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180-year-old grave site in Kaeo given new life


A five-year journey to restore a slip at Kaeo which unearthed historic settler graves, is now complete.

The potential graveyard was bought to the attention of Waka Kotahi by Mrs Shelley Smyth, a descendant of early settler William Spickman, who had historical records suggesting a family plot lay in the vicinity of State Highway 10 near Kaeo.

“Our team entered the area using maps and carrying knives to clear thick vegetation by hand, as they searched for signs of the graveyard,” says Waka Kotahi Regional Manager Tāmaki Makaurau me Te Taitokerau Jacqui Hori-Hoult.

“Access to the area was problematic, it was clear the graveyard had been neglected for some time. The tombstones could not be seen on aerial surveys of the area and were invisible from the roadside.”

After locating the graveyard, it was discovered the tombstones were in danger of falling on to the road below due to long-term deterioration of the surrounding landscape and a slip caused by heavy rains in the area.

“They were completely covered in bush, sitting 13 metres up from the roadside at a 30-degree angle and in imminent danger of slipping.”

“Our initial thoughts were to build a retaining wall, but as we thought that would disturb the graves we worked with the family about the opportunity to move their loved ones.”

Once all agreed, a multi-agency project was initiated to restore the plot, which had originally been in use between 1840 and 1911.

Representatives from Heritage NZ, Ministry of Heath, Far North District Council, Whangaroa College and family descendants were among those involved, alongside the landowner of the property on which the graves were situated.

An historical survey, engineering report and paleo-archaeological medical report were all commissioned, with permission also given to exhume and relocate the graves.

“Renowned New Zealand archaeologist and noted Iwi adviser Dr Jono Carpenter led the digging works and exhumation operations,” says Jacqui Hori Hoult.

“Originally we thought there were six graves, but as works progressed further headstones and remains were discovered. Fourteen graves were subsequently found.”

William Spickman was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Europeans recorded to have settled in the Kaeo area, where he later set up a thriving timber business.

The remains of Spickman’s wife, sons, daughter, son-in-law, Grandson and his daughter’s four Grandsons were also discovered.

“This was a collaborative effort, that Waka Kotahi was proud to be a part of. Conservation of historic and cultural heritage is an important part of the planning and delivery process for all projects undertaken by Waka Kotahi, no matter their scale,” says Jacqui Hori-Hoult.

“Building a wall was only one solution, but by working together we were able to design an appropriate outcome, which allows everyone in the community to share in this unique piece of history.”

Repairing the tombstones proved tricky with COVID-19 causing a delay in carrying out the works and obtaining the granite.

However, all graves are now fully restored or replaced with new headstones and Northland maintenance contractor Fulton Hogan has repaired the slope and surrounding area, adding benches and landscaping.

An information board, including a family tree, is also now displayed near the gravesite.