One of the oldest cemeteries in Thames is the Old Goldminers' Cemetery in Jellicoe Crescent which was once on the outskirts of the gold-mining settlement of Shortland. It was built on one of the wahi tapu associated with the Te Kauaeranga Pa.
Today the old cemetery is open grass, with most of the gravestones gone. Many of them would have been wooden crosses dating from the 1860s when Thames was a thriving gold field.
On 23 January 1869, The Reverend Vicesimus Lush mentions in his diary:
'Waiting in the cemetery for a funeral, I looked over the few head stones? (wood) erected there..'
He does not mention the location of this cemetery but even as late as 1869, there were mainly wooden crosses in the Thames cemeteries.
There are only two graves left there today. One has an iron rail fence around it with two large Phoenix palm trees growing within it and damaging it. The other has a stone with the inscription now worn off.
These graves were recorded by Nicholas Twohill in his 2001 article and also by volunteers from the NZ Society of Genealogists.
An iron fence surrounded a marble obelisk, in memory of: William James WARREN aged 2, died 1869 Alice COLEMAN, aged 50, died 1869 Alice WARREN, aged 1, died 1870. William James Warren died at Karaka Creek on 3rd October 1868. The cause of death was concussion of the brain. His father was James Warren, miner of Karaka Creek.
Alice Coleman died on the 14 October 1869 at Karaka Creek of dysentery. The informant was James Warren, miner of Karaka Creek, her son-in-law. James Warren married Annie Coleman in 1865 and he first took out a Miner's Right on 10 June 1868, followed by another on 27th Aug 1868 and 6 Sept 1869, all at Karaka Creek, Thames.
Alice Coleman died aged 1 in October 1870 of diarrhea. The informant was James Warren, miner of Grahamstown.
The sandstone headstone commemorates: Joseph Francis MULLIGAN, who died in 1868, aged 7 months. A death certificate shows that Joseph Francis Mulligan died of bronchitis on 1 Sept 1868 at Shortland. The informant was Dr H. H. R. Bennett, Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons.
A small group of headstones were in the cemetery up until the 1950s (Alistair Isdale, personal communication). These were later stacked in a corner of the cemetery before disappearing entirely. Part of the cemetery has more recently been built on.
An account by Theophilus Cooper describes the scene as he attempted to carry on the service for John Willis on December 17 1867:
'John Willis, the poor man who was sadly mutilated by the horses on the 14th December, has after dreadful suffering, passed from the excitement and turmoil of this strange place to another and, I trust, a better world. His remains were taken in a van this evening to the burial-ground, by his mates, who, to their praise, paid every attention to him in his sufferings; but, having dug the grave, they, as did also the widow, expressed great dissatisfaction in having to bury a fellow creature in such a place. The soil (an improper term to use) was nearly a mass of shells, and as fast as the grave was dug, it filled with water. A general feeling of indignation was manifested by the people around. The Warden was sent for, and when he arrived, he told the widow of the deceased man that, if she wished it, the body should be sent to Auckland and be buried in consecrated ground. In the meantime, he and Mr Mitchell would endeavour to obtain subscriptions to defray the expenses. The body was then taken back to the dead-house.'
This explains why the cemetery was eventually abandoned. However the evidence of the several gravestones remaining indicate that it was still in use as late as 1870. By 1870, burials were taking place in what is today called the Shortland cemetery.
Thames Star 29 September 1953 page 5:
OLD MAORI CEMETERY ALSO USED BY EUROPEANS
At the Parawai end of the continuation of Mackay Street, near the present day Trotting Club's Stables, is the site of an old cemetery established soon after the opening of the Thames Goldfield in 1877, now overgrown and disused.
Formerly it was an old Maori burial ground, but a number of European graves have also found their way onto the plot. Soon after the opening of the Thames goldfield there seemed to be little use for a European cemetery. Not only were most of the population robust and healthy, but when a person died, the body was generally taken to Auckland for internment.
But as the population of Thames increased, and deaths became more frequent, the old Maori burial ground was used as a last resting place for some of those who died in the district. Soon, however, it was discovered that the site was only a few feet above the level of high tides, and that at high tide the ground was saturated and graves filled with water before the coffins could be lowered.
Attempts were made to secure other sites. The Church Mission Society held a large area of land at Parawai, and they were appealed to for a grant of land. The request was unsuccessful. Mr James Mackay suggested that Totara Point, being a 'tapu' ground as far as the Maoris were concerned, might be obtained for the purpose.
The area was inspected, and found to be suitable. Unfortunately, a second draw-back appeared, in that there was no bridge crossing the Kauaeranga River, and that until some means of conveyance was found across the water, an alternative cemetery would have to be found.
Negotiations ensued with the Land Court over the useage of Shortland Cemetery, and before a satisfactory arrangement could be made, people began to bury the dead when and where they chose. Those who had been buried in the old Maori burial ground were in some cases reinterred in the new Shortland Cemetery.
Finally a meeting was called, and to solve the difficulty, Mr J. Mackay gave an acre of land within the town boundary. This temporarily solved the difficulty, and no more trouble occurred.
New Zealand Archaeological Association Site Record T12/899 by Nicholas Twohill, updated by David Wilton.
Nineteenth-Century European Cemeteries in Thames by Nicholas Twohill, Archeology in New Zealand, 44 (2) 109-123, 2001.
New Zealand Society of Genealogists Cemetery Fiche.
The Thames Journals of Vicesimus Lush 1868 - 82. Edited by Alison Drummond. Pegasus Press 1975.
A Digger's Diary at Thames 1867 by Theophilus Cooper
The Goldminers' Database