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Stories dug up for new sign

By Hayley Gastmeier

[email protected]

Digging up the “chequered past” of  Masterton’s Pioneer Cemetery all began with a quest for a new sign.

Historian Gareth Winter, from Wairarapa Archive, spent well over a year researching the plots of those buried in the graveyard, and his hard work can now be seen at the cemetery’s entrance.

New signage has been installed, listing each plot alphabetically, and according to location.

The sign also includes the names of people who were known to be buried at the cemetery, but in unidentified plots.

Getting to the bottom of all those buried at the site meant “many, many hours” of research for Mr Winter, and spending a considerable amount of time at the cemetery itself — which he did not mind at all.

“As you can imagine, that place is like an archive for me.

“It was like walking through a storybook in a way, because literally every one of those stones has a story.

“And then there’s all the empty spaces where there are no stones but where there are people buried.”

Mr Winter started work on the Masterton District Council project in April last year.

He said the task was not straightforward.

People were buried at the site from 1856 but it did not officially become a cemetery until 1875 through an Act of Parliament — and then, there was not a proper register of deaths held until 1878.

“So there are 20-odd years without any record of people being buried there.”

To figure out who was buried at Pioneer Cemetery during the unrecorded period involved going through old newspapers, namely the Wairarapa Mercury and the Wairarapa Standard dating from 1867 to 1878. Both papers were based in Greytown.

He also searched Wellington newspapers to find any references to burials in Masterton.

“In two instances we found men we knew were buried there because they were recorded as being buried there, but we still don’t know who they are.

“In one instance, a man drowned in the Ruamahunga River, and in another, a man died in a boarding house in town, but no one knew their names.

“So they were buried with literally no one knowing who they were.”

To identify people in the unmarked graves, Mr Winter also trawled through church records kept by a travelling Anglican priest, William Ronaldson.

Rev Ronaldson officiated most of the burials in Wairarapa from about 1858 until sometime in the 1860s.

Mr Winter said this had been before there was a physical church in Masterton.

The archivist was assisted for a time by some German interns, who helped with researching and marrying up various registers.

Mr Winter said the research for the sign was building on previous digging around he had done for his ‘Stories behind the stones’ articles, which were published in the Times-Age.

He is now working on a second series of articles that will be published in the new year.

“People can expect to read about a tombstone that’s got absolutely no names on it but we worked out whose tombstone it is.

“Another tombstone that shattered, and by digitally piecing it together we worked out who it was.

“And a sad case of a tombstone that’s just got Archie on it, but we’ve manged to work out who Archie was.

“He was a five-year-old boy, and his brother became a war hero and an All Black.”

MDC spokesman Sam Rossiter-Stead said community facilities staff and designers were involved in completing the project.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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