Otago Migrant Gravestone Study

Tiffany Jenks, Kirstie Smitheram, Peita Ferens-Green, and Sargam Goundar, students at the University of Otago in New Zealand, look at the memorialisation of migrants in the Southern Cemetery in Dunedin.*


‘Peopling New Zealand: Migration, Race and Ethnicity’, a fourth year History paper co-ordinated by Professor Angela McCarthy, Remember Me project research consultant, based at the University of Otago, examines historical and contemporary migration to New Zealand with a focus on causes and consequences, key debates, sources, and methodologies. The course mainly aims to enhance the understanding of key causes and consequences of migration for diverse migrant and ethnic groups. It also encourages students to debate and discuss key concepts used by migration historians including diaspora, ethnic identity and assimilation. A key feature of the course is the development of an online Migration Museum of Dunedin. The 2016 class contributed to the Migration Museum through researching and writing about gravestones of early Otago migrants in the Southern Cemetery, Dunedin.

Research Findings

The research assignment focused on analysis of the following in relation to the headstones: the migrant’s origin; symbolism, in the form of visual motifs and inscriptions which can indicate ethnic identity and religious affiliations; and location within the cemetery, which correlated with social and religious status. Each student selected an ethnic migrant group according to the groups studied in the course, which simultaneously covered the different religious denominations while also dividing the cemetery into social classes.

Migrant Origins

Headstones which specified the migrant’s origins were preferred for the purpose of the research, as for example Irish migrant Nelson Thompson whose gravestone clearly outlines his origins as Ballyclander, ‘Down Patrick’, County ‘Downs’ (sic), Ireland. English migrant Peter Carter’s gravestone is also inscribed with his place of origin, Sutcombe in Devonshire. However, information about birthplace is not always stated on the gravestone inscription, as in the case of Paul H. Chan, though he was buried in the Chinese section of the Southern Cemetery. Likewise, the Jewish example of Bendix Hallenstein did not specify his origins, but the headstone does state the birthplace (Halle, Brunswick, Germany) of his son-in-law, Willi Fels, buried in the same plot.

thompson grave
Gravestone of Nelson Thompson, Southern Cemetery, Dunedin, New Zealand. Copyright Pieta Ferens-Green.


While some gravestones have very specific symbolism inscribed on them, others do not. The gravestone of Paul Chan (the most decorated gravestone in the Chinese section) contains the most significant symbolism. These symbols include Christian motifs such as an archway, signifying triumph and victory in death, and a gate, representing passage to heaven or the afterlife. Above the gate is a hand clasping a cross to symbolise his Christian faith. The Chinese script within the open gates reads: ‘Christ, Religion, Chan Paul’. The English inscription below – ‘Life for Evermore’ – alludes to his given name ‘Strong Evermore’.

Chan grave - adjusted
Gravestone of Paul Chan, Southern Cemetery, Dunedin, New Zealand. Copyright Kirstie Smitheram.

Hallenstein’s gravestone features the second significant amount of religious symbolism in the form of Hebrew script which refers to the Hebrew name of Bendix (Pinhas, son of Reuben) and his daughter Henrietta (Madam Hannah), which is reiterated by the English inscription. It also gives Hallenstein’s date of death according to the Hebrew calendar, 1 Shevat 5645 (recte 5665; 6 January 1905). More generic symbolism is present on Nelson Thompson’s headstone in the form of ivy, reflecting fidelity, attachment, and undying affection. By comparison, Peter Carter’s headstone conveys no symbolism in either visual motifs or inscription.

hallenstein grave
Gravestone of Bendix Hallenstein, Southern Cemetery, Dunedin, New Zealand. Copyright Tiffany Jenks.


Burial location within the Southern Cemetery is important as it corresponds to the migrant’s religious and ethnic social status. First opened in 1858, the cemetery is divided by religion (Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Jewish) with a burial section for the Chinese being a later addition to cemetery. Located on a hill, the Anglican and Presbyterian sections span high, flat ground, whilst the Roman Catholic and Jewish sections cover the lower slopes, with the Chinese adjacent to these sections. In recent years, the Jewish section has been subjected to anti-Semitic vandalism. The Chinese section also suffered neglect and vandalism but funding from the Chinese Poll-Tax Heritage Trust enabled a restoration project to be undertaken by the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust and Dunedin City Council. This was completed in 2013.


Biographical research about the deceased migrants drew on a range of digital and local archival sources including Papers Past, the Dunedin Branch of Archives New Zealand, Toitū Otago Settlers Museum Archives, and the Hocken Collections. Such research revealed interesting life stories of early Otago migrants. The most prominent figure researched was Bendix Hallenstein, today known for the establishment of the clothing company Hallenstein Brothers. Hallenstein was also an important figure in New Zealand textiles and politics. Married to an English woman, Mary, with whom he had four daughters, Hallenstein remained a beloved member of the Dunedin community until his death in 1905.

Peter Carter’s biography, on the other hand, revealed the tragic story of his short Dunedin life. He passed away only a few months after his marriage to Martha in 1879. Interestingly, the plot for his grave was purchased a month prior to his death by his relative Samuel Henry Carter, who, three years later, married Peter’s widow. Irish migrant Nelson Thompson, a resident of Arrowtown, also met a tragic death, committing suicide in 1893 after suffering from an incurable sore throat. His body was found drowned in Dunedin Harbour the day before a scheduled medical appointment. Chinese migrant Paul Chan similarly attempted suicide after being beaten and robbed by a fellow miner and was subsequently committed to the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. Chan later converted to Christianity and became actively involved in the Chinese Mission Church in Dunedin, where he was baptised and ordained as an elder.

Gravestone of Martha and Peter Carter, Southern Cemetery, Dunedin, New Zealand. Copyright Sargam Goundar

Our Reflections

The research assignment required multiple excursions to the Southern Cemetery in order to select a migrant headstone, photograph it and transcribe the inscription. Due to the nature of the terrain of the lower sections of the cemetery, navigation around the Jewish, Roman Catholic and Chinese sections was difficult. Several visits to Toitū’s Archive and the Hocken Collections were also required to access headstone transcriptions for language translation and to help identify aspect of the headstone details which have eroded.

This assignment was a creative and interesting activity to engage with Dunedin’s early migrant history. In particular, the individual biographical stories encouraged us to consult new forms of source material such as the Seacliff case files. However, the 200-word limit, coupled with such interesting biographical discoveries, challenged us to refine our findings to produce written summaries in a simplified and concise manner. The difficulty of these limitations was highlighted by curator Seán Brosnahan during a class visit to Toitū. He explained they enable the Museum to engage with multiple audiences.

The main lesson taken from this assignment was the limited accurate information available on migrants in Dunedin who did not have a public presence. The difference between the availability of documentation about Bendix Hallenstein compared to Nelson Thompson (for whom only one source was located – an inquest into his death) from which to draw biographical details, highlighted this limitation for the class.


The subsequent findings of this research project have been published on the Migration Museum of Dunedin website which includes studies of English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Jewish, German, and Chinese migrants. These studies illustrate the variety of migrant origins and experiences in Otago. Professor McCarthy’s collaborative research on memorialisation in the British World (with colleagues at the University of Hull and University of Worcester) will elaborate on gravestone analysis as an important methodology for migration history.

2016 class

The HIST 431 class of 2016 (left to right): Peita Ferens-Green, Emma Campbell, Tiffany Jenks, Kirstie Smitheram, Sargam Goundar, Julia Hardie, Anton Sveding at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

You can read more about our student project via the Migration Museum of Dunedin website: https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/global-dunedin/migration-museum-of-dunedin/

*This article first appeared in the Otago Settlers News (Spring 2016) and is provided here courtesy and copyright of the Otago Settlers Association Inc.


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