Helping Our Community

Tokanui Memorial

A newspaper article published in August 2014 was the catalyst for the rewriting of a sad chapter in the history of the Waikato area.

This article spoke of a place where some 500 unknown people, thought to be mostly former soldiers, were buried in unmarked graves. Touched by this information, manager of Hamilton Funeral Directors James R. Hill, Mark Reinsfield, discussed with his staff the idea of placing a granite soldier there as a memorial to them.

However, as more was discovered about these “lost souls”, Mr Reinsfield says, it became apparent that they were, in fact, former residents of the Tokanui Psychiatric Hospital, which operated from July 1912 to March 1998. Many of them had lived most of their lives there, while others had spent shorter periods being treated for depression, anxiety and other disorders.

With the catchment area extending to New Plymouth on the west coast and Gisborne on the east coast, up towards Auckland and across to the Bay of Plenty, many patients had lost contact with their families and were more or less forgotten. Now only an old, corroded plaque marked the place where 500 or more were buried between 1914 and 1964.

“We had initially thought of placing a headstone there to acknowledge these people,” Mr Reinsfield says, “but when local genealogist Anna Purgar studied the genealogy of the cemetery she was able to trace 420 names, many more than would fit onto a headstone.

“That’s when we looked at having a memorial wall installed. We talked to Graeme Rhind of InvoCare New Zealand Ltd and found out that they were willing to support this project, so after finding out from a stonemason that it could be done, we initiated a community project to build a granite wall to the value of $10,000.”

As a member of the organising committee for the project Mr Reinsfield had visited the old cemetery and said he felt a “real sadness” there. “I came away feeling the wall was the right thing to do.”

Although he had expected it to happen within a matter of months, the installation was delayed over the course of a year because there were still names to be found, he says.

Now the project has come to fruition, with the final stages of engraving having been carried out in the first week of February 2016 with a total of 456 names memorialised, and the wall being installed over the weekend of February 13/14, before the official unveiling was held on Saturday 20 February 2016.

The day’s events began with a dawn service and blessing by the local iwi followed by breakfast at the marae. This was then followed by Catholic and Anglican bishops from the diocese and the RSA chaplain participating in an unveiling ceremony.

“It has been a progression, a real growing journey,” Mr Reinsfield says, “and as a community project for us to be involved in, it has now become a bit more personal.”

The Department of Conservation also assisted with the project, and other sponsors also provided funding for the memorial wall that acknowledges these “lost souls” in their final resting place, bringing a sense of peace to a once sad and lonely spot. Space has been left on the wall for the addition of more names if they can be traced.

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James R Hill Funeral Directors on (07) 855 5541