Major impact - building the motorway

The motorway destroyed part of the cemetery

Significant parts of the Catholic and Anglican sections of the Symonds Street Cemetery were removed when the motorways were built through these gullies, in the mid 1960s.

To align the motorways heading towards the Harbour Bridge and down Grafton Gully to the port, a huge excavation had to be made, effectively breaking through the ridge that Symonds Street ran up.

The on-ramp from the Symonds Street/Karangahape Road intersection to the southbound motorway, affected around 2000 graves in the Anglican section – these being in the most-favoured spot. Some of these headstones from this section are now secured against the on-ramp retaining wall.

A large part of the Catholic section of the cemetery was lost, with also about 2000 graves removed. This permanently separated St Benedict’s Church from the cemetery it once adjoined.

Anglican and Catholic remains were re-interred under memorial areas now within their respective sections of the cemetery.

More graves than thought

In Symonds Street Cemetery - A Garden History (part of the 1996 Conservation Plan) Susan Clunie writes “…it is clear that common graves were the norm in nineteenth century New Zealand, as far more remains were recovered when clearing graves for the motorway in the 1960s than were expected by a society used to one body per grave.

“Archaeology by bulldozer at that time has not left much information on burial practices, but there were some lead coffins.”

In the affected part of the Anglican cemetery, 1200 known burial plots had yielded the remains of around 2000 people, and in the Catholic section 400 headstones yielded over 2100.

A newspaper’s view of the motorway building

From an article in the Christchurch Star, 8 June 1968, by Geoffrey Webster


If the public don’t see what we are up to, chances are they won’t much care. We can get on with it, without a flood of protests.

Maybe something of this sort of thinking motivated the erection in upper Symonds Street – in the heart of Auckland – of tall, corrugated iron fences.

Behind this screen excavating teams went to work, in part with a mechanical digger. They exhumed vestigial remains of Maori War veterans, clergymen and Auckland’s pioneers.

They dug them up by the thousand. In most cases there was little to exhume. Down in Grafton Gully the earth is what engineers describe as “aggressive”. Only metal linings of coffins prove resistant.

Some coffins, in which poor people were buried, were of cheap wood – the plain, deal [pine] caskets provided by the city’s Charitable Aid Board for folk officially designated as paupers. Such coffins quickly disintegrated.

Some of the excavation has been done by night. Too many people watching through chinks and joints in the iron fences. All this macabre work in the old Symonds Street Cemetery, closed in 1908, has a seemingly irresistible fascination for some folk.

An eye pressed to a hole in the screen, they stand for 10 minutes or more. Some return, day after day. By contrast, the majority, passing in the tens of thousands, appear to be wholly indifferent.

Building of the motorway

  • <p>1960s aerial view of the southern part of the Catholic section of Symonds Street Cemetery, now partly occupied by the Northern Motorway. Upper Queen Street runs vertically, centre left with Karangahape Road running  left to right across the top of the image, and the roof og St Benedicts Church can be seen at centre foreground. <em>Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 580-10446.</em></p>
  • <p>Aerial view of Grafton Bridge from Symonds Street, showing the Catholic section of the cemetery at lower left, c1937. <em>Whites Aviation Ltd, Alexander Turnbull Library,  Ref: WA-44313-G.</em></p>
  • <p>View south across town from Grafton Street Bridge through to the Manukau Harbour beyond. <em>Whites Aviation Ltd, Ref: WA-38879-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.</em></p>
  • <p>Construction of motorway at the southern end of Grafton Gully, Symonds Street on left, c1966. <em>Whites Aviation Ltd, Ref: WA-66169-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.</em></p>
  • <p>Southern Motorway Extension, Auckland, showing Grafton Gully and bridge, c1974. <em>Whites Aviation Ltd. Ref: WA-72076-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.</em></p>
  • <p>An aerial view of the Symonds Street Cemeter just as the Catholic section is being clear to make way for the motorway, c1960s. <em>Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZ Map 7284.</em></p>