Local heritage expert Claudia Page provides Speculator readers with bit of a history lesson and short sermon on the subject of St Paul’s.
The Presbyterian Church was founded in 1866. The first church was in Church Street, later named for its numerous churches. The name changed to St Pauls from its jubilee in 1916, which coincided with completion of the church in Albert Road. In their centenary booklet published in 1966 it says this, and I think it is interesting to reflect on it some 45 years later:
“It is however, amazing to contemplate the thousands of Presbyterians who have laboured through the first hundred years for the Church – so much voluntary labour which has been given in the interests of Presbyterianism.”
It goes on to say “ In 1913 the congregation stressed the necessity for a later and more modern church… The site including the original Presbyterian burial ground received by Crown Grant in 1890 was available…. In 1916 it was decided to go forward in the year of the Golden Jubilee and plans by Messrs. Grierson and Aimer, Architects were approved”. Fundraising, a Jubilee offering and subsequent gifts made the building possible.
Fast forward to 2011 - The church and graveyard were offered for sale by Auction, on November 8. We immediately became aware of the sale and wrote to the land agents as we routinely do when scheduled properties are for sale.
The church has long been recognised in the District Plan – first by the Devonport Borough ( the architect is listed incorrectly as Edward Bartley ) and subsequently by the North Shore City Council ( who repeated the mistake!). It is one of quite a small number to be listed both for interior, exterior and the graveyard listing may be unique.
I have done some research on the background of the church property after a member contacted us and asked us to be actively involved. The property was a crown grant for the purpose of burials in 1856. Originally the whole site was to the Anglican Bishop of NZ, who I think would have been Selwyn? Later it must have become evident that denominational separation was desirable and the original lot was separated into 3 sections of which this is the ‘western portion’. Burials began almost immediately. In 1869 the government held an enquiry into Trust Estates for Religious Charitable and Educational purposes. At the enquiry Captain Burgess Harbourmaster , who controlled the cemetery said” The whole of the ground is not enclosed yet… the portion as yet enclosed is becoming quickly filled, in consequence of the numerous invalids removed to the North Shore; and from its being used by out-setters as well as residents.”
The closure of the burial ground and commissioning a replacement were quite an issue at the time. It seems that the precedent of locating larger park-like cemeteries further away from residential properties might have been at the heart of this. Historically in Victorian England, all the parish cemeteries which surrounded churches were closed after enormous overcrowding led to unsanitary conditions. Legislation in NZ was passed that did not allow for burials within a borough boundary. So the land for O’Neills Point cemetery ( outside the borough) was obtained for the new cemetery. Burials ceased at Devonport except where there were family plots, as there are quite a number dated after the formal closure up until the 1930s..
I have found a copy of the Government gazette notice which closed the burial ground in 1891, and added up the size of the land described, with the information on the size and purpose of the original crown grant (and later titles in lieu of grant). I concluded from this research that St Paul’s Church itself, has been built on part of a closed burial ground. There has now been quite a bit of publicity over this and the Burials and Cremations Act.
As I was curious about how the crown grant ended up in the control of the church, I wrote to LINZ asking for their help in investigating the historical title. I didn’t share or understand the view of Auckland Council that this was private land, given that it was originally a crown grant. Being a Crown Grant if it’s not required any longer for the purpose of the grant, usually means it reverts to the crown. I hadn’t been shown any proof that there had been an approved change of purpose. Auckland Council had not given any specifics as to why they held this view.
On November 1 I had a call from LINZ in Hamilton and they have sent me a document, Warrant 774, where it can been seen that the purpose of cemetery has been deleted and under the recommendation of the Minister of Lands would appear to have been initialled by the Governor. The date for this is November 1891. This would seem to be enough proof that the church are now the lawful owners of the land.
Presumably as it was mostly full of graves the land was not useful to the Crown if they took it back. This still brings it under the Burials act which is administered by the Ministry of Health. To sell, dispose of or gift the land the Minister of Health will have to agree and get an order in Council. This would no doubt take some time.
The church is considering subdividing the cemetery onto its own title and giving it to Auckland Council. St Margarets minister at Belmont is already putting it about that they are giving the graveyard to the Auckland Council .
This would require careful investigation of what is below the ground in order to place the boundary to include all the graves. The Minister of Health would still need to be involved. Surveyors have already been seen at the site, and a poke around there a week or two back has shown there are survey marks in place on the hillside. There is some view in the community that there may in fact be burials under part of the church itself. Photographs in the centenary publication shows a headstone behind the church and also quite close to the southern wall. I have been around the back of the church over the last week and have concluded that due to the topography this is probably not all that likely. It seemed reasonable to suggest that though, because broken headstones were found there .
Trish and I were invited to attend a community meeting arranged by Chris Darby about this on 21 October. In attendance were Leslie Vyfhuis of Auckland Council, Mike Cohen, , John O’Toole , solicitor, Derek Brickell former parishioner, Gail Lyons and Lyndsay Brock friends of the Mt Victoria cemetery.
At the labour weekend the sale was still being advertised but the wording had changed somewhat and we have heard the auction date is now “to be advised”. And that “the church are of the opinion that they are entitled to sell the asset in it entirety, including the graveyard. However they are obtaining a legal opinion in support of this”.
By 2nd November this had changed again to “The graveyard is not part of the sale. A fence will be erected between the graveyard and the property for sale.
The auction date came and went, and on 14th November the sign was removed and we learned that the property has been withdrawn from sale for the time being.
Almost immediately after the sale was stopped the church have sent in an archaeologist to do subsoil geomagnetic surveying to try and locate more graves. Gail Lyons has been helping with this.. As thought there have been several more likely ones found, including one that is now partly under the footpath. The places identified are marked with blue paint Of course each of these has its own story – including 11 year old George who died from wounds received playing with a toy canon, and no doubt more will come out on that in the future.
There has been considerable media coverage of this issue A story like this is a no-brainer for a headline writer… think “Old Church begs to be converted”” St Pauls Church … your heavenly home“, ”Tombs with a view” “ Church sale fails as locals hail Gail”
As a result Devonport heritage has been contacted by people as far away as Wellington with historical and very recent connections with the church.
One correspondent had only within the last few years buried her mothers ashes next to the hall and erected a plaque; another was worried about what he described as the “finest example of a baptismal font in a Presbyterian church in the country ( a memorial bequest from Mr and Mrs Lind); yet another is very distressed at the news that the roll of honours board to his war comrades may have recently been removed ;we were contacted about the carved church table ( this has apparently already gone to the Forrest Hill church some time ago.)
So what will happen now?
One has to wonder how the church and its advisers could have advertised the sale at all.
I believe that there is a lot more work to be done before any sale could proceed.
- The Church trustees should probably be looking into the terms of any bequests to see if that has a bearing at all;
- There might need to be archaeological consent for fence posts on the new boundary;
- Because the building is scheduled, a new owner will have to come up with plans that do not have any adverse effect on heritage values, or any resource consent will have to be publicly notified; whether there is an adverse effect, would be determined by a council planner.
- It will be interesting to see how this develops as I can’t recall a precedent locally where a building was scheduled inside and out. Of course St Michaels is, and the church have apparently postponed that sale while they ponder the issues.
- The Ministry and Minister of Health need to be involved (Word is that will be Ann Tolley!)
- The usual procedure for a subdivision of residentially zoned land would be needed to make a separate title. I don’t foresee this posing any problems.
The authors in the St Pauls centennial booklet noted “ we invite the reader to append his own priceless autograph to ensure that if your copy is found in a hundred years time the it will the worth at least 5/- to the unfortunate committee who will have to go through TWO tin trunks of dusty Minutes to compile their booklet”. We would now have quite a bit more to add to those trunks!
- Claudia Page