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The heritage graveyard surrounding the Cathedral Church of St Mary in New Plymouth is a peaceful place steeped in history that goes right back to the digging of the first grave in 1843.
But over the years graves and headstones of early settlers and their families – and soldiers garrisoned in the town – have suffered from the ravages of time; and that’s where John Pickering comes in.
For the last three years John has been a familiar sight at work on those graves: repairing them, restoring them and cleaning them.
With the help of parishioner Howard Vosper, they have completed 80 graves, with five still to go.
“People were buried in the graveyard from 1843 until it was officially closed in 1861,” he said. “After that, burials were restricted to members of the families of the people who had already been buried here.
“We have a good relationship with the War Graves Commission with whom we have an agreement to look after their 20 graves.”
John’s interest in genealogy has come in handy while working on the project, for he has needed to do a good deal of research on the families; information about some of them was scarce, because those buried had been dead for more than 150 years and their descendants had died off or moved out of the district.
John’s own forebears came to New Zealand in 1880. He himself grew up in All Saints in Palmerston North, where his father was county engineer. He was the only son in a family of girls, “so I was spoilt.”
After gaining a commerce degree at Victoria University in Wellington and periods working as an accountant in London and Johannesburg, he moved to New Plymouth in 1979 where he worked for Taranaki Newspapers and then at the Taranaki Hospital Board.
Over the years he has been associated with the Taranaki Cricket Association, Tainui Rest Home, the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust, and latterly the Priscilla Sandys Wunsch Scholarship Trust. He is also a member of the Genealogy Society of New Plymouth and the Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society.