City's dead help bring region's history to life

TRACEY CHATTERTON
Last updated 05:00 08/02/2014

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It's not your usual history lesson, taking place above the buried bones of Hawke's Bay's earliest settlers. Gail Pope and Peter Wells are back at Napier Cemetery this year hosting summer tours to help raising money for the cemetery's up-keep. The tour costs $12.

As expected, local luminaries such as the missionary the Rev William Colenso (1811-1899) and politician Sir Donald McLean (1820-1877) are buried in the city's oldest cemetery. But they also share the space with many less-notable characters with their own colourful tales, such as women left for dead during the land wars and a swimmer mauled by a shark.

Ms Pope said the land atop of Napier Hill was set aside in 1851 because the elevated cemetery offered a closer link to God.

But some were allowed closer than others, with social standing rigidly maintained even in death. The Anglicans have central plots, flanked by Catholics and Presbyterians. Further down is the Jewish area, just a stone's throw away from the penniless at the bottom of the hill, veiled in shade.

Rev Colenso lies near the wrought iron entranceway, but Ms Pope prefers sharing the stories of ordinary people.

She points out the shattered headstone marking the grave of Alice Wilson, who died on December 17, 1868. During the land wars, Te Kooti's Hauhaus raided Captain Wilson's rural home where he was stabbed in front of his wife and four children.

Just one child, James, got away. Days later, he found his wounded mother still alive and helped her scrawl a note for help. Neighbours came to her aid but she died in hospital.

John Robottom's headstone states he was "accidentally killed on the Napier Railway" on November 11, 1878.

A little liquored up from a day at the Farndon Fete, the 29-year-old slipped while "skylarking about" on the outside platform of the train, Ms Pope said. He was hit by the carriage behind.

Another grave, marked with a pillar, covers the body of Bright Cooper. He was swimming off Marine Parade on December 20, 1896, when an onlooker saw a tail rise up in the air and the man disappeared.

Allen Sweet swam out and pulled Mr Cooper ashore while the shark shadowed them. But Mr Cooper was dead before he reached the dressing shed, Ms Pope said.

Another Napier Swimming Club member replaced his headstone when it was damaged in the 1931 earthquake.

Many of the graves still bear cracks from the quake and some of them mark its victims.

Earthquake victim Edith Barry was pinned beneath the rubble of St John's Cathedral.

A group of men tried to lift the beam off her but it was too heavy. As fire broke out a doctor injected Mrs Barry with morphine to ease her agonising death.

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Ms Pope said those were just a few of the stories the headstones can tell about the region's history.

- The Dominion Post

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