Karoro Cemetery, Greymouth, West Coast

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Date: About 1863 [unknown]
Location: Chesterfield Street, Blaketown, Greymouth, West Coastmap
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General Information

  • Cemetery name: Karoro Cemetery, Greymouth
  • Address: 4-10 Chesterfield Street, Blaketown, Greymouth, West Coast, New Zealand.
  • GPS Coordinates: -42.46783, 171.18938


Karoro Cemetery dates back to 1863 and is divided into Anglican, Presbyterian, and Catholic sections, with a 1921 extension. A memorial to Harriet Herbertson, wife of a Totara Flat farmer, was erected in 1928. The cemetery's earliest graves include those of Henry Whitcombe, Charles Townsend, and Peter Mitchelmore (all drowned in 1863) and George Dobson (murdered in 1866).

The Greymouth Cemetery was originally established on a part of the coast known as Kororo. Advertisement, Greymouth Evening Star, 16 December 1913, Page 1 [1] By about 1900, the railway station was named Karoro, people going to the Greymouth Cemetery getting off at Karoro Station - Grey River Argus, 3 December 1906, Page 2 [2] and by 1908 it was unofficially known as Karoro Cemetery - Greymouth Evening Star, 27 May 1908, Page 3 [3] What is now known as the Karoro Cemetery was Greymouth Cemetery from the start - West Coast Times, Issue 68, 9 November 1865, Page 1 (Supplement) [4] and until the 1960s at least, all burials were in the Greymouth Cemetery - Press, Volume CI, Issue 29838, 2 June 1962, Page 1 [5]

Notable Monuments

Harriet Herbertson Memorial Harriet Herbertson and her husband were farmers at Totara Flat. The farm they were on what was later Malcom Campbell's. Harriet is actually buried in Auckland. It was her husband who built the memorial at Karoro in1928.

A granite monument over the grave of Sir Arthur Robert Guinness who represented the Grey District in Parliament for 29 years, is to the right of the entrance to the cemetery.

George Dobson On 28th May 1866, surveyor George Dobson was riding on horseback alone by the Grey (Mawheranui) River near Greymouth when he was stopped by two men. Firearms were produced and an order for gold was made. It was a case of misidentification and George was murdered.

George was just 10 years old when he arrived in Lyttelton with his father (Edward) and younger brother (Arthur), aboard the Canterbury Association’s 4th ship, the ‘Cressy’. He and his brother did not remain in New Zealand for long as they were shipped off to their uncle in Tasmania when Edward failed to find work. By 1854, the boys had returned to Christchurch where their mother and other siblings had arrived and Edward had set up a home in Sumner. As the boys grew up, Edward passed on the skills and love of engineering, surveying and building. Both George and Arthur would have careers along these lines as a result.

By the early 1860’s, Arthur had found work as a surveyor for the Canterbury Provincial Government and was assigned a very important project. With the discovery of gold on the west coast, a road was needed to link the Canterbury Plains to the West Coast. George kept his brother company for the first part of this project before venturing away for work commitments of his own. Arthur went on with his Maori trackers and discovered a passage now known today as Arthur’s Pass. George was one of the later surveyors that confirmed that Arthur’s Pass was the best choice for a road to be built. The family link continued as Arthur’s father, Edward, was the engineer in charge of the road construction.

In 1866, Arthur had moved his life to Nelson as he had been promised work as a provincial surveyor. George had also accepted survey work in Greymouth, constructing roads close to the Grey River. On the days leading up to the 28th May, outlaws Richard Burgess and Thomas Kelly had heard that a gold buyer by the name of E.B. Fox would be passing through the district with his bounty. The two men laid in wait and mistook George Dobson as their prey. George was strangled and his body hidden.

Burgess and Kelly fled the area, heading up into the Marlborough district. Here, in the company of Joseph Sullivan and Philip Levy, they robbed and murdered 5 people during 12th and 13th June. These became known as the Maungatapu Murders. Sullivan eventually turned in his fellow murderers for a pardon and a cash reward. Burgess, Kelly and Levy went to trial and were hung (note the death masks). Sullivan also faced trial in spite of his help in breaking the case and did some jail time in Dunedin before leaving New Zealand for Australia. It is believed that he died during the 1920’s.The township of Dobson is named in George’s memory. [6]

Notable Interments

Drownings Grey River 1863 - Headstone Karoro Cemetery, Greymouth. Peter Michelmore resident of Swansea, Tasmania. Drowned 9 Oct 1863 when a whaleboat capsized at the mouth of the Grey River. The other two men to lose their lives were Charles Townsend and a Maori man named Solomon.

Four victims of the Dobson Mine Disaster, West Coast are buried in Karoro Cemetery: On 3 Dec. 1926, about 3.05 a.m., two explosions left the Dobson coal mine engulfed in fire and 9 men trapped within. The explosions were of such terrific force that some houses neighbouring the colliery had their windows broken and their roofs pierced. About 90 minutes after the initial impact, a rescue party was able to descend to the winch-house and four men were discovered. Although only one was dead on arrival the other three perished at later stages. The opening of the mine was eventually sealed to suffocate the raging fire which was preventing the continuation of the rescue operation. More explosions, however, blew out the stoppings and the only alternative left was to flood the mine. The mine had been inspected two weeks earlier and no defects had been reported. The directors of the Grey Valley Colleries Ltd could not explain the explosion. It was generally thought to have been the result of a build up of gases. Robert Hunter, James Richards, John Lindsay and Eric Ashton died in the disaster. Special trains brought hundreds of people from the surrounding districts and altogether over 4000 gathered to pay their respects at the graveside. The procession was headed by the Greymouth and Runanga Municipal Bands playing the Dead March, followed by members of various lodges and local bodies, mine representatives and the the general public.

Strongman Mine Disaster Nineteen men were killed when an explosion ripped through the state-run Strongman coal mine at Rūnanga, 19 January 1967 on the West Coast of the South Island, just after 10 a.m. An inquiry found that safety regulations had not been followed and a shot hole for a charge had been incorrectly fired. Located just north of Greymouth, the Strongman mine (New Zealand’s largest underground coal mine) had had an impeccable safety record since opening in 1939. But in January 1967 an explosion sent a fireball through a section of the mine, in which 240 men were working at the time. A higher death toll was avoided only because a wet patch in the tunnel near the site of the explosion slowed down and then extinguished the fireball.

Smoke and firedamp (methane gas produced by coal) made the search for survivors and bodies hazardous. When mixed with a certain proportion of air, firedamp becomes highly explosive. Those involved in the rescue were at constant risk of another explosion. After 15 bodies were recovered on the day of the explosion, it took another three weeks to retrieve two more. The last two men could not be recovered and the tunnel was sealed off. Five men involved in the rescue received the British Empire Medal for their bravery. An inquiry into the disaster concluded that at least two mining regulations had been broken. The government was ordered to pay compensation to the families of the victims.

The Cemetery at Greymouth — Links With The Past' By Catherine Keddell

  • The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 2 (May 1, 1940.)

' God's Acre is a lovely term. As Longfellow says of this Anglo-Saxon expression: 'It consecrates each grave within its walls, and breathes a benison on the sleeping dust.' The words suggest a quiet, shady churchyard, its old headstones, moss-grown and yew-shaded, marking the last sleeping place of those whose humble race is run. It is so much more restful and beautiful than the word “cemetery” which has a suggestion of coldness and finality. God's Acre reminds us of the peace of death, of the long rest after the hard journey, but “cemetery” speaks only of the loneliness of death. And no place can seem lonelier than a bleak cemetery. Such a one is the cemetery at Greymouth. Here are no English oaks, elms or yews casting mantling shadows on green grass and ivied walls and ancient tombstones all awry, no friendly native trees of that tree-wealthy Westland here rear their proud heads to the vast bowl of the sky. Exposed all day to the sun, and open to every wind that blows, it lies only a stone's-throw from the Tasman Sea. Here, on a long sandy terrace lie those whose headstones tell the whole of the white man's romantic and lively history on the Golden Coast. Here lies many a “cook's son, duke's son, and son of a millionaire,” men who came hither lured by the stories of the incredibly, rich goldfields. They came in their thousands in the days of the gold rush, sought the glittering nuggets or dust, and endured hardships and privations in the hope of better things to come.

Of course, the Maoris are first in the history of Westland, described by Tasman as an “inhospitable” land, for he saw only the long miles of range upon range of hills and snow-peaked mountains, with the narrow rush-clad plain in front of them. The ancient burial ground was a cave in the range of limestone hills through which the Grey River has cut its way to the sea.

On the northern side of the river these hills are locally known as the Twelve Apostles because of the number of small peaks. The burial cave was on the south side, close to the river, but is no longer in existence. When the harbour works were begun rock from the hill was quarried and so began the blasting of the hillside. Great consternation was shown by the Maoris of the pa at Mawhera, now Greymouth. In order to appease them, and especially the old chief Werita Tainui, a Maori tohunga, held in great reverence, was sent, according to an old chronicler, from the North Island to perform certain rites and make incantations by which the tapu might be removed. This done, the precious bones of the long departed Maori chiefs were deposited elsewhere.

The first white men to come to the coast were the surveyors, men who endured incredible hardships, when from either Canterbury or Nelson they fought their difficult way through thick bush—so thick as to be almost impenetrable—across cold, treacherous rapidly flowing streams rushing from the Southern Alps to the Tasman Sea, they made their painful and often hungry way to the Coast. In the cemetery of Greymouth lies the surveyor Whitcombe, after whom Whitcombe Pass is named. Whitcombe, when only thirty-four years of age, was drowned in the Taramakau River. A plain low grey stone covers the grave. It is marked only by the long cross which patterns its slight pyramidal shape, and the simple remarks, “Henry Whitcombe, born February 18, 1829, drowned at Taramakau, May 5, 1863.” Nearby are the graves of two more surveyors whose tombstones were erected by the old Canterbury Provincial Government. Grey with the years, worn by the salt winds and driving rains from the Tasman Sea, they mark the spots where lie “Charles Townsend, aged 40, drowned at the Grey, October 9th, 1863,” and “Mitchellmore, drowned with Town-send.” '

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