Symonds Street Cemetery

Symonds Street Cemetery, Auckland’s oldest graveyard, opened in 1842 and full of forgotten souls and a disturbing history… Some are long forgotten here for the more typical reasons such as lost or stolen markers, vandalism, tombstone decay or the fact that they never had/could afford a grave marker in the first place, but more so for the reason that the large Catholic section of the cemetery was dug up in the 1960s to make way for the motorway that many Aucklanders now drive over daily.  Not only were the bodies exhumed from this area, many of the original marble and sandstone headstones and ornate statues were actually used as motorway filler (somehow this was okay with Auckland residents at the time, or the Council did as it so pleased and any objections were ignored)…

The houses nearby to the cemetery had issues with embalming chemicals like arsenic and cyanide contaminating their water supply from the nearby decaying bodies…

Originally it was thought that 2000 graves would be affected, once the removal work began 4100 bodies were discovered, more than double what was recorded and expected.  Due to the inconsistencies caused by fires in archive offices and incomplete records from individual churches some names have been lost, most are acknowledged on the plaques near the motorway, however there are vague listings such as ‘child’ and ‘infant’, appearing without first names or dates. There are also a few recent additions alongside the original plaques… it’s humbling to see that those names added are remembered at last.  A lesser number of graves were also removed to make way for the Grafton Bridge, and many headstones complete with ornate rusty railings still reside under the bridge today.

The unearthed remains were cremated and put into a mass grave where the memorial plaques stand today.  There was no record kept of jewellery found when the remains were removed from their original graves. It is possible that many precious rings and other jewels could have been stolen during the process, as it was traditional for Victorian women to be buried wearing their wedding rings.

On a recent tour on the heritage of Symonds Street Cemetery I heard of the tragic ending of Emily Keeling, she had a persistent stalker who followed her on her way to church one day in 1886, she asked the creep to leave her and her family alone after he was not getting the message, and he shot her dead in the street, shortly before killing himself. Emily rests in peace nearby to Grafton Bridge with her husband George.

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It’s not always pretty at Symonds Street Cemetery, in the past the park has suffered anti-semitic vandalism to the Jewish headstones, swastikas are still visible on some of the headstones nearby to the the mortuary chapel, which was previously used for embalming and the traditional watching of deceased bodies for 3 days and 3 nights.  This building is seldom used now and privately owned.

Nature is ultimately destroying and reclaiming many graves in this cemetery which is recognized as a Catergory I Historical Place… But this could also be seen as a symbol of new life.  The trees are not removed by the council as they are native and therefore protected.

Trees are beginning to engulf rusty metal railings, and tree roots are rising causing cracks in the tombstones…

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After the Symonds Street Cemetery closed for new burials (aside from family plots) in 1886, Waikumete Cemetery became the city’s new and ultimately largest graveyard, with bodies sent out West from Central Auckland by special funeral trains (I previously posted about Waikumete here, and about Glen Eden train station being haunted here). Symonds Street Cemetery became a park in 1909 managed by Auckland Council.

Check out Symonds Street Cemetery if you’re in town and want a break from the hustle of city life, just be aware of homeless people under the bridge at night because K Road has a crazy reputation!

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40 thoughts on “Symonds Street Cemetery

  1. Hi There
    Great info
    I have been trying to find my great great grandfather who died 1876, 2 daughters (1 month), died 1876 and (7 years) 1879..
    They were recorded in the Anglican St Paul’s register as being buried at Symonds st cemetery but the reference numbers I was told were book entries numbers not grave sites.
    He served in the 58th Regiment 1849 – 1858 when he paid for his discharge. I assumed he may have been buried in the military section which I was told was at the bottom of the gully, now covered by the motorway. Is it possible to find any information at all, also I don’t believe they had headstones?

    Cheers Harri

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  2. A couple of weeks ago we found the grave of our great great great grandmother (Alicia Howell) who was buried in the Symonds Street Cemetery in 1873. We were really happy to have found her! Her gravestone is in good shape, it’s legible but has fallen half forward. Do you know the procedure to have it put right, or are these things just left to be … ?

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    1. Hi Jo, sorry for the late reply! That is great to hear you found her resting place. In my experience, if you contact a headstone business they could arrange to come onsite to repair the headstone. I think it’s great to restore the graves to their former glory :)

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  3. Hi
    I am tying to confirm that three Donaldson Children were buried in the Symond Street Cemetery 1860 to 1864. Who can I go to for some help>
    Regards Viv

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    1. Sorry there are no Donaldson’s on the images I have of the Catholic mass plot, but that’s not to say they aren’t buried elsewhere in the cemetery, I recommend contacting the council for more information, all the best with your search!

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  4. Wow, this is a great post! I was just researching my family graves and discovered that some of my people were in those Catholic graves that were removed. I had no idea! I’ll definitely be checking it out the next time I am in town (I’m an Aucklander living in the US). But for now it’s great to see your pictures. I’m going to have a look at your link to Waikumete – the rest of the family is out there.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, that would be fantastic! Thank you! I was looking all over the internet but couldn’t find any good shots that I could read or lists of the names. I will be in Auckland in a month or two, but I’m impatient ;)
        I’m looking at Patrick Coyle (or Colylew?) and his wife Ann, or Mary Ann, and Charles Crain (or Grain) Benjamin (or Benhamin). Some or all of them might have been in the removed graves or listed on the headstones that were crushed :(

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      2. My gt gt grandmother was buried in the Catholic section of Symonds St and I believe was one of the sites that was dug up for the motorway. I assume the names on the mass grave were only for those who were identifiable by a gravestone? Her husband’s family is buried in the Anglican section on the other side of the road and do not have gravestones, apart from his sister and her family, so I am guessing she wouldn’t have had one either. Her name was Bridget Smith and she died in 1885. Coming up tomorrow for a family funeral so will definitely try to get into CBD to take a look.

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        1. Sorry to hear about the funeral, I had a look for her name on the photos I took in the Catholic section but unfortunately didn’t see any Smith’s listed. I did notice that some of the maiden names are listed below the husbands surname, so they aren’t always in alphabetical order on the mass grave. Did you manage to find her?

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  5. I’m doing research on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, and we are keen to locate any military person who was buried in Symonds St. The Waikumete Cemetery unfortunately does not have a list of those remains cremated and interred in a common plot. Is there a faint possibilty that you made a list of the names on the headstones??
    Thank you
    Flt Lt Noel G Smith (Rtd)

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      1. Good Morning,
        No I don’t have specific names yet. The logic we are following is to capture as many cemetery digital records nationwide into one database and then using a program script compare that with the Military database compiled from embarkation lists in an attempt to find a match. It’s the only way where the final location of a Service person can be determined. The brief is to record DOB, service Career, DOD and where buried on all service persons from the NZ Wars up to the current conflicts. Who will manage the final Database records has yet to be determined. It could be the MOD, or RNZRSA or even passing the data to the Auckland Cenotaph structure.
        The main names I was interested from the Symonds Street cemetery are those who were in the NZ Wars (1861-1864).
        I have to say I have had 100% support from all the Councils nationwide and have received many digital records. The Auckland Council are preparing a full digital dump of the 50 Cemeteries in the Auckland area, which will trap those moved from Symonds Street to Waikumete where a tombstone was erected. To have the names of those in that bulk burial would complete the picture.
        If you can advise any names it would help. I gather this blog will show my email address but if it doesn’t it is noelgsmith42@gmail.com
        Look forward to your comments
        Noel

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          1. Thank you for the prompt response. Yes it is daunting when you look at the numbers. I’m hoping to share the research tasks with others from the RSA
            Cheers

            Liked by 1 person

      2. Sorry, I forgot to comment in my last reply. Are the graves that remain intact in the Symonds Street cemetery available digitally? I’m not sure if it will be in the Data from the Auckland Council, but if you have such a list it would be nice to have
        Thanks
        Noel

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  6. Hi there nice snaps.
    Just a wee correction. Emily KEELING was not married, she was only 17 years old – her mother was also named Emily. She was the daughter of George and Emily KEELING. I think that’s where your confusion here lies. Her parents are buried with her. A blogpost I completed a few years back
    http://invokinglibitina.blogspot.co.nz/2010/03/murder-of-emily-keeling-auckland-1886_06.html
    and here’s her actual headstone https://flic.kr/p/yqHDKk
    Cheers
    Sandy

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  7. Great photos. I cannot picture what the area (now bridged) between Upper Symonds Street and Karangahape Road would have looked like before the motorways and the bridge now spanning them. Do you know what sort of access there was from Upper Symonds Street down to the intersection where K Road meets Grafton Bridge? Did the road dip down into the gully and back up the other side?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It looks that way! With a lot of bush. Have you seen the sign on the KRd part of the cemetery? There’s and old black and white photo that shows the gully that’s worth a look

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  8. I love the aesthetics of abandoned buildings, cars, and cemeteries… this is a wonderful place and your photos really make it especially pleasing… a wabi sabi feeling and glad I found your blog site…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post! Cemeteries are always an enjoyable shoot. We’ve been lucky here (in Chicago) that, though we’re a pretty big dense city, some of our oldest graveyards have been immaculately well maintained. One doesn’t have to look far to see that that isn’t always the case.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, I love the Northland country side! Symonds Street/K Rd are really close to the Southern and Western Motorways but that doesn’t help you much!
      So coming from the North, you could exit at Fanshawe St (exit 424A), continue straight and it becomes Custom Street East, (continue past Queen St because it’s ‘no right turn’) turn right onto Anzac Ave (up the hill), follow straight for a while until it becomes Symonds Steet (there are places to park on Symonds Street, either on the side of the road pay and display, or in parking buildings) then the cemetery is at the next major intersection – corner of Symonds St and Karangahape Rd.
      Make sure you check out both sides because they are really different (the Symonds Street side will be on your left by the public toilets with stairs leading down to the cemetery (next to Grafton Bridge), and then afterwards you can cross the intersection on foot to get to the K Rd side which looks like a park in the view from the intersection but goes down the gully towards the motorway) Hope this helps! :)

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