It was Labour Day a few weekends ago now. A perfect day to visit a cemetery.
Bolton Street Cemetery is Wellington’s memento mori. Every city needs a cemetery right in its centre; it keeps things in perspective. Bolton Street Cemetery, of course, used to be more at the fringe of things, coming off the foot of the Terrace and drifting down into a gully before climbing the hills towards Kelburn. In the late 1960s and early 70s progress demanded a motorway through the cemetery, and so a motorway was built and a heap of bodies and headstones shifted. Tucked behind what used to be the sexton’s house now is a mass grave in a sunny glade for all those bodies, which gives a sort of genocidal flavour to the sushi and flat white lunches of the office workers who come there for their midday bitch about their boss.
There is something very pleasing about the fact that a cemetery sits at the back door of Treasury and the the Ministry of Business and Innovation. Abutting the dreams of progress and growth is a handy reminder of the finality of all those dreamers. Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
A few years ago now I took a History field trip around Wellington. Our last stop, before we went back down to Molesworth Street and the bus to school, was Edward Wakefield’s grave. It was probably the most effective moment of the whole field trip because it felt like we had suddenly stumbled upon a person who we had thought of as fictional. That mercurial character we had read about, the man who invented Wellington, his elopement (kidnapping), scams, and fanciful nonsense, had all seemed like a chapter out of Dickens, but here he was: a little dirt, a headstone, and under that some bones. For him, I suppose, you could say that his dream eventuated, and grew – literally – around him, as the office blocks and Ministry buildings pushed up out of the muddy Terrace and little wooden houses into the city we see today. Although you would have to swirl through that milk of success the dark stain of bitterness and anger that Wakefield lived with in his final years.
But for every speculator and capitalist like Wakefield who came to New Zealand in the 19th century, there were other schemers with different dreams, and it was one of them I was interested in when I went to the cemetery on Labour Day..
I am already one of those dads who drags his children to see obscure things when they are out. My daughters, at the moment, are far more amenable to this than Cathy although, to be fair to Cathy, she more often than not comes with me on my excursions. She accepts that my interests are worthy, and I accept that if there are too many hills and too much mud involved then her begrudging tolerance will be quickly replaced with a foot coming down.
I could happily spend hours in Bolton Street Cemetery. To me it is like browsing in a slightly macabre book shop. I say slightly because for me it is mostly about the pleasure of wallowing in pathos. Happily when you visit a cemetery with your children pathos is rapidly replaced with bathos. There is no better example than the grave of Harry Holland.
“Mmm?” [Daddy is distracted noticing the lovely juxtaposition of a grave with the newborn leaves of Spring in the background]
“Why can I see that man’s bottom?”
” – ”
“Um, it’s… a…. The bottom. The man. The man’s bottom is….” In the end I distracted Eleanor with something else. I sensed that if the bottom was diverting her the strange Ken shaped bulge at the front of the male statue standing on Harry Holland’s grave would draw even more questions.
Frankly, I have no explanation for why there is a naked, buff man standing on Holland’s grave. It is a very fine grave, with a very fine chap arching his back on top of it, but from what I understand many in the Labour party in the 1930s viewed Holland’s unexpected death as politically advantageous letting – as it did – Savage take the leadership of the Labour Party. It would be Savage, of course, who would be Labour’s first Prime Minister. Perhaps there is something of the mixed feelings of guilt and relief in the grave; or perhaps it is how the people who commissioned it felt about Holland once he was gone.
I like Holland’s grave, and Seddon’s preposterous monument (which so suits him), but I prefer the little grassy lanes of the (slightly) less well known. If you go down one of those lanes you can find Katherine Mansfield’s sister Gwendoline who died in 1891 only three months old. Further on, past the point where the weeds have overgrown the path and it seems a dead end, you can find the grave of Samuel Parnell.
Parnell arrived in Wellington in 1840 and died there at the age of 81 in 1890. He was a carpenter and his skills were very much in demand in 1840 when the first waves of settlers wanted houses and stores. Here is the story of the origins of the idea of limited work hours as told by Parnell:
Mr. Hunter in the meantime had settled further down, towards the Koro-koro Pah, and nearer the sea beach than I did. When the houses were up, he came to me and said he wanted a store built, as he expected a quantity of stores out by the next vessels, and he asked me if I could build it for him.
“I will do my best,” I answered, “but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter: that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day.”
Mr. Hunter could not dream of such a thing; it was ridiculous, preposterous, &c., &c.
“There are,” I replied, “twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o’clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.”
“You know, Mr. Parnell,” replied Mr. Hunter, “that in London the bell rang at six o’clock, and if a man was not there ready to turn to, he lost a quarter of a day.”
I said, “Mr. Hunter, we’re not in London, and if you don’t agree to these terms I can’t help you. I have plenty to do for myself, so I must wish yon good-morning.” And I turned to go home.
I had not got many paces when he called me back, and said that he supposed he must agree to it, as he wanted the building up, and he hoped that I would get along with it as best I could. And so you see, the first strike for eight hours a day the world has ever seen was settled on the spot.
It is, I think, a wonderful story. Almost, really, a Rosa Parks kind of story in its simplicity, as different as it may be in many other ways.
Such an appealing story is it that even those who resisted his stand have long wanted to be recast in it. In 1890, while Parnell was still alive, Hunter – the man who only reluctantly agreed to Parnell’s demands – was being described in the editorial of the Evening Post as a supporter of the eight hour day movement. Something that continues to this day:
“Thus Hunter became an early supporter of the eight-hour day”. Is this the same as claiming that Mubarak supported the Arab Spring? After all, didn’t he step down from power?
On Tuesday 28 October 1890 there was a celebration of the fiftieth year of Parnell’s stand against the tyranny of work. The politicized workers of Wellington had a march through town, with Parnell on a cart, all the way to Newtown Park where speeches were made. Because these workers did not have permission to do this, October 28 was essentially a strike.
Less than two months later, in the early hours of the morning on 16 December 1890, Parnell died in his home on Cambridge Terrace in Wellington.
How much more beautiful was the Kent-Cambridge Terrace area in Wellington 120 years ago? This much more:
Parnell’s funeral was on Saturday 20 December.
And so they took him up the hill in the heavy rain and laid him to rest in that little unvisited spot I took my family to on Labour Day: “At last the sad duty was over, and after a most impressive Socialistic ceremony, performed by Mr. John Chantrey Harris, the body was consigned to the grave, and the mournful assemblage turned away to again meet the world and resume their every-day avocations.” (Source)
We were not a mournful assemblage last Labour Day. I was struck again by the indifference of life to our existence or non-existence. My children were struck by the high grass and the wild flowers in the little plots around us. I did think that this was a little grave that could be more noted in our national story, but perhaps not. Perhaps this is about right for a quiet, humble man who made his case on a scruffy shore near Petone. We can sometimes make our would better for a time. If we’re lucky.
Cathy and the girls were further up the path already. Time to go, time to leave Harry, Gwendoline, Edward and Samuel. If you’re honest with the past there is no overarching message, just as with the present. Just the same themes: grief, joy, love, hate, success and failure, power and resistance. On Labour Day I suppose we should take the time to remember the possibility of change, to remember Parnell, or Parks, or Mandela, before we turn away again to meet the world and resume our every-day avocations.