Tombstone Tuesday: a small serendipity

Monument to John Lazar, Hokitika Cemetery, Westland, NZ. Photo: Su Leslie 2008.

Monument to John Lazar, Hokitika Cemetery, Westland, NZ. Photo: Su Leslie 2008.

I took this photo five years ago in the cemetery in Hokitika, on New Zealand’s West Coast. One of the Big T’s aunts had once lived in the town, and we’d gone for a little tiki tour to see if he could find her house.

Hokitika isn’t a big place, so it wasn’t long before we found ourselves on the edge of town; on a hilltop at the cemetery gates.

I love cemeteries; T hates them. So it probably tells you all you need to know about my partner that he was willing to spend the twilight of a summer’s evening in a graveyard.

I didn’t know who John Lazar was. I took the photo merely because – as we were walking back to the car – a last finger of sunlight rested briefly on his monument and it made for a nice shot.

It has taken me five years to wonder “who was John Lazar”?

The answer made me smile and think about the nature of co-incidence. John Lazar was born in Edinburgh in 1803; 158 years before I was born there. He emigrated to New Zealand in the late 1860s; my family did the same in the late 1960s. And John Lazar was a life-long Freemason – like my father.

He also sounds like an interesting character.

Born in Edinburgh, but brought up in London, he was Jewish – the son of a clothier turned stock broker and a German mother who died when John was relatively young. He worked as a commercial traveller and then a silversmith and jeweller in London before emigrating to Australia with his wife and children in 1836. Three of his ten children had died in infancy in England; three more died on the voyage. [Source: West Coast Times, June 1879]

Before moving to New Zealand he lived in South Australia where he was the the Mayor of Adelaide (1855-1858) and was an actor and impresario – owning theatres in Sydney and Adelaide. He was the first Town Clerk of Hokitika, rising also to hold the positions of County Treasurer and then Provincial Treasurer. [Source: NZ Electronic Text Collection. The History of the Jews in New Zealand, Chapter XV A Ghost Synagogue.]

John and his wife were were apparently well-known, and much loved members of the local Jewish congregation – and of the wider West Coast community. It was said of him that he “combined the rare qualities of immaculate dignity and witty joviality.” [Source: NZ Electronic Text Collection. The History of the Jews in New Zealand, Chapter XV A Ghost Synagogue.]

A report in The West Coast Times from 1873 describes him performing a comic song or two at the closing concert for the Hokitika Exhibition – in which he is described as “The Jolly Town Clerk.”

It seems that Lazar’s ties to Freemasonry were long-standing. He had held high-ranking positions in Lodges in Australia and in Otago before becoming the first District Grand Master of the District Grand Lodge in Westland. When he died in 1879, the costs of his funeral and the rather beautiful monument were met by his Masonic brethren. [Source: Lazar Lodge]

I found this wonderful photo of John Lazar at Early New Zealand Photographers. The photo itself is in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.

“Mr John Lazar, D.G.M. of Westland by Rudolph Haigh Reference:\G Alexander Turnbull Library National Library of New Zealand”

I also found his obituary from the Hokitika Star which begins with the words:

“Today the remains of Mr John Lazar, the Right Worshipful District Grand Master, under the English Constitution, were interred in the cemetery with every mark of respect, and were followed by perhaps the greatest number of persons ever seen in a funeral procession in Hokitika.”

… while his obituary in the West Coast Times ends with:

“It may truly be said of him, that he was one of Nature’s gentlemen, an honest, conscientious, and noble-minded man, and one who will be missed in society for many years to come.”

If there is a point to this story – other than to celebrate a New Zealand pioneer (and that is a worthy point), it is to say thank you to the institutions and people who work tirelessly to make historical information available online; so that everyone from dedicated family historians (of which group I consider myself to belong) to the mildly curious (which is all I really was in this case) can know more about the characters who populated our past, and the events that shaped them.

In particular I want to acknowledge:

The District Grand Lodge of South Island whose website gave me my first glimpse into John Lazar’s life

Papers Past; a wonderful initiative of the National Library Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa which is working in conjunction with libraries, historical societies and others to digitise New Zealand’s newspaper archives.

New Zealand Electronic Text Collection – Te Pūhikotuhi o Aotearoa, part of Victoria University of Wellington Library. This wonderful initiative contains both digitised historical texts and born-digital materials relating to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.