End of the Line: short life and strange death of a white elephant

At shallow depth, just inside of the gates of the Linwood Cemetery, lies buried the remains of a white elephant, or, perhaps more accurately, just the archaeological trace remains of her 19th century tracks. More than eight years ago now I wrote one of my first archaeology blogs, which was about the archaeology of our old city tramways. Back then, lots of old tramline remains were resurfacing as a result of the post-earthquake   SCIRT infrastructure rebuild. In that blog I made brief mention to the tram line that once ran out to the Linwood Cemetery, and the strange saga of the Council’s tramway hearse. I was excited to discover that not only part of that 1880s cemetery tramline still survives to this day, but of all the many old tram routes the city once had, this particular one had perhaps the most interesting tale to tell. And so, some eight years down the track (no pun intended), the time has finally come to further flesh out the story of the city tram that once went out to the Linwood Cemetery, (or sort of once did), and the tramway hearse that, for better or worse, never got a chance to fulfil its true potential (or at the very least, fulfil its intended function). So, dear readers, the time has finally come to buy the ticket and join us for the ride, (don’t worry, in this instance a one way ticket is fine), for today we get off at the last stop, the cemetery at the end of the line.

Map of the Linwood Cemetery. Image: Christchurch City Council [online].

The Linwood Cemetery

Located off Butterfield Avenue behind Bromley Park, the Linwood Cemetery is the fifth oldest public cemetery in Christchurch, established in 1884. Although now surrounded by suburbia, 139 years ago this was a sparsely populated rural spot that was located a safe distance outside the city limits. This was important, as by this time there were genuine public health concerns about the practice of continuing to bury the dead in cemeteries that were located within built up urban areas. Christchurch’s biggest cemetery, in Barbadoes Street, was filling up fast (with over 300 internments a year), and the Council were starting to receive complaints from local residents about the objectionable odours that emanated from the swampy cemetery grounds, and of fears that the groundwater in their backyard wells would become contaminated by the decomposition of the dead (Bowman et. al. 2009). And so, in October 1883, the City Council formed a cemetery committee (made up of Councillors Bowman Vincent, Louisson, and Kiver) to look into finding an appropriate new spot where the dead could be buried a safe distance away from the living (Star, 16/10/1883: 4). The chosen location in Linwood was a most suitable one. It wasn’t too close to town but not too far away (something of a ‘Goldilocks Zone’). Spread out across a rolling sand dune, the sandy ground here was easy to dig, with tests confirming that except for the spots where there were hollows, no groundwater was encountered at a depth less than six feet (Press, 29/11/1883:3). In a peculiar irony, the first person to be buried here was Sarah Ann Freeman, the wife of the cemetery’s first sexton (caretaker/gravedigger), on 10 July 1884, a few months before the cemetery was officially opened in October (Burgess et. al 2006:12).

Gated entrance to the Linwood Cemetery, off Butterfield Avenue. Meet you here sometime, Morrissey Photo: Hamish Williams.

The Corporation Tramline and the tramway hearse

In March 1884, while the cemetery site was still being prepared, the City Council decided that given its location out of town, they would need to construct a tramway linking the city and cemetery, in order to make it easily accessible. This tramway, (which became known as the Corporation Line) was intended to have a threefold function. Firstly, it would be used to convey funeral traffic to the cemetery. Secondly, it would be used to convey rubbish and nightsoil to the Council’s rubbish and nightsoil reserve, which was located just past the cemetery, near what is now Rudds Road. And thirdly, it would serve as a passenger service. The council would operate the rubbish and nightsoil service themselves under the cover of darkness, while during the day the business of conveying passengers out to the cemetery (both dead and alive) would be leased out to private contractors (Alexander 1985:11). A substantial loan was taken out by the council to cover the costs of the trams and the building of the tramline, which ran from the Council’s yard on Oxford Terrace, via Worcester Street, Linwood Avenue, and Buckleys Road to the new cemetery and the rubbish reserve. John Brightling won the tender for laying the three miles of track, which took four months to complete, and was officially opened on April 23, 1886 (Alexander 1985:11).

It was Councillor James Bowman, chair of the Council’s Cemetery Committee, that championed the call for the city to invest in a custom-built tramway hearse to operate on the new Corporation Line. The intention was that the tramway hearse, otherwise known as the Corporation Hearse, could be leased out, evidently to funeral directors, to provide Christchurch’s less wealthy citizens with a low-cost funeral transportation option. Local coachbuilder William Moor and Son won the contract to build the special tram hearse, which was delivered to the Council yard in September 1885 at a cost of £300 (Alexander 1985:11). Capable of carrying up to four caskets at a time, it was a painted a dignified black colour, had fine wooden panelling, elliptical plate glass windows, and up top had decorative brass railings where one could fix floral tributes. When not in use, the tram hearse lived at the council yard in a purpose built storage shed.

The only known picture of the infamous tramway hearse. Image: Press 21/2/1970:5.

As well intentioned as the idea of a tramway hearse was, unfortunately, the concept of ‘funeral procession by public transport’ never ever took off and in the end, there would be no [under]takers keen on using it. To make matters worse, little money was to be made from leasing out the line to private operators for a daytime passenger service. Of the three original intended functions of the Corporation Line, the only one that proved to be of any value was the nighttime conveyance of rubbish out to the rubbish reserve. Nightsoil removal by this time was not so much of a pressing issue for the Council, as the Drainage Board’s new sewerage system was well in operation. The night-time rubbish removal trams kept operating on the line until 1902, by which time city rubbish was being dealt with by burning it in town instead of carting it away and burying it. Interested in finding out more about the Municipal Destructor? – we wrote a blog a while back about that too, check that out here.

Sitting idle in the Council yard, the reality that the tramway hearse was in fact just a white elephant soon set in. In late 1887, Councillor Gray considered the tramway hearse to be a useless asset and suggested that it might be sold or otherwise repurposed into something the city might find useful, like a dust-cart (Star, 15/11/1887:4). But the £120 cost of conversion was not considered economical, so it was decided that for now, the council best just retain it as it was, just in case the city was struck by a ‘municipal emergency’ like an epidemic (Timaru Herald, 11/1/1888: 2). Thankfully no big epidemic came, and three years later the Council decided to try to sell the hearse, hoping to recoup at the very least the £90 cost of the 5% interest on the loan raised six years earlier to help pay for its construction (Press,17/3/1891:6). Unfortunately, not a single soul was interested in buying the tram hearse. In 1892, Councillor Gray again brought up the subject of the useless ‘Corporation Hearse’ that was languishing in the council yard and how it might be repurposed or otherwise disposed of (Press, 7/6/1892: 6). Little however came of this, short of Gray having to make a formal public apology to the community, and especially to Bowman’s widow, in respect to his callous character attacking of the recently deceased former Councillor (Press, 14/6/1892:3). It appeared that the Council might possibly just be stuck with this white elephant forever. By July 1894 the Council had still not managed to get rid of it, but at least they had managed to free up some space in their storage yard. The hearse was finally relocated out to the cemetery, where here the proverbial ‘white elephant on wheels’ got a new lease on life, being fixed up by the sexton and transformed into a fowl house (Star, 31/7/1894:2). Fresh eggs anyone?

At the end of 1897, what to do about the hearse again came up for discussion in Council meeting – and whether the undercarriage of the tram hearse could be repurposed into something useful, like a water cart (Press, 7/12/1897:3). The undercarriage was inspected, but determined unsuitable for conversion, but that it would surely fetch a good price at auction (Press, 21/12/1897:6). Sadly, again no so soul came forward with an interest in buying it (Lyttelton Times, 5/2/1898:3).

For sale: one tramway hearse, mint condition, never been used. Image:  Lyttelton Times, 5/2/1898:3

Eventually, in August 1901, the tramway hearse would finally be sold at auction, for the sacrificial sum of just £3. Local MP Samuel Paull Andrews brought it and gave it a new lease of life. Andrews relocated it to his St Andrews Hill quarry, where it served as an explosives store until about 1906 or 1907. Thereafter, his sons Hastings and George built a wooden pontoon and placed the hearse on it, turning it into a houseboat (or hearseboat?) that had four bunk beds and a collapsible table. It was moored for some time off what was known as Moncks Jetty in Redcliffs, near the site of what is now the Christchurch Yacht Club, and the boys spent many summers living on it. One night, just before World War 1, a storm broke it free from its moorings and carried it across the estuary, beaching it on the New Brighton Spit. It was towed back across the estuary to Mount Pleasant and beached up near the site of the present bowling green. The pontoon had by this time begun to leak badly and often needed a great deal of pumping to stay afloat. The fate of the hearseboat after that time remains something of a mystery (Press, 24/2/1970:18). Do any of our readers know what ever became of the hearseboat? If so, we’d really love to hear from you.

The approximate last known location of the hearseboat, as far as we can tell. Image: Jamie Hearfield.

Archaeological trace remains of the original 1885 Corporation Line tram tracks still survive today within the Linwood Cemetery grounds, and these are well worth a visit to check out. Although since covered over by a thin layer of asphalt, you can still make out where the 2.2 m long timber sleepers were placed in alignment some 139 years ago, set apart at approximate 600 mm intervals. Over time the sleepers have all seemingly rotted away, leaving behind shallow depressions into which the asphalt has sunk and settled, marking their location. There is also a small section where the iron rails, nailed to the sleepers (at the standard gauge of 4ft 8 and a half inches) remain in-situ, because for whatever reason back in the day these weren’t ripped up and removed for reuse elsewhere.

Tram tracks in the cemetery. Image: Hamish Williams.

Tram tracks in the cemetery. Image: Hamish Williams

Tram tracks in the cemetery. Image: Hamish Williams

Tram rails in the cemetery, laid at the standard gauge of 4ft 8 and a half inches. And four-legged archaeologist. Image: Hamish Williams.

Although good intentioned, the fact that the Bowman’s tramway hearse was rejected by the community it had been built to serve and was never used for its intended purpose of transporting the dead – reflect strong feelings of the time that no matter how poor people are, all people deserve more respect and dignity than being transported, en masse, by means of public transport, to their final resting place (Burgess et. al 2006:65). A fine reminder that inextricably tied in with the surviving physical bits of the past that constitute an archaeological site, are the intangible, and sometimes elusive – thoughts, feelings, values, and intentions of the past peoples whom that physical stuff once related to. God bless, everybody.

Hamish Williams


Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the Roads: the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board and Tramway Historical Society.

Bowman, I., Wilson, J., Beaumont, L., and Watson, K. 2009. Conservation Plan, Barbadoes Street Cemetery. [online]. Available at:  https://ccc.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Culture-Community/Heritage/BarbadoesStreetCemeteryFinalPlan.pdf

Burgess, R., Bowman, I., May, J., and McKenzie, D. 2006. Conservation Plan, Linwood Cemetery. [online]. Available at: https://ccc.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Services/Cemeteries/FinalConservationPlanLinwood.pdf

Lyttelton Times [online]. Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Press. [online]. Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Star. [online] Available eat: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Timaru Herald. [online] Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/