It was a special hour in our day – a tour in dappled sunlight through the peaceful sanctuary of the Bolton Street Cemetery, home to the graves, both marked and unmarked, of a number early Wellington residents.

We were fortunate to be guided by Priscilla Williams and Kate Fortune, two dedicated committee members of the Friends of the Bolton Street Cemetery, who were well acquainted with the history, layout and details of the graves in the cemetery.

Memorial symbolism was important in the Victorian era, and our guides were able to point out the meanings of the symbolism on the gravestones. For example, ivy carved on a gravestone represents friendship, fidelity and faithfulness, and hands clasped on a headstone was representative of a marriage or a close bond which lasts even after death: the first to die holds the other’s hand guiding their spouse to heaven; clasped hands also mean a farewell or a last goodbye.

Some of the gravestones had come apart or been damaged by weather, earthquakes, or the advent of the motorway in the 1960’s. There are still parts of grave masonry at the Karori cemetery that are being reunited with their original gravestones in the Bolton Street Cemetery. Conservation and repair work in the Bolton Street Cemetery is ongoing.

The graves we viewed reflected the emerging pioneer settlement of Wellington from the 1840’s – for example, a high number of infant deaths caused by epidemics, fire and poor sanitary conditions.

I came away with feelings of sadness for the loss of lives, especially those of young children, overwhelming admiration for the steadfastness of our early pioneering ancestors, and ongoing thankfulness for those who continue to respect, preserve and maintain our heritage. I will certainly visit again.

Diana Halsted, Committee, Friends of Te Papa