Home / Heritage / Waikumete Cemetery: Perhaps our most historic place. Part 1

Waikumete Cemetery: Perhaps our most historic place. Part 1


Waikumete Cemetery could be New Zealand’s most historic place, if that is measured by all the historic events that have happened there and the historic people buried here. It is certainly the second largest park in Auckland, the largest cemetery in New Zealand and the second largest in Australasia.
Waikumete is the largest war graves cemetery in New Zealand. Row upon row of memorials pay silent tribute to the heroism of 10,000 men who fell in battle in every war since the Boer War, or died afterwards from their wounds or who served, survived and later slipped away from natural causes – a number of VCs included.

Most “famously unknown” buried here is undoubtedly Corporal Dick Henderson. Richard Alexander Henderson was the subject of perhaps the most iconic ANZAC portrait from World War 1. The painting by New Zealand war artist Horace Moore shows a stretcher bearer using a donkey to take a wounded man from the Gallipoli killing fields. By a twist of fate it has always been misnamed “Simpson and his Donkey”. The most unusual ex servicemen are American Civil War veteran, Corporal A. St John Andrews of the 141st Pennsylvania Volunteers and Captain William John Newby, veteran of Garibaldi campaign that created modern Italy in the 1840′s. Most poignant is the tall obelisk to the five brothers Browne, four of whom died in World War 1.

Here too, is a mass grave of Aucklander’s who died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, and the unidentified passengers who died when Air New Zealand flight 901 crashed on the slopes of Mt Erebus, in Antarctica.

Francisco Rodrigues Figuera, better known to history as the legendary Don Buck lies here as does Don Buck Headstoneexotic dancer Freda Stark and the legendary Bruce McLaren. There is a small “village” of grand and elegant mausoleums, the first of which was built for Assid Abraham Corban, the family patriarch and founder of both Corban Wines and the Corban family dynasty. Indeed Waikumete, or Waikomiti as it was first called, is a chronicle of generations of Aucklander’s, the great and good, it’s most infamous villains and thousands in-between, from the oldest to the youngest and of every race and creed.

Among the villains are John Caffrey and William Penn, hung for murder in 1887 and reputedly buried standing up. Waikumete may also be the last place on earth to have heard an echo from the Nazi Holocaust (see separate story). Waikumete is today, one of our most beautiful, tranquil and best loved places, which is a far cry from its beginnings. In the 1870′s the original Auckland cemetery in Symonds Street was filling rapidly and after looking at various options, the council decided on Waikomiti. Why, is something of a mystery. Waikomiti, half a day’s journey from Auckland in the raw and barren west described three years later as a “howling wilderness”. The soon to be built Kaipara Railway was going to pass within a few metres of the chosen site, but even so it was a long way from Auckland. There were regular funeral trains with special wagons for the coffins and carriages for the mourners, which was acceptable for burials but on a good day it was a five hour return journey by rail for families to care for graves. Nor was it cheap. A first class ticket cost two shillings, second class one shilling and sixpence and children half price. There was a certain amount of uproar in the press over the choice, but the new cemetery received 14 month old Florence Lena Bell on 19 March 1886, and by the end of its first year in operation, 299 Aucklander’s were buried there. Waikomiti was here to stay, the opponents fell away and Waikomiti went on to take its place in history and to grow from a bleak and howling wilderness to a beautiful sanctuary whose wildflowers are a national treasure enjoyed by hundreds who take the guided walks, and whose records are one of the most valuable genealogical resources in the country.