Story: Memorials and monuments

Page 1. 19th-century memorials

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Memorials recall past events or people. The most common type in the western tradition is the gravestone marking a person’s burial place. However, in classical times, monuments were erected in public places such as squares, to victories in war or to political or military heroes. Europeans in the early 19th century copied this with large monuments like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or Nelson’s column in London.

Until the 1890s there were few such memorials in New Zealand.

‘Great men’

The only statues of local ‘great men’ in the European tradition, both in Christchurch, were:

  • a statue of John Robert Godley, the ‘founder of Canterbury’, by Thomas Woolner in Cathedral Square (1867)
  • the seated figure of the former Canterbury superintendent, William Moorhouse, in the public gardens (1885).

Ill-treated founders

Rather than a statue, William Cargill’s monument in Dunedin was a Gothic revival spire – and some wits unkindly suggested that the only evidence of Cargill was the gargoyles’ resemblance to family portraits. The monument was planned as a gas lamp, a drinking fountain and a viewing platform in a pleasure garden. But the garden did not eventuate and the drinking fountains were never connected with the basins, which were used as spittoons. William Wakefield’s memorial was ordered immediately after his death, but sat ignored in a contractor’s yard for a generation until it gained a life as a drinking fountain at the Basin Reserve.

Dunedin put up a memorial to Otago settlement founder William Cargill in 1864, but it was not a statue and instead had utilitarian purposes. The founder of Wellington, William Wakefield, fared no better, and it was not until 34 years after his death in 1848 that a metal domed temple was erected to his memory. Other memorials were to those killed in accidents – such as the surveyor George Dobson, murdered north of Greymouth in 1866, and Donald Campbell and his family, who drowned in the wreck of the Tararua in 1881.

Robert Burns

In 1887 a memorial to Scottish poet Robert Burns was unveiled in Dunedin. It followed a worldwide movement to honour Burns and was seen locally as an expression of Dunedin’s Scots identity. Memorials were also erected to Burns in Timaru (1913), Auckland (1921) and Hokitika (1923). His nephew, Dunedin leader and clergyman Thomas Burns, was not memorialised until 1891, 20 years after his death – and the memorial was paid for by one benefactor, not by public subscription.

Memorials to Māori

In the late 19th century there were more free-standing monuments to distinguished Māori than to Pākehā. Between 1872 and 1880 there were no memorials to Pākehā, but eight to Māori, and another five were erected in the early 1890s.

There were two main motivations – Māori had long recalled great ancestors through artworks in the form of pou (carved posts), so they were quick to appreciate the idea of putting up stone monuments to their forebears. In 1880 Te Rauparaha’s son, Tāmihana, was responsible for a memorial column and bust of his father at Ōtaki. Māori also erected monuments on the site of the first Ngāi Tahu at Kaiapohia (1899), and to the Treaty of Waitangi at Te Tii marae (1881).

Also, Pākehā had a desire to express gratitude to Māori who had supported the Crown. Memorials to Tāmati Wāka Nene (1873), Te Mātenga Taiaroa (1871), Winiata Pekanui Tohi Te Ururangi (1877), Pitihera Kōpū (1872) and Te Puni (1871) were all paid for by the New Zealand government. In the early 1890s the Crown’s reconciliation with Tainui was commemorated in stone with memorials to Rewi Maniapoto at Kihikihi, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero at Ngāruawāhia and Te Wheoro near Rangiriri.

A new wave of memorials

As late as 1897 Premier Richard Seddon bemoaned the absence of memorials. He commented that other colonies had ‘statues erected there to their leading citizens, warriors and pioneers’1, but New Zealand did not.

This was about to change. Within the next year there were six new monuments: to a successful politician, John Ballance; to religious pioneers (Bishop Henry Harper in Christchurch and Dr Donald Stuart in Dunedin); and a statue of Queen Victoria in Auckland. Society was becoming more affluent, and the larger towns began to see monuments as evidence of civic success. As the founding generations died there was a desire to honour the pioneers, and the spate of memorial-building overseas encouraged imitation. By the start of the 20th century New Zealanders were ready to invest in monuments, and they did so.

  1. Evening Post, 7 April 1897, p. 5. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Memorials and monuments - 19th-century memorials', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 26 Mar 2015