Anyone wandering the grounds of Purewa Cemetery, chancing on a name or eulogy or tragic account, will learn much about Auckland’s history and culture.
So many significant names of New Zealanders appear here: leaders in public service, medicine, education, justice, industry, commerce, art and literature; notable clergy, philanthropists, pioneers and war heroes – lives that helped shape our society, or touched our own lives.
Today, more than 125 years after the cemetery’s opening, the Purewa archives are the subject of a research project to document ‘names of significance’ in Auckland’s history. The project is led by Purewa Trust Board Chairman John Priestley and Massey University Professor of History Peter Lineham.
Many of the plaques and headstones bear household names like Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon and Premier Sir William Fox. Captain of both All Blacks and industry, Sir Wilson Whineray, is also interred here along with colourful characters like the great political cartoonist Sir Gordon Minhinnick, motorcycling legend Len Perry and the inimitable ‘Listen… it’s a goal’ sports commentator, Winston McCarthy.
But perhaps the first memory should be of an unnamed infant from Surrey Hills, Ponsonby; the 15-month-old was the first person to be buried in Purewa Cemetery, in January 1889.
Prior to this date most burials took place in Symonds St cemetery, which closed in 1886, or the newly opened Waikumete, west of the city.
In 1886 Bishop Cowie requested the Anglican Synod to consider establishing a more central cemetery on church land. Around 52 acres on the St John’s College Estate were set apart, and the new Purewa Cemetery was consecrated by the Bishop in 1889.
Purewa is the resting place of trailblazers in diverse fields – George Bolt, father of NZ air mail and passenger services; Sir Owen Woodhouse, judge, law reformist and architect of ACC; Sir Denis Blundell, Governor-General; and educationalists like Mary Ethelred Pulling, founding headmistress of Diocesan School for Girls, and James Tibbs, Auckland Grammar headmaster for 29 years.
There are many who gave humble service – brave nurses like Cora Anderson and Hilda Bloomfield, decorated for service on the Eastern Front in WW1. Others gave their lives for their country, such as Lieutenant Commander William Edward Sanders VC, DSO, the only New Zealander to win the Victoria Cross in naval action.