A Cemetery Tour

There’s a word for people with an inordinate fondness for cemeteries – taphophile. Being a tombstone tourist is an absorbing pastime – a bit of exercise, architecture and history all rolled into the one package – so whenever I get the chance, I join a cemetery guided tour.

Ghost walks are also a fun way to learn about the history of a place. I think it might have been The Original Ghost Walk of York that I did back in 1985.

My first cemetery tour was of the splendidly gothic Highgate Cemetery in London. I loved the romantic confusion of ivy, trees, and elaborate memorials. We heard many fascinating stories such as Tom Sayers (1826 – 1865) a bare-knuckle fighter, and George Wombwell (1777-1850) a travelling menagerist who showed exotic animals to the British public.

There is also a balloonist, Charles Green Spencer (1837–1890), buried at Highgate. He was the father of Percival Green Spencer (1864–1913) who became the most famous balloonist and parachutist of the Edwardian era and piloted many of the balloon ascents made by my ancestor John MacKenzie Bacon.

Photo by Simon Edwards CC BY-SA 4.0
Illustrated London News, 6 September 1902

A cemetery can be a restful green oasis in a busy city. This is New York City’s Marble Cemetery with a bonus squirrel.

Recently I took a tour of Terrace End Cemetery in Palmerston North, and quite by chance came across the graves of three people who witnessed Leila Adair’s balloon ascent in 1894.

Charlotte Warburton (1883-1961): She published Changing Days and Changing Ways in 1954 which includes an amusing child’s eye account of Leila Adair’s balloon ascent from the Square in Palmerston North.

Charles Dunk (1849 – 1921): Captain of the Manawatu Mounted Rifles and Mayor of Palmerston North from 1903-1904. He confiscated the gate takings at Leila Adair’s failed balloon ascent at Palmerston North racecourse. An indignant Leila successfully sued him for her share of £28 5s.

William Collingwood (c1862-1917): A journalist for the Manawatu Daily Times, he was a favourable witness for Leila Adair in the court case. He later became Town Clerk of Palmerston North from 1907 until his death, aged 55.

In the Wellington area there are regular tours of Karori Cemetery and Bolton Street Cemetery and look out for other guided walks during Heritage Week and similar local history events. You never know what you might find.

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