The dead tell tales

21:23, Jan 20 2013
 Sarah Ann ‘‘Granny’’ Burke
Midwife Sarah Ann ‘‘Granny’’ Burke assisted with the births of 1200 children in Huntly from the late 1880s until her death in 1929. She is buried in Kimihia Cemetery, Great South Road, Huntly, beside her husband, coalminer Edward Burke. Her tombstone (on the right) bears the inscription: ‘‘Erected by her many friends in Huntly’’.

Historian Lyn Williams looks at who is buried in our local cemeteries.

As mitigation for the many dead children who feature in this column, this week's subject is credited with assisting with the births of more than 1200 children.

Sarah Ann Burke was a midwife and nurse in Huntly for more than 40 years and served so well that when a local maternity hospital was built, in 1926, many women still preferred to have her assistance. Sometimes Sarah would live-in with the family before the confinement, but as at times she had to attend seven cases in one day, this was not always practicable.

According to the comprehensive biographical files at the Waikato Coalfields Museum, Sarah Ann Bond was born in County Antrim to Scottish parents and came with them to New Zealand as a 6-year-old in 1865. She married Edward Burke in 1876 and soon after settled in Huntly where Edward worked as a miner. At that time there were only three houses in Huntly and four men employed in McLeod's Mine. As the mining industry grew, so did the population and Sarah's midwifery and general nursing skills were highly valued. She was known for her genial and loving disposition, and for always wearing black.

Known as "Granny" Burke, she drove a black gig − the sight of the gig drawn up outside a house was a sure sign that a birth was imminent. She gave each baby a hand-knitted or crocheted garment.

The family barely featured in the newspapers, apart from the Misses Burke serving tea at a Methodist function, Mr Burke participating in one of the fortnightly meetings of the Huntly Literary and Debating Society in 1909 in an animated debate on the question: "Would the prevention of the sale of intoxicating liquor solve the problem of poverty?" and W (presumably son William) Burke playing for the Huntly Rovers (Northern Union Rules). Mr M Burke was busy as chairman of the Huntly Socialist Party, but research has not established whether he was another son.


In 1910 it was reported that Edward Burke met with an accident at Ralph's Mine − a spark from his lamp lit some gunpowder, scorching his face, neck and arms. Edward, "one of nature's gentleman", died in 1917.

"Granny" Burke kept on working until early October 1929. At a social evening to mark her retirement the townspeople presented her with a purse of sovereigns and a leather suitcase. She died just four weeks later aged 73 years.

Sarah Burke is buried in Kimihia Cemetery, Huntly. She was survived by six children - but at least two others died before she did.

Note: An excellent booklet, The Huntly Cemetery Trail, is available at the Waikato Coalfields Museum in Huntly.