War vets in forgotten cemetery

03:35, Aug 23 2014
Field of bones
FORGOTTEN FIELD: Maurie Zinsli is the great-nephew of Maria Zinsli, who is buried in a grassy field among hundreds of other people who were treated at Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital and ended up dying there.

In a forgotten paddock in no-man's land, the bodies of war veterans who died in a Waikato mental asylum lie in unmarked graves.

The Waikato Times can reveal veterans from World War I and the Boer War are buried in the field, though there is nothing to indicate where in the dirt their bodies lie.

Many of these men suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome - known then as "shell-shock" - from the wars and found themselves transported to Tokanui Hospital, where they ended their days.

A corroded plaque is the only reminder of more than 500 souls who lived and died at Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital in the southern Waikato.

"Tokanui Hospital Cemetery, 1914-1964," it reads. "May the 500-plus people buried here Rest in Peace."

The number is vague because it is unclear how many people are buried in the paddock, which is surrounded by an AgResearch farm.


Amid condemnation of the lack of dignity, there are calls for a memorial for both military and civilian dead.

Anna Purgar, genealogist and historian, learned that war veterans were in the cemetery when she checked names from burial records against military databases. She estimates upwards of 40 vets lie there.

"I would say there's at least 40; I'm 100 per cent sure of 20 of them."

One soldier on the list, David Hartwell, served as a private in the Boer War. He died, aged 44, in Tokanui Hospital.

"There's another 50 to 70 [potential war veterans] who have got a question mark next to their name," Purgar said.

Her great-great grandmother, Mary Lee Ambrose, was buried at Tokanui. Her husband, Richard Ambrose, was in the American Civil War.

"Their war wasn't four years, it was a lifetime - that's what they gave up," Purgar said.

"They say ‘poor servicemen, dying over there' but what about the servicemen that spent the rest of their life dying over here?"

David Moger, chief executive of RSA New Zealand, was shocked to hear of the discovery.

"I know I'm supposed to be behaved and PC in my comments but - good grief. For crying out loud.

"I'm utterly convinced that RSAs from around the country will be equally awed at this situation and will want to see appropriate commemorations put in place and make sure things are done in a very respectful way."

Hundreds of civilians also lie in the cemetery, unrecognised.

Maurie Zinsli, 74, has made it his mission to acknowledge all those who were silenced and locked away for so long.

Somewhere on the undulating hillside lies his great-aunt Maria Zinsli, who was sent to Porirua Mental Hospital at age 25. Twenty-six years later, she was sent to Tokanui, where she stayed until she died, age 81.

"How many other people in here have similar stories? A person has a story, no matter who they were or what they did," Zinsli said.

"I want to see a memorial plaque, at least something saying the number."

The cemetery's only visible headstone reads "In loving memory of our grandmother Bridget Nolan".

Ex-staff member Rovina Maniapoto-Anderson, of Ngati Paretekawa, was a nurse intern at Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital for three years from 1953, then, after having children, returned to work as a receptionist and filing clerk.

Having grown up in Tokanui she recalled seeing the dead being buried in a grassy field when she was a child.

"Me being me said ‘what are you doing', and they said ‘Oh we are burying someone', and I said ‘Where is the priest, where is the minister'?

"I realise why they had to do it. In those days phone calls were very difficult and you can't leave a body there for 100 years. I don't think it was intentional."

As a staff member, she observed the morgue - a concrete building with two concrete blocks and a hand basin - where patients were prepared for burial.

"We didn't have an undertaker in those days but you tried to make them look OK."

Bodies were then put on to a tin trolley and taken by able-bodied patients and staff to the cemetery, in the far southeast corner of the hospital farm. There were no coffins.

There are several Maori names on the burial records for Tokanui. Purgar suspected some who served in the Maori Battalion are laid to rest there.

Maniapoto-Anderson said there's no use pointing fingers regarding the wrongs of the past.

"What we can do is show our generation of tomorrow that we woke up and tried to resolve the error our ancestors made."

In September 1964, the cemetery was closed due to "poor access for relatives and low usage," revealed author Rodger McLaren in his book, A History of Tokanui Hospital, Te Awamutu, 1912-1997.

Department of Conservation partnership ranger Mike Paviour said

the cemetery is under DOC management, but he had only recently been made aware of that. DOC had "bits and pieces of land all over the place". The hospital itself sits on Ngati Maniapoto land.

The upkeep of the cemetery had fallen into the hands of AgResearch "by default" and inmates from nearby Waikeria Prison trimmed the grass.

Paviour has been in talks with Corrections, AgResearch and Zinsli to improve the site's upkeep, and said access was another issue.

The cemetery is not signposted from the road. Access is via the AgResearch farm, where guests must sign for health and safety reasons.

Soldiers' next of kin should contact Veterans Affairs to discuss options "to provide more appropriate recognition", said Ally Clelland from the Defence Communications Group.

"In the past people have been disinterred [and] reinterred into services cemeteries, or alternately have had a memorial placed upon the existing grave, or into the closest services cemetery."

"Appalling" was the word Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements used to describe the situation.

"You can't roll back history but the views of the relatives need to be the prevailing view to inject dignity for the people who are buried and the relatives."

Waikato Times