Bolton Street Memorial Park.

Bolton Street Cemetery chapel


Wellington's colonial cemeteries

When Wellington's first cemetery opened in 1840 it lay on the outskirts of the new town and served the colony's non-Catholic residents. A single, shared town cemetery - rather than graveyards for individual churches - was a new concept in England at this time. The cemetery at Bolton Street was considered a liberal concept for the fledgling colony.

However, Anglicans, Jews and Roman Catholics insisted on separate burial areas. The cemetery was divided into three areas - Anglican, Jewish and Public. The Roman Catholic Cemetery was - and still is - in Mount Street, Kelburn.

Deaths recorded in Wellington's early days reflected difficulties of the times. Drowning, consumption and childbirth were common causes of death. Soldiers, large families, sailors, thatchers and children were among those buried at the cemetery. They were later joined by politicians, Māori and Pākehā community leaders.

Overcrowding and the increasing encroachment of the city resulted in the cemetery closing to burials in 1892, with relatives of people already buried there the exception. The cemetery was transferred to Wellington City Council in the same year.

Moved for a motorway

Controversy raged in Wellington in the 1960s over a proposal to direct Wellington's motorway through a section of the cemetery. The plan went ahead, closing the cemetery between 1968 and 1971. During this time, about 3,700 burials - many newly discovered - were exhumed. This section of the urban motorway opened in 1978.

A large vault beneath the Early Setters Memorial Lawn contains most of the disinterred. A small number were reinterred at Karori and Makara cemeteries at the request of relatives.

Identifiable burials are recorded in the Chapel. Most headstones were returned to the appropriate religious sectors of the cemetery, apart from a few claimed by relatives.

Protest groups did not stop the motorway's passage, but succeeded in elevating the cemetery's status as a significant historic site and city reserve.

The story so far

In anticipation of motorway construction, historian Margaret Alington was commissioned to research the cemetery. She contributed greatly to the documentation of Wellington's history with Unquiet Earth: a History of the Bolton Street Cemetery, published 1978.

Other references

Life After Death; an Old Cemetery becomes a Memorial Park, by M. H. Alington, in The Making of Wellington, by D. Hamer and R. Nicholls, eds., Victoria University Press, 1990.

Bolton Street Memorial Park, by H. A. Fullarton, in NZ Historic Places No 34, September 1991.