Unlike most of the people in this blog, Barbara Mulligan is very much alive. But if any of the pre-deceased deserves a spot in the folklore of Karori Cemetery, it’s her.
For four years she has led guided walks in the cemetery, recounting the stories of those who lie there. For the past two she has spearheaded a project to clear and clean as many as possible of the graves of the 660 or so victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic buried at Karori, and to bring their stories to light.
That project culminates this month – the centenary of Black November, when the flu was at its most deadly - with two Sundays of talks, walks and exhibitions in memory of the victims.
Spanish Flu probably started in an army camp in Kansas, was shipped to Europe by the troops then spread worldwide as soldiers returned home from the battlefields in 1918. It definitely killed more than 50 million people, and possibly up to 100 million.
It arrived in Auckland and travelled the country, killing between 8500 and 9000 people – half the number of New Zealanders killed in four years of war, dead in a few weeks.
“We don’t remember,” says Barbara. “There’s no collective memory of the 1918 flu epidemic
“We have war memorials throughout the country but we have very, very few – I think there are only eight – memorials in the whole country to people who died in the flu epidemic.
“Our collective memory seemed not to be working so I thought ‘Let’s see if we can do something about it’.”
It all started in 2009 with a small dog. Despite living cheek-by-jowl with the cemetery, it was only with the arrival of Dickson – “he’s got short legs but he still needs two walks a day” - that Barbara joined the ranks of cemetery frequenters.
|The mighty Dickson.|
Curiosity got the better of her and she put her skills as a historian and hobby genealogist to use. Jack, she discovered, fell out of a fourth-storey hotel window in Willis Street in April 1919. While skylarking.
There were many other interesting names, inscriptions and monuments. Barbara’s research blossomed in 2014 into Karori Cemetery Tour, through which - in arrangement with cemetery owner Wellington City Council - she leads guided walks and drives and recounts the stories of some of the permanent occupants.
Those stories are many, varied and often fascinating, as befits the resting place of around 85,000 people, from executed murderers to Prime Ministers. But with the centenary of Black November approaching, the 660 became a particular focus for her energies.
Back to the unfortunate Jack. Barbara noticed a concentration of graves near his which dated from 1918, particularly November 1918 – unusual in a cemetery which is not necessarily laid out in date order.
As she and Dickson walked their walks, the idea formed. “I thought ‘Right - these people in various parts of this large cemetery, nobody knows anything about them, nobody goes anywhere near them as far as I can tell. They are rather neglected, they’re overgrown’.
“We were already into the beginning of the commemorations of World War One, but the flu was a hugely important event in New Zealand and elsewhere. I thought ‘Are we going to do anything about it?’
“I have good ideas - sometimes I regret them, sometimes I don’t. This one I haven’t regretted at all so far.”
The idea was for a volunteer, community-based project - in partnership with the city council, supported by genealogists - to prepare the way for a centennial commemoration of Black November.
Barbara talked it over with the council and a memorandum of understanding was drawn up. She sought out Professor Geoffrey Rice, whose book Black November is the definitive New Zealand account of the pandemic. In the 1980s he had compiled a list of all the New Zealand victims from their death certificates.
“I contacted Geoffrey Rice and told him what we were doing,” says Barbara. “He offered to send us the Wellington portion of the list, for which we’re immensely grateful. It’s our Bible.”
The early research brought home the scale of the disaster, and the task in hand.
|Volunteers in the Roman Catholic section during the almost-last working bee, a week before the centenary.|
A monumental mason gave instructions on how to clean gravestones – no chemicals, just water, and a soft brush. Small trees were cut back, in keeping with council guidelines.
They started in the Anglican section, which is relatively easy underfoot. Next came the Roman Catholic section, which was more of a challenge with its steep slopes. Finally they moved on to Gum Gully, the Public 2 section, where they were really put to the test.
Gum Gully is dark, with giant eucalyptus trees interlocking overhead and dropping leaves, branches and bark on to the graves below. At and below ground level, their roots have cracked and shattered the monuments. Some of the paths are steep, the ground uneven.
“We practised on the Anglican section, we were getting better in the Roman Catholic section and by the time we got to Gum Gully we were really ready to go.”
The working bees were held monthly in summer, attracting 20 to 30 volunteers. Corporate volunteers from IT firm Datacom and Contact Energy pitched in with their own mini-bees, clearing paths.
In the winter, the group held seminars and workshops. Barbara has also spread the word through numerous talks and presentations on the project.
“I wanted it to be volunteer-friendly. I couldn’t see the point in making people work in the depths of winter, in the cold, wet and mud. And indeed we haven’t had to.”
|Work under way in the challenging surroundings of Gum Gully.|
They focused on formed plots, those with a degree of construction. They kept away from the Soldiers’ Section, where the graves are kept spick and span anyway.
In some areas weeds reclaimed cleared plots and they had to be cleared again. But by this month the volunteers had cleaned and cleared around 450 graves.
As well as getting their hands dirty, some also researched the stories of the victims, putting a human face on the statistics. They shed light on stories like those of Bob and Beenie - Robert Ballantyne and his sister Robina, from Kelburn, whose father was a butcher. Bob survived serious war injuries only to die of influenza, five days before Beenie.
Many local families suffered as badly, or worse. Also buried at Karori are soldiers - the Soldiers’ Section saw six burials in the four months leading up to the crisis, and 99 in November and December 1918. And there are seamen who lie in the city where they died, sometimes far from home. One such is Captain John Drewette, of the passenger vessel SS Monowai, who never made it back to his home berth at Devonport.
Many individual stories have been posted to the project’s Facebook page, alongside photos of the work in action, and news and features relating to Black November. As the centenary has approached, the posts have included a daily record of the people who died on that day, 100 years ago.
While the hard work in the cemetery was going on, plans for the commemorations were taking shape.
“We didn’t do this work just for fun,” says Barbara. “We did it because we want people to come and remember there was this major event in which a lot of people died; one that affected this country and every other country in the world.”
The commemorations at Karori cemetery – supported by the city council and Karori Historical Society – began on Sunday 18 November, the eve of the centenary of the cemetery’s busiest-ever day, which saw 63 burials.
The opening was conducted by Mayor Justin Lester and Wellington MP Grant Robertson, before Professor Rice gave a talk comparing the experience of the epidemic in Wellington with Christchurch, where better organisation and better availability of care resulted in a much reduced death rate.
The commemorations - continuing on Sunday 25 November - saw the picturesque, historic Mortuary Chapel used as an exhibition and information centre. There were guided and self-guided walks in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Public, Jewish and Soldiers’ sections. Flu graves were be marked with white crosses unless the occupant was, or was likely to be, non-Christian - a startling visual reminder, in some areas, of the scale of the disaster.
Ramps and handrails were put in place to ease access in the more rugged areas. As a permanent feature, information boards will give future visitors an insight into Wellington’s experience of the world’s worst natural disaster since the Black Death.
|Barbara and volunteers, ready for action. Barbara had just finished leading an Armistice Day tour of the Soldiers' section.|
It all started with a small dog, and a man who met his death while skylarking.
Through Karori Cemetery Tour, Barbara will continue to connect Wellingtonians and others with their heritage. And through the influenza project she and her band of “wonderful volunteers” have done a remarkable job to raise into the collective memory a catastrophe that prolonged the agony for a war-weary and injured world.