Friday, February 11, 2011

A sexton's life

When Waikomete (then Waikomiti) Cemetery opened 125 years ago this year, in 1886, one of the main jobs out there was as sexton. It came with a cottage, fresh air – but a lot of hard work.

The City Council received the following amongst the applications sent in for the billet of sexton at Waikomiti, the other day :

Auckland N.Z. 18-2-86

to city council

Dear Sirs

seeing it advertised that the city council was wanting a sexton I now offer my services to you praying that I may be excepted [sic] by you I am steady and sober and healthy and strong and I understand it as well I am 30 years of age married and 2 children if reffence [sic] was required I can get any amount I am a very pore scholar therefore I think myself qualified as a sexton with your exception I am yours Humblely and co (address) P S I mean the new sexton for new cemetery Waikomiti.'

Observer, 6 March 1886

Thomas James McIvor was born in 1857 in Auckland. He learnt the upholstering trade from the firm of T. & H. Cook, and then struck out on his own. In the nineteenth century, upholsterers were among the number of trades which evolved into the business of funeral undertaking — others were carriers (carrying the coffins), furnishers (building the coffins — Battersby’s of Avondale is an example), and florists. McIvor’s funeral parlour was on Karangahape Road. He was a member of the Grey Lynn Bowling Club from 1908, and owned land at Blockhouse Bay possibly for holidays from 1894-1901, but he was a Pt Chevalier resident, living on Carrington Road.

In June 1893 he must have decided to put pen to paper, after seeing a lone sexton struggling through his tasks at Waikumete Cemetery, while McIvor himself was overseeing the last resting place preparations for the departed. He poetically and expressively wrote to the Auckland Evening Star, and his missive was published.

21 June 1893


Sir, - A specimen of the above could have been witnessed any day last week, enacted in the person of the sexton at Waikomiti Cemetery, his work beginning with the peep of day, cold and wet, down deep into the depths of a soaking grave, wet and re-wet again and again, preparing the homes for our city’s dead, no help, no pitying hand to be found, Sunday and other days all alike. Slavery, aye! Worse than slavery, and yet we call ourselves a Christian community, preaching “Do ye to others as ye would have them do to you,” beautiful precept, but oh, how seldom put in practice.

Now, sir, when many less burials when many less burials took place at Waikomiti our City Fathers provided two sextons, and ample work was found for both: but of late – I suppose on the score of retrenchment – with nearly double the work in hand, one white slave has to do the labour of two at the wage of one. Whilst other well paid and comfortably-housed servants of the people, with roaring fires to keep out the cold, look up and feel thankful that their lot is indeed cast in pleasant places, this equally good and useful servant has not the least consideration, but is compelled to labour in the field of mud, slush, and slavery, losing years of his life, and may, long before his ripened time, himself find a grave where he digged homes for others.

I am, etc.,


Just as with the case of the Symonds Street gravediggers, there was “One Who Knows” with a seemingly indepth knowledge of the ways and means of the city’s cemetery workers. Whoever this one was, he took keen exception to McIvor’s appeal.

22 June 1893


In reply to Mr McIvor’s letter of last evening, in reference to the sexton at the Waikomiti Cemetery, probably Mr Walker will not thank him, because there are a great many who would not despise the same billet on these terms, £2 10s per week and comfortable house, with paid labour help when actually required by his own request. It is true, of late he has been working hard, but there have been and are times when there is very little to do. No doubt, if the work increases permanently an additional person will be appointed.

Yours, etc.


Thomas McIvor responded.

23 June 1893


Had “One Who Knows” but added the word little to his signature it would have been much nearer the mark.

“One Who Knows” may well write from behind his office table statements of which he knows but very little. No doubt he considers £2 10s per week for a common working man is indeed too much, but does he not for his services seek much more? and one may question it would be near as hardly earned as that of the poor sexton. Let “One Who Knows” try but one week of Waikomiti work, and then, indeed, he will know much more.

It appears to me that “One Who Knows” has never visited Waikomiti, or if he has it is very seldom, for surely if he knows so much, he could not have known enough to use his eyes and see that during spare time the roadways, footpaths and other places require and are kept in good order. There is indeed no lack of work at all times for one man. But again I assert that the work of late has been nothing but white slavery. Does “One Who Knows” know if the sexton ever did apply for help and whether it was granted.

I am, etc.,


“One Who Knows” seems to have either been connected with Auckland City Council matters in connection with the cemetery, or he was obsessed with the subject, even finding out the merest minutiae on it.

24 June 1893


Allow me to inform Mr McIvor (who knows so much) that I have visited Waikomiti Cemetery several times, and that I also know that the sexton has applied for assistance and that it has been granted, and there is no reason why if occasion arises he should not apply again for temporary assistance. As regards comparative payments, the sexton with £2 10s per week, house too, is better paid than the bulk of the labourers in the city. As regards the work, the average interments in 1890, 1891 was six per week, and in 1982 seven per week.

I am, etc.,


McIvor, however, appears to have had the last say in this letters to the editor duel.

27 June 1893


Kindly allow me space once more to reply to “One Who Knows” (so little). Your correspondent admits that he has only visited Waikomiti several times, that means, I presume, some three or four occasions, and these were taken on a beautiful clear summer’s day. Fancy setting himself up as “One Who Knows” when he has been there so few times in seven years; so much for his practical knowledge. When “One Who Knows” enlarges so much upon the sexton’s great pay, he carefully omits to mention that it is for a week of 7 days and of all hours. “One Who Knows’ ” statements of the average interments are correct so far as ’90, ’91 and ’92 are concerned. By taking 7 per week for ’92, he makes it appear that only one burial took place per day, when he knew well that on very many days three and four interments was no uncommon occurrence; and further of the time in reference to what I first wrote (’93), he also knew or ought to have known that three or four burials a day were very frequent, and as the greater number of funerals take place near the same hour, what a watery time the poor sexton must have. “One Who Knows’ “ comparison between the city labourer and Mr Walker can only arise from his own ignorance of Waikomiti Cemetery work, because on the days in which no interment took place, there is no lack of work in keeping the place in order.

I am, etc.,



  1. Heh heh heh brilliant post. I enjoyed this 'One who knows' was not a happy chappy having his replies challenged. Great story this!

  2. ohhhh who ever knew that gravedigging was such a hotbed [so to speak] of discussion!

    Great post indeed!