I’ve recently got back from an 8-day whirlwind trip to Wellington. I researched family, visited graves, spent time with friends, and only did any form of gardening once. I had an unusually excellent run with the weather too – in October! Over Labour Weekend!
Really, the trip was blessed.
It’s the first time I’ve been there since learning anything about Wellington’s history. Also since I learned to identify plants. It’s safe to say my experiences of the city in my 40’s are very different to my experiences when I lived there in my 20’s (and again briefly in my 30’s). I noticed all sorts of things I’d never seen over the previous 20 years.
It was really loud. If you live there, you might be used to the near-constant construction happening in every corner of the city. But as someone who lives on a remote little farm in the northern regions, it was a constant barrage of sound and people.
So I arrived home a little overwhelmed and peopled-out. But I really did have a ball. Here are some of the highlights.
I didn’t realise when I booked my flights that I would be in Wellington for Labour Weekend. But that worked out well for me because on Labour Day, the Friends of Karori Cemetery were holding tours. I got to go on the ‘Murder and Mayhem’ tour followed by the ‘Introduction to Karori Cemetery’ tour.
My friend Jo from House of Boom very kindly lent me her car, and I got there nice and early. I parked and plugged the GPS co-ordinates of the grave I most wanted to see into Google Maps.
Through a lot of very complicated and intense research over the last two years, I’d tracked this one down and reconnected my great, great, great grandmother to my family tree. This guy’s mother.
And here is where she rests, alongside her daughter; son; grandson; daughter-in-law; and second husband.
Google Maps told me the grave was a 3 minute walk from where I’d parked. Perfect.
It takes a little longer to find the right row and grave, even with GPS, but it was really helpful. I got to spend 20 minutes hanging with these long-lost family members. The grave had been recently tidied up so it was just a quiet moment where I introduced myself and how I was connected to each of them.
Then, onto my first tour with Phillipa from the Friends of Karori Cemetery. It was indeed full of mayhem and murder. I learned about burials in other cultures; so much about the history of the cemetery; and some pretty far-out stories from the lives of the people laid to rest there.
Between tours, I got to see another couple of graves – a set of great, great, great grandparents; and great, great, great, great grandparents. Both had been recorded with GPS by the council and were easy enough to find and access.
Then I went back to see Phillipa, and we went on a trek to see the Smith Sisters together.
Meeting the Smiths
The grave of Sarah Elizabeth, Mary Ann (Polly), and Florence (Florrie) Smith is located down the back of Gum Valley. The grass was up to my thighs in places. Blackberry clawed at our clothes. It’s pretty rough and if you’re visiting, gumboots wouldn’t hurt.
They weren’t where we thought they’d be, but Phillipa jumped on the phone and called someone in front of a computer who directed us further down the row. Eventually we came across the cleanest grave in this part of the cemetery. My great, great grand aunts. The ones who were “fine pastrycooks”.
I showed Phillipa the death print outs I had for Sarah and Polly. I told her what I knew of their lives so far. Then she left me to take a moment by myself.
Having learned I was allowed to do it, I dusted off the debris that had accumulated since the Friends had cleaned up the grave at my request over Easter Weekend 2022, and pulled off a few weeds.
While I was there, I collected the GPS co-ordinates. So if anyone else wants to visit them, they can do it without a team of tour guides – just get in touch if you’re related on my Dad’s side and I’ll happily provide them.
I introduced myself and asked them to help me find this damn cake shop. This trip wasn’t helpful for finding any new answers about their lives, or who they were. But at least I got to visit and make sure they had the tidiest grave in their section of the cemetery.
I looked around and saw bluebells and onion weed growing nearby, so I made a small bunch of flowers before I had to hurry off for my next tour.
The Introduction tour was much shorter, but also free and covered a lot of things I didn’t learn in the first tour – so time well spent. Following the tour, Phillipa again gave me directions to the last grave I’d been hoping to see.
The Outpost Connection
If you’ve been reading long enough, you’ll know that Richard and I both have independent family connections to the land we live on. For me, my paternal grandfather’s cousin married a grandson of the first post-colonial owner of this property.
Their family line ended in 1982 with her death as they didn’t have children. And her parents and sister were lying under a thick blanket of tradescantia below a very large macrocarpa.
And so my final stop of the day involved the only gardening I allowed myself to do on this trip as I rolled up the blanket of tradescantia and biffed out the branches that had fallen over the years.
I wished I had my gardening gloves, a nice sharp spade, and some moss and mould remover. I left the grave with about 3 inches of accumulated soil on top of the concrete. The tradescantia will grow back. I think it’s pretty safe to say very few family members would have visited this grave in the last 40 years, if any.
As I worked, I introduced myself and told them about the twist of fate that made our connection stronger. Once again I grabbed the GPS co-ordinates.
It was probably my favourite day of the trip, and I spent it in a cemetery. Next time I go back, I’ll be taking tools.
Gran’s Quiche Cheese Rolls
On the Saturday night, I attended my second (of seven) Sajoween – an annual Halloween party hosted by my friends Saj and Jo. This year’s theme was ‘Time Machine’, and since I was so far down my family research hole, I decided to dress in the Victorian Era.
Following a couple of beers on Thursday night, I had trounced into The Costume Cave with the amazing and wonderful Sara, who helped me find a costume to rent for the party.
Under pressure of another booking at Nicolini’s (where we were hoping to have dinner), we quickly found a dress, hat, fur, and choker that worked. I still kind of wish I had a bustle too, but with my sense of co-ordination sometimes, probably better I didn’t!
As I mentioned in my last post, I helped out with the catering. For more than a year, I’ve been working my way through recipes in my Gran’s handwritten cookbook.
One recipe was something called ‘Quiche Cheese Rolls’ – the original recipe served 60, so I’d never made it for Richard and I; but a party seemed a great opportunity to give it a whirl.
So that’s how I came to spend my Saturday night dressed as a Victorian lady in my friend’s kitchen, dancing to Lil Nas X and baking Southland Sushi (Southland Cheese Rolls) with a little twist care of Hawke’s Bay.
And boy, did they go down well. Turns out, drunk people love bread and cheese! They disappeared as quickly as I could send them out. The photo above is so bad mostly because people were hovering waiting for me to stop photographing them!
Here’s a PDF of the recipe as it stands (this version makes 30, but is easily doubled to feed the masses). I’m pretty sure there’s a couple of people who might want it.
Archives and the National Library
I spent two and a half of my eight days following my research leads at Archives and the National Library.
My Nana was good enough to introduce me to these buildings as a child, but I was still intimidated going in to do real research. There are rules, and ways of doing things.
All the rules and ways of doing things make sense; but I had to learn them and ask stupid questions before I was really underway.
At least I only have to do that once – now I’ve got my head around it, I’ll be able to go back and get cracking as more documents become public over the next decade.
At Archives, there were coroner’s reports, divorce files, and bankruptcy files. It felt really strange to be opening these papers which were almost all over 100 years old. To see and touch the signatures of the people whose lives I’ve been all up in. To learn what was inside those pages. I’m still processing a lot of it.
I spent an entire day with my face in the records of the Wellington Congregational Churches to discover absolutely nothing at all. Well – as I keep telling myself – I discovered there was nothing to discover.
My current suspicion is that potentially, the Congregational Church was the church happiest to perform funeral services for non-members. The sisters believed enough to want the prayers at the end, but not enough to actually join the church itself.
My first real dead end. I’ll need to find another way into the lives of the Smith Sisters and that cake shop.
Old friends and new friends
Somehow I am still – after more than 20 years – in the position of having more friends in Wellington than in the place I actually live. So I didn’t have the opportunity to catch up with everyone. I’m sorry if I missed you this time.
But Wellington-style random chance had me drinking tea with a Twitter/X/BlueSky mutual on my first morning. I saw people I hadn’t seen in almost a decade. I even made new friends!
The moments I did get to spend time with these wonderful people were really wonderful. I’m glad I got to take advantage of it and enjoy the company of those I did get to catch up with.
I never really knew why Wellington has always felt like home to me – right since my childhood when my Nana used to take me to visit. But now I have a little more insight into that. My family history there goes back almost 150 years. My ancestors are buried in its soil, and are part of the fabric of what Wellington has become.
I think I’m just spiritually, historically, culturally, and socially connected to the the place.
And despite all that, looking at Wellington with the new lenses I have collected since my last visit means it really was a whole new city to me.
Houses I’d walked past hundreds of times in the early 2000’s took on new meaning. Corners I’d previously never visited suddenly became must-see attractions. Even the plants and trees came to life in a whole new way.
Thanks for having me Wellington. It was rad. But it’s also really nice to be home.