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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 2 (May 1, 1940.)

The Cemetery at Greymouth — Links With The Past

page 55

The Cemetery at Greymouth
Links With The Past

“God's Acre” is a lovely term. As Longfellow says of this Anglo-Saxon expression: “It consecrates each grave within its walls, and breathes a benison on the sleeping dust.” The words suggest a quiet, shady churchyard, its old headstones, moss-grown and yew-shaded, marking the last sleeping place of those whose humble race is run. It is so much more restful and beautiful than the word “cemetery” which has a suggestion of coldness and finality. “God's Acre” reminds us of the peace of death, of the long rest after the hard journey, but “cemetery” speaks only of the loneliness of death. And no place can seem lonelier than a bleak cemetery. Such a one is the cemetery at Greymouth. Here are no English oaks, elms or yews casting mantling shadows on green grass and ivied walls and ancient tombstones all awry, no friendly native trees of that tree-wealthy Westland here rear their proud heads to the vast bowl of the sky. Exposed all day to the sun, and open to every wind that blows, it lies only a stone's-throw from the Tasman Sea. Here, on a long sandy terrace lie those whose headstones tell the whole of the white man's romantic and lively history on the Golden Coast. Here lies many a “cook's son, duke's son, and son of a millionaire,” men who came hither lured by the stories of the incredibly, rich goldfields. They came in their thousands in the days of the gold rush, sought the glittering nuggets or dust, and endured hardships and privations in the hope of better things to come.

Of course, the Maoris are first in the history of Westland, described by Tasman as an “inhospitable” land, for he saw only the long miles of range upon range of hills and snow-peaked mountains, with the narrow rush-clad plain in front of them. The ancient burial ground was a cave in the range of limestone hills through which the Grey River has cut its way to the sea.

On the northern side of the river these hills are locally known as the Twelve Apostles because of the number of small peaks. The burial cave was on the south side, close to the river, but is no longer in existence. When the harbour works were begun rock from the hill was quarried and so began the blasting of the hillside. Great consternation was shown by the Maoris of the pa at Mawhera, now Greymouth. In order to appease them, and especially the old chief Werita Tainui, a Maori tohunga, held in great reverence, was sent, according to an old chronicler, from the North Island to perform certain rites and make incantations by which the tapu might be removed. This done, the precious bones of the long departed Maori chiefs were deposited elsewhere.

Old Werita Tainui is buried near the quarry just mentioned, close to the railway line, the line which, piercing the massive heart of the Southern Alps, links the plains of Canterbury and the old Greenstone country by way of Arthur's Pass. In this grave, fenced in iron and marked by an iron cross, lies one of the chiefs who made their marks on that deed by which for three hundred sovereigns the West Coast, save for some Native Reserves passed to the New Zealand Government.

The first white men to come to the coast were the surveyors, men who endured incredible hardships, when from either Canterbury or Nelson they fought their difficult way through thick bush—so thick as to be almost impenetrable—across cold, treacherous rapidly flowing streams rushing from the Southern Alps to the Tasman Sea, they made their painful and often hungry way to the Coast.

In the cemetery of Greymouth lies the surveyor Whitcombe, after whom Whitcombe Pass is named. Whitcombe, when only thirty-four years of age, was drowned in the Taramakau River. A plain low grey stone covers the grave. It is marked only by the long cross which patterns its slight pyramidal shape, and the simple remarks, “Henry Whitcombe, born February 18, 1829, drowned at Taramakau, May 5, 1863.” Nearby are the graves of two more surveyors whose tombstones were erected by the old Canterbury Provincial Government. Grey with the years, worn by the salt winds and driving rains from the Tasman Sea, they mark the spots where lie “Charles Townsend, aged 40, drowned at the Grey, October 9th, 1863,” and “Mitchellmore, drowned with Town-send.”

(Rly. Publicity photo.) A view of Lake Howden (near Hollyford Valley), Southern New Zealand.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A view of Lake Howden (near Hollyford Valley), Southern New Zealand.

page 56

The famous gold rush of the ‘sixties brought hordes of eager men of diverse nationalities, including Italians and Greeks, and numerous Chinese. Many of the last-named are buried in the cemetery. They lie, side by side, in row upon row, at the northern end of the cemetery, in death as in life, part of and yet apart from those surrounding them.

Many an old digger lies here, his name forgotten, perhaps never really known. Many of them, if they found gold, did not keep it. Here, too, is a silent eloquent proof of the loyalty of the old-time digger, but it speaks, now, only to the remaining little band that has known the bewhiskered generation of “old-timers.” An old miner died. He was not very well off so his best friend and fellow-digger had him buried in dignified fashion and erected a tombstone on which were engraved the usual few facts. Underneath he had added “Also Francis Mack” (an Anglicized version, I have always understood, of his Azorean name). For, with his best friend gone, old Francis Mack, realising that he too, would soon set out to that bourne from which there is no return, and determined to be buried in seemly fashion arranged to be interred in the same grave as his friend.

Gold almost always breeds greed and lust for possession. Thus it was that to the West Coast there came not only the hard-working optimistic miners and astute business men hopeful of making a fortune by supplying the necessities of the vigorous life there, but also the bushrangers. In the northern end of the cemetery lies buried young Charles Dobson, so foully murdered by the Burgess and Kelly gang.

It was in 1866 that Burgess and Kelly, with Levy and Sullivan, on the look-out for a gold buyer, Mr. E. B. Fox, stopped young Dobson. Although he protested he was not the man they wanted, they killed him, because (as one of them revealed later) “Dead men tell no tales.” Poor young Dobson was buried in Greymouth, and the spot where he was so cruelly done to death, near where the Arnold River joins the Grey, is marked by a stone slab set on four small stone pillars.

Greed for gold caused two other foul murders a little over twenty years ago, those of Messrs. Coulthard and Hall of the State Coal Mines. They were fatally shot when, in company with Mr. James, the mines manager, they were bringing by motor the pay money for the employees of the mine. The car proceeding from Greymouth to Runanga had to be pulled up because a log, lying across the road, beyond a bend, blocked the way. Immediately a man, masked and armed, stepped from the fern-draped bank alongside the road, holding up the travellers. At the first sign of opposition on the part of the travellers the unknown man shot at them. Young Coulthard was fatally shot at the wheel. Mr. Hall, the pay clerk, was so badly wounded that he died some days later, and Mr. James was wounded in the leg. The murderer, however, did not escape. He paid with his life, for particularly clever work on the part of the detectives led to his arrest in Christchurch. In the evidence it was proved that he had stood on a hotel balcony watching the huge crowd of horrified sympathisers waiting at the Greymouth station for the funeral train to arrive. Watching the sad, silent procession arrange itself for the long walk to the cemetery, he remarked that he “would like to get the one who had done the deed.”

In Greymouth cemetery lies many a man who has gone down to the sea in ships. Many a wreck has occurred in, or within a short distance of the harbour: indeed, the harbour has been noted for the number of wrecks, due to a combination of strong ocean currents and an unreliable bar.

(Rly. Publicity photo.) A view of the Scriptorium at Nelson College, Nelson.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A view of the Scriptorium at Nelson College, Nelson.

Ships have been coming and going to this port for years now, taking away gold and coal and the timber cut by men to whom danger is often a companion. Fortunately the wrecks have not often been attended by a serious loss of life. Perhaps one of the most tragic was that of the s.s. Kairaki, which went down with all hands only a mile or two from the rivermouth and (bitter indeed was the fate) almost within sight of the homelights of some of her crew.

What a storm raged on that fateful night! It was a storm such as one could never forget, with howling, raging, shrieking wind of demoniacal fury which blew unceasingly for hours. The waves, with the force of the mighty Tasman behind them, and the fury of the north-west wind drivin them to the long stretch of the Westland bight, were towering walls crashing forward for hour after hour. In the midst of this great storm, and in darkness, the Kairaki, having battled successfully to within less than a half dozen miles of her destination, was wrecked. Some days after the wreck the remains of two bodies were found on the northern beach, identified as members of the crew, and interred in the Greymouth Cemetery.

They lie in sight of the sea which ruled their lives, and around them lie, too, those who came with firm feet and generous heart to wrest the gold from the green and gracious bosom of the lovely land, and the banks of the mountain torrents. Surveyor, miner, farmer, merchant, for them the race is run, the tasks and trials are over. To them these troubled, changing times matter not.