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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 2, November 1982

Information Concerning Graves Unearthed At Clifton, Takaka, July 1976

page 43

Information Concerning Graves Unearthed At Clifton, Takaka, July 1976

From Evening Mail dated 27th July 1976, Pohara Beach Skeletons a Mystery. Human remains were uncovered during excavation work on a subdivision being developed at Pohara Beach near Takaka last week. It is beleived that the skeletons of three Europeans were unearthed, including part of a wooden coffin. Work on the project came to a standstill while an exhumation order was sought and after some difficulty it was finally granted in Wellington. The bones were re-interred at Rototai cemetery on Saturday after a Health Department officer at Nelson carried out an inspection.

Golden Bay County Council has no records of burial plots in the locality, which is about a mile north of the Clifton cemetery, the earliest public graveyard in the area. Mystery surrounds the identity of the remains. It was at first feared that it might be a small Maori burial ground but investigations disproved this theory.

The Historical Society has shown an interest in the find and has begun making enquiries in the district.

The late M. L. Robertson of Motupipi wrote to me on July 27, 1976.

Mr Jim Hayter, while bulldozing on a housing development job at Pohara uncovered half a dozen or so skeletons. Some of these remains appeared to be native as they were wrapped in mats which appeared to be raupo. But the puzzling feature of their burial ground is that (1) none of the old residents of Takaka have any knowledge of it whatever. (2) One of the skeletons was in a coffin and the boards of which the coffin was made clearly showed that they had been sawn with a circular saw. Now as far as I know the first power driven saw in Takaka was powered by a waterwheel just south of the Motupipi bridge in about 1840–1850. The coffin in the burial plot certainly predates that.

Transport Nelson who were doing the bulldozing reported the find to the Police. The police would have nothing to do with it, nor would the Golden Bay County Council, or the heads in Nelson Transport but they all forbade Jim to remove the remains. This of course was no good to Hayter in a housing development.

Jim promptly applied to a wartime Air Force cobber (Frank Gill, Minister of Health, confidentially), and got an order to shift the remains. At this point when the Council men shifted the skeletons they did the most stupid thing they could and Hayter is furious over it. They smashed the coffin and destroyed all or almost all of what might have been the possibility of dating it. The old boy in the casket still had his boots on and what appeared to be a sort of uniform. Jim has some of the buttons.

I told him of your interest in ancient history and he said he would very much like to meet you. He thought you might have contacts who could test the buttons and perhaps establish the approximate time of burial.

Note from J.N. Later I visited Jim Hayter but did not get much further information.

Mr D. I. McPherson of Parapara wrote on July 29, 1976. (He is something of an authority on the Maori history, J.N.).

page 44

I noticed an article in the Evening Mail regarding the discovery of some bodies buried in coffins near Pohara. I am not an expert on early European history in Golden Bay being far more conversant with Maori settlements, etc. I was told by my grandfather, John Flowers, who was one of the first Europeans born in the Bay, that the first non-Maoris who died in the area (excluding Tasman's men in 1642) were some Norwegian seamen who were drowned when a ship's boat overturned near the coast at approximately the centre of the Bay coastline. This occurred about three years prior to Te Puoho's abortive raid on Mataura which would put the date at 1834 or thereabouts. Apart from my grandfather's account quite a few of the earlier residents had heard of the incident from Maori sources and also from a Swedish seaman who had survived the overturning of the boat.

As I am told the story the Maoris assisted in the burial and were quite concerned because this was carried out in line with local custom. In order to avoid trouble, or more correctly, to make certain they did not offend Maori custom, a compromise was agreed upon and Maori flax cloaks or mats were used in addition to the European coffins. I of course do not know if any traces of mats were found with the bodies.

Two points that I failed to point out were; firstly the Maoris did not like the idea of men being buried in the clothes they were wearing at the time of their death, hence the mats. Secondly, in addition, the Swedish sailor mentioned as the survivor, later settled in the Bay and worked on the goldfields in the Snow and Slate River claims. 1 am not certain of his name but I think it was either Johansen or Svensen.

The early settlers did not know the exact area where the men were buried but said it was near the centre of the bay and seemed to think it was in the Puramahoi area. My information was that the survivor was not certain of the spot when he came and settled in the area but only said that he remembered a low hill running out into the sea about a mile from the place where the men were buried. This was assumed to be Rangihaeata Point but the same type of hills jut out into the sea near Pohara.

I cannot give you the address of anyone around here who could be of much help as most of the people who could have helped have all long since died. I am 65 myself. Mr Gerald Page. Waitapu, may know a little as his father knew the episode. I am very sorry if this note is just so much waste paper to you but I assure you that it is written in the hope that it could be helpful and is not a fairy story or anything of that nature, etc. – D. I. McPherson.

Note from J.N. Later I called on Mr McPherson and discussed the matter.

He said that, as he believed it, a shore party probably obtaining fresh water were capsized when returning to their ship. The officer in charge was probably a bullying type, a young man and not liked by the crew. He would be the uniformed officer.

Further to all this I took up the matter of whether the removing of the graves was a contravention of the Act governing Historical sites, antiquities, etc. Apparently the matter of graves is the legal responsibility of the Health Department and this supersedes all other regulations.

Postcript: No doubt the graves were in dry sand and the cloaks and flax mats would have been reasonably well preserved but they would rapidly fall to pieces after being unearthed. I have seen a Maori skeleton where this was the case. –J.N.