Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Far beyond this world of changes - Kuaotunu Cemetery.

 An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Mercury Bay Informer (9/2/2016)
Thank you to Stephan Bosman, Editor, for permission to publish the full story on this blog and for use of his photos

For an informative read on all the news from the eastern side of the Coromandel Peninsula -  click for your copy of this great paper here  www.theinformer.co.nz

If you are researching Kuaotunu families please email

kuaotunuhall@gmail.com   A Kuaotuna Hall website is currently being built and will include the school roll, cemetery list and Roll of Honour for WW1.  

Among the very few headstones still standing in the Kuaotunu cemetery is one that is highly descriptive of our perilous pioneer past.  It details fatal childhood accidents, death in childbirth, stillbirth and what was a calamitous blow to a family of that era - the death at a young age of a husband, father and provider.   On 14 August, 1900, the small daughter of Georgina and John Ferguson, Hazel, aged two years and three months, was being driven, along with her brother, in a spring trap, by an aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs F A Marshall. The horse shied and the trap and occupants were thrown over an embankment near Mr J Knight’s house.  The boy escaped uninjured, but Hazel’s neck was broken.  The Marshall’s were slightly injured while Mr T Cunningham, who was holding the horses after the accident, was thrown into a ditch and had his shoulder dislocated. Hazel’s funeral at Kuaotunu cemetery, where the service was read by Mr. James, Wesleyan minister, was very largely attended.  Two years later her parents placed a long poem which appears to have been composed by them, in the Memoriam section of the NZ Herald which poignantly refers to Hazel’s “dimpled hand” and how “into the shadow of death away from our arms her form was hurled.”
In 1906 tragedy again struck the family when Douglas, aged seven, died on November 21 at the Mercury Bay Hospital after an unspecified “painful illness” which could possibly refer to any of the numerous childhood illnesses of the time for which successful treatments were then not available.
One year later, the mother of the family, Georgina, known as ‘Daisy’, died in childbirth, a not uncommon occurrence.  It appears the child, George, died as well – Georgina’s’ death and the stillbirth of George both occurring in 1907.
The father of the family, John Bunyan Ferguson, a gold miner, died in 1912, aged only 39, probably leaving the family at the mercy of financial hardship.
Others of this family, described interestingly as “surviving members”, are also noted on the headstone - buried variously at Mercury Bay, Coromandel, Palmerston North and Surrey, England.


It is likely Hazel Ferguson from the previous story died near the home of Joseph Knight, who was for many years the County Road Overseer at Kuaotunu, supporting a wife, Charlotte, and large family.   An old colonist and resident of Coromandel County for about 16 years, he followed mining at Coromandel; prior to that working as a coal miner at Whangarei.  Sadly these occupations were his undoing - for the last few years of his life he suffered from miner’s complaint.  Miner’s complaint – or silicosis or miners phthisis - was a dreaded chronic lung disease common among miners.  It was slow to develop and symptoms did not appear until years after exposure.  The disease was brutal – shortness of breath, severe cough, fatigue, fever and eventual death.  Ill health forced Joseph to give up his job with the county and towards the end he suffered a great deal.  When he died on 16 May, 1907, aged 54, he was praised as a trustworthy and reliable official and highly respected throughout the county. Often in these cases the community would rally round starting up a subscription to help the family financially.  The Miners Phthisis Act 1915 eventually provided financial compensation and led to improved working conditions.

Robert Ritchie lies in Kuaotunu cemetery too.  The ‘beloved husband of Mary’ died on January 9, 1940 aged 79 years.  Robert Ritchie was a proprietor of the Kuaotunu Hotel, the acquisition being noted in November 1897 in the Thames Advertiser  – “The Kuaotunu Hotel has changed hands, Mr Robert Ritchie having purchased the furniture and goodwill from Mr Charles Cowan.”
Robert was previously a miner and later, a famer for some 30 years, a man who had a great store of reminisces of the Kuaotunu area.  He remembered the early district as “. . . four stores, several butcher shops, three bakeries, one tailor, two drapers and a drug store and everything that was required was to be had at our door.”  In his day crowds of young men walked the 12 miles to Mercury Bay for a game of football and about 10pm walked back to Kuaotunu.  Miners were a “fine body of men”, there was no crime in Kuaotunu, police were unnecessary and doors stayed unlocked. In 1920 the Kuaotunu Hotel was dismantled and transported to Pukemiro where it was re-erected as a boarding house for the coal miners. After that Kuaotunu became a dry area. At a 1932 Mercury Bay Women’s Institute meeting he is mentioned as reading from  ’Early Days in Kuaotunu’ by Robert Ritchie, indicating his nostalgia for the district.  His was probably among the last burials there, the cemetery closing three years after his death.


Unmarked, but in the cemetery is the grave of the unnamed infant daughter of Dr and Mrs Barnes, who died in August 1900.
Doctor Barnes came to Kuaotunu in 1896 - a popular and sociable man who travelled great distances by horseback to attend the ill and injured from Mercury Bay to Whangapoua. He was engaged by the Kuaotunu Medical Fund committee, which employed him on a salary, without any government assistance.  About 12 months later, in September 1897, the Mercury Bay Hospital Board took control of the district and Dr Barnes was attached to their staff, while still living in Kuaotunu.    When the new hall was opened in 1897 Dr Barnes was there playing piano to a “bumper house.”  The accidents and injuries which befell his patients were sometimes out of his scope , such as when in June 1897 he attended Thomas Moore, employed in the Venus mine, who his left hand shattered by the premature explosion of a dynamite charge .   Dr Barnes recommended his removal to the Auckland Hospital.  Poor Moore rode to Coromandel with a mate, arriving at 6.30pm after a most trying and painful journey over bad roads, before travelling on to Auckland.
In 1901, almost a year after their child’s death, Dr and Mrs Barnes were farewelled at a social at Ritchie’s Hall.  Dr Barnes had decided to leave Kuaotunu to take up part of his brother’s practice in England.  The well attended and very enjoyable social was testament to the popularity the doctor had gained both professionally and personally.  Dancing continued until about 10pm when a representative of the Mercury Bay Hospital Board presented Dr Barnes with a valuable diamond ring and Mrs Barnes a silver cake basket inscribed with her monogram.  Dr Barnes thanked those present and stated that his work had been comparatively easy due to the manner he had been treated by the people of Kuaotunu.  The Barnes’ left by steamer for Auckland, where they spent a few days, before proceeding on their way to England.  “He will be missed by both young and old,” said the Auckland Star.  But there was no mention of the daughter lost the year before and left behind in the Kuaotunu cemetery, a sign of the times when bereaved parents were expected to show great stoicism in those days of frequent infant mortality.


James Richard Shaw Wilson was a mine manager who died at Kuaotunu on 10 December, 1901, after a “long and painful illness”, aged 56.  He was also a member of the Kuaotunu Syndicate, established in 1890.   By June 1901 the Kuaotunu Syndicate had a good staff – some 17 or 18 men were connected with the pump and mine while several others were reported as being in the bush getting timber.  James Wilson’s health though was failing and it was reported George Horne was taking over management with James retiring because of ill health. He and his wife Sarah had ten children, perhaps not the hardship it might have been on a mine manager's pay. For a few years after his death his “sorrowing family” inserted long poems and prose in his memory, one asking “Lancaster papers please copy.”  Although obviously grief stricken for a time,  his widow Sarah went on to re-marry Lewis Woodcock.  Lewis died in 1928 and Sarah three years later, in 1931, at Waitaia, Mercury Bay.  Sarah was buried at Kuaotunu, the mourners being taken there first by motor launch and afterwards cars.  Mr William Lee, Whitianga, conducted the burial service and as a testament to the high regard she was held in almost every resident of Kuaotunu was present at her graveside. 


Although the cemetery was in use from 1888, one of the first recognised burials at Kuaotunu cemetery wasn’t until December 1892 - that of the small daughter of George Loram, proprietor of the Kuaotunu Hotel.  The two and a half year old was “taken bad” on a Friday evening and died the following day from the effects of sunstroke.
By 1896 the cemetery was sadly neglected as a letter to the editor of the Auckland Star describes.  ‘Eyesore’ complained of the disgraceful state of the cemetery as well as the road leading to it.  Fern and ti-tree had been allowed to grow to such a height that the few fences and tombstones around the graves were obliterated from view.  During summer months the cemetery was in danger of catching fire.  A road had been roughly formed with a ditch cut on each side and the earth being tossed into the centre, rendering it practically impassable.  A canal, cut for the drainage of water from the mine batteries, lacked a bridge, which for a few paltry pounds could be erected, while metal on hand could be used to make the road fit for traffic.  On 8 April, 1903, a public meeting was held to nominate trustees for the care and maintenance of the cemetery, among them Sarah Wilson and Robert Richie who eventually ended up buried there. The committee raised funds to carry out much needed improvement to the five acre cemetery by socials, dances subsidies and subscriptions.
The cemetery closed in 1943.  Sixty five pioneers of the district were buried there.  Although scarcely any headstones are still standing, their stories remain.

N Z Herald, 9 December 1905


Source:  Papers Past, This is Kuaotunu – R A Simpson.
Photo credits - Stephan Bosman, Mercury Bay Informer.
Thanks to Anne Stewart Ball for sharing local knowledge.

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2016