northeast of Nelson, Wakapuaka has sections for Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Wesleyan and Jewish burials, with many new areas having been added to the original layout. Burials can still take place in family plots, space permitting.

New Plymouth:

Te Henui was opened in 1861 as the public cemetery for New Plymouth. Prior to this date, most burials took place in churchyards such as St Mary's. Although burials can still take place at Te Henui, Awanui is now New Plymouth's main public cemetery. Te Henui 'serves mainly as a heritage cemetery rich in local history and monuments' as noted on the District Council's web site.

The other public cemetery in New Zealand dating from the 1840s:


Symonds Street originally comprised cemeteries for those of different faiths: Anglican (consecrated in 1842), Jewish (land granted 1843), Catholic (land granted 1852), Presbyterian (land granted 1869) and Wesleyan (land granted 1872). The cemeteries were closed in 1886 when Waikumete cemetery was opened as the main public cemetery in Auckland. The Symonds Street cemeteries were subsequently affected by the construction of the Grafton Bridge (c1905) and the extension of the southern motorway in the 1960s.

On the North Shore, the cemeteries at Mt Victoria were first used in the early 1850s, with separate sections developed for those of Anglican, Wesleyan, Presbyterian and Catholic faiths. Mt Victoria cemetery was closed in 1891 when O'Neills Point Cemetery was opened.

Early cemeteries in other major urban areas:


The oldest cemetery was Barbadoes Street which was laid out shortly after the first four ships with Canterbury Association settlers arrived at Lyttelton in December 1850. (The Canterbury Association was an offshoot of the New Zealand Company.) Rutherford Street (Woolston) Cemetery was used from 1852 but served as the parish cemetery for St John the Evangelist. The Presbyterians set up Addington Cemetery in 1858 as the first de facto public cemetery in Christchurch that was open to members of any religious community. It was officially closed in 1980. The main public cemetery for Christchurch is Linwood, which was established in 1883.


The Southern Cemetery was first opened in 1857 and remained in use until 1980. It has recently been registered as a Category I Historic Place, including the morgue built in 1903. The Northern Cemetery was also first proposed in 1857 but did not open until 1872. It has also recently been registered as a Category I Historic Place. Full details of the history of these cemeteries can be obtained from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust registration reports.

In other provincial towns:

Napier's first public cemetery, the Old Napier Cemetery on Napier Hill, was first established in 1857. The Oamaru cemetery was opened in 1866. In Palmerston North, the first public cemetery (now the site of the showgrounds) was replaced in 1875 by Terrace End Cemetery, which in turn was replaced with Kelvin Grove Cemetery in 1927.

Recognition of Cemeteries as Historic Places

Until the June 2006 registration of the Northern and Southern Cemeteries in Dunedin, the NZHPT Register had no public cemeteries registered as historic places. In the Whanganui regional area, Parewanui Presbyterian Cemetery near Bulls is registered (Category II) and the Wheriko Church, also near Parewanui (Category I Historic Place) includes a graveyard. No other churchyards or cemetery memorials are registered in Wanganui, Rangitikei or Ruapehu districts.

Recognition of New Zealand Company heritage sites

There are no registered sites in or near Wanganui associated with the New Zealand Company; registration of Heads Road Cemetery fills an important gap in the registration of historic places dating from the earliest European settlement of New Zealand.

Notable Features

Heads Road Cemetery contains many notable memorials, both those that commemorate individuals and events of significance to Wanganui and New Zealand history as well as monuments that serve as particular examples of the art of monumental masonry (see Appendix 6 of the registration report).

The morgue, built in 1930 to serve as public morgue with a chapel at one end, is the only building on the site.

Construction Dates

1842 -
Site identified for a cemetery by the New Zealand Company on plans for Petre, the original name given to the town of Wanganui.

Original Construction
1843 -
The first known burial in the 'Sandhills Cemetery' (the first name given to Heads Road Cemetery) of James Bailey who had drowned in the Whanganui River.

1878 -
Cemetery reserve extended when Guyton Street extension formed .

1908 -
Sexton's cottage erected on unused cemetery reserve north of ridge. Architect: Thomas Battle; builder: Jensen & Barnes.

1909 -
Brick fence erected along Guyton Street by John Jones; architect: Thomas Battle. This was demolished in 1969

1930 -
Morgue building erected, to replace previous wooden building which was condemned by Department of Health in 1928.

1997 -
Guyton Street entrance gates erected.

2004 -
Vandals damage Jewish memorial which is quickly repaired.

1854 -
First known burial in the Catholic cemetery

1915 - 2002
Cemetery closed

2002 -
Cemetery reopened for burials of descendants

1870 -
First burial in the Jewish cemetery

1915 -
First set of restoration to military graves

1968 -
Jewish cemetery closing, authorisation given for the removal of monuments

1996 -
Restoration of military graves

Construction Details

The headstones in the cemetery are primarily made of sandstone, granite, marble and concrete. Several grave surrounds are made of shell rock sourced from Harbour Board quarries at Kaiwhaiki on the Whanganui River. The morgue is a brick building with corrugated iron roof.

Completion Date

15th May 2007

Report Written By

Wendy Pettigrew

Information Sources

Department of Internal Affairs

Department of Internal Affairs

Soldiers' Graves- Wanganui, Ref 1A 7/4/58

Wanganui District Council

Wanganui District Council

Cemetery files 1916-2005, Archives refs aaf: 71/1914.203, 72/113, 73/33/4, 73/33/1, 4/11/12, 5/13/2, 5/13/2A and 34/02/001; Wanganui General Cemetery Trustees, Minute Books 1 and 2, 1863-1915, Archives ref 178:1-178:2/abm

Other Information

A fully referenced version of the registration report is available from the Central Regional Office.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.