The Ruapuna Cemetery – Who is the Whiting Child?

An interesting comment on the early records of the Ashburton District is the information these original documents may reveal, or in some cases the paucity of information.

The records (2 minute books, 3 incomplete receipt books and a Treasurer’s notebook/cashbook for 1895 – 1948) held by the Ashburton Museum for the Mayfield/Ruapuna Cemetery on Coskeries Road date from 1895, when the cemetery was established and administered by an appointed Board of ‘gentlemen’ of the district. The two names, Mayfield and Ruapuna, were used interchangeably until it officially became the Ruapuna Cemetery in 1934, and control was vested with a board of local Ruapuna residents.

Ruapuna Cemetery on Coskeries Road

Prior to this the cemetery had been under the control of the Anama Road Board for a period of about ten years. Finally, in 1948 the Ashburton County Council took charge of the cemetery together with some other small cemeteries in the County.

These surviving records are incredibly brief and disjointed.

The two minute books suggest that meetings were only held once or twice a year, if that, when the business centred on cemetery maintenance – how to deal with the gorse and broom and trimming the trees, but nothing about the people who were being buried in it. In a 1923 minute, “Mr Dellow (the Treasurer) did not think he could trace all the plots previous to the appointment of the Anama Road Board as Trustees.”

Nevertheless, they do record who served on the board and attended those few meetings.

The treasurer’s notebook

The treasurer’s notebook is more informative about the burials that took place.

The back page lists the purchasers’ names and numbers of the ‘plots or sections’ bought in the early years, but gives no dates. However, the incomplete accounts in the front of the notebook, although never more than a dozen lines, do date and detail purchase of plots and often who dug the grave – always a local resident – plus the hours of paid labour in keeping the cemetery tidy.

Michael Sewell 1823 – 1897. His was the first burial in the cemetery and a number of his descendants followed.

Digging a grave by hand (the only way then) must have been a difficult and back-breaking job in the stony, Ruapuna land and made doubly so when the ground was frozen in winter. As a way of raising money for the maintenance of the cemetery, people were encouraged to pay the princely sum of 2/6 for a deposit on their plot with the balance of 7/6 to be paid when the owner ‘occupied their section.’

This small note book has revealed details about three burials in plots 74, 283 and 342 that are not recorded in the Ashburton District Council Cemetery database and do not have headstones. J Deed is recorded as buying plots 74 & 75, and having a grave dug in 1906.

A page from the notebook recording the purchase of the  Deed, Langford and Whiting plots

Research shows that Joseph Henry Deed, an Australian who arrived in New Zealand in 1905, briefly worked in Anama and married Sarah Miller from Leeston in the Mayfield Presbyterian Manse. Their first child Lionel Henry died when he was 4 months old and is buried in Plot 74.   The family shifted to the Burnham / Rolleston area before 1910 and Plot 75 was subsequently sold. The grave site is just in grass.

More forgotten plots

Plot 342 was bought by D Langford in October 1913 and even though this grave lacks a headstone it still has its concrete beams, albeit broken.

Again, research revealed an Isabella and David Richard Langford – a traction engine driver – employed by his father-in-law John Burgess living in Mayfield at the time. The plot was bought for their eldest child Ellen, who was only 15 months old when she died. Two of Isabella’s brothers are also buried in the Ruapuna Cemetery, as well as her grandparents the Kellahans.

Plot 283 is another grassed plot with no identification – only the notations in the ‘little notebook’ that state Wm Whiting bought it for a child probably on 24 December 1900. It has proved impossible to positively identify either the parents or the child. It is conceivable the name was written down incorrectly or the plot was not bought for a Whiting child.

Searches of the online sites for Births, Deaths and Marriages (BDM) and Papers Past for newspaper items have not been helpful – maybe someone’s family tree holds the answer?

The above three cases illustrate the need to preserve and treasure our original documents as with careful reading they can disclose information that was thought to be lost.  

By Margaret Bean

This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 6 February 2021.


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