On 20th December 1850, just a short four days since the arrival of the Canterbury Association first ship, Isabella Williams and her seven children gathered around the first grave to be dug at Lyttelton’s Anglican cemetery. Her husband John had been found on the Lyttelton side of the Bridle Path, dead from a stroke and leaving his rather large family all alone and penniless in a new country. He had however, already purchased land. After a few years of support from those around her, Isabella opened her own drapery business in Market Place (Victoria Square) and also managed to marry off her daughters to some of the richest and most powerful men of Christchurch. One of these grooms was William ‘Cabbage’ Wilson who served Christchurch as the first Mayor in 1868.
If this first burial wasn’t enough to remind our first settlers of how fragile life could be, there was always the crude wooden marker that sat near the shallows – close to the Bridle Path at Ferrymead. Carved into it were the initials “H.L.” and the date of “1822”. Who was buried there? A whaler? A sealer? No one really knows.
Marked on Christchurch’s first map, dated 1850 and signed off by Canterbury Association Chief Surveyor, Captain Joseph Thomas – plots 20, 42 & 43 were allocated for the city’s first three cemeteries. As segregation was very important to the Anglicans at that time, the eastern side of Barbadoes (the ‘e’ being a typo) Street was for the Anglicans while the western side was for the Roman Catholics and the Dissenters. The neighbouring land to the south was to be the city’s Botanical Gardens – mirroring similar city plans akin to places like Wellington with its Bolton Street Cemetery placement.
The first burial to take place at Barbadoes Street was in April 1851 and the only details recorded were that it was someone by the name of ‘Brown’. Two other funerals followed that same month. Two years later, a Baptist was the first burial in the Dissenters section, with the ground being broken in the Roman Catholic area in 1860. The following year, a full-time caretaker lived on site to tend to the graves and handle any disturbances. In 1866, a flower picker who was busted, was sentenced to 96 hours of hard labour whereas a plant stealer faced three months behind bars.
Lonely funeral services were held out in the open no matter the weather, until St George’s Chapel (pictured) was built on site designed by Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort – the architect behind such heritage gems such as the Art Centre, Canterbury Museum and the Provincial Chambers. Made of timber and erected on 23rd June 1862, its six stained-glass windows are still regarded as some of New Zealand’s most prized art pieces. They were eventually purchased by the Robert McDougal Gallery (in 1986) after years in private collections following the chapel’s demolition on 1st November 1955.
As Christchurch grew, land concerns and complaints from neighbours became quite frequent. Unused Cemetery land was sold and artesian water, weather and vandals caused some graves to vanish into history. Finally, due to public pressure and medical opinion, Barbadoes cemetery was closed to all new burials on 1st April 1885, except for those who had pre-purchased family burial plots. The last ever burial was in 1973.
Since opening, church committees had watched over their own areas. However, in 1916 the Roman Catholic and Dissenters graves were handed to the C.C.C. for all future caretaking. After the Anglicans followed suit in 1948, the Barbadoes Street Cemeteries became just one historic cemetery.
The next oldest Christchurch cemetery is Addington (first known as the “Scotch Cemetery”) which opened in 1858 and followed by Linwood which opened in 1884.
*Image courtesy of Kete Christchurch – http://ketechristchurch.peoplesnetworknz.info*