Many of the odd cemeteries I have encountered are found through conversations I have had with people. I heard about the Rietfontein Infectious Diseases Hospital Cemeteries after my brother went on a tour in that area. Unfortunately, finding the physical cemeteries would be a hit and miss thing because, as usual there is very little information to go on.
The area where the graves are supposed to be is bounded by Club Street, Linksfield, Modderfontein Road and the highway which is really a very large patch of open veld. The current Sizwe Hospital and the Edenvale Hospital are both in this area and the cemetery is tagged to the former.
Naturally my first port of call was Sizwe, and it was like visiting another planet. This hospital was founded in 1895 and consisted of a number of tin shanties. It’s first superintendent was Dr John Max Mehliss (1868-1927), and he laid the groundwork for the institution that eventually became Rietfontein Infectious Diseases Hospital.
The hospital would see a cross section of patients suffering from a variety of diseases, many of them contagious, and with the potential for decimating populations. In short, a cemetery (possibly more than one) was created to bury those who perished from diseases like Smallpox, TB, Bubonic Plague etc.
There are supposedly 3 separate cemeteries to find, and the first one I have found so far is close to the intersection of Club and Linksfield. After so many years it is really just a collection of randomly placed graves surrounded by builders rubble, grass and trees. I was able to photograph 20 distinct graves, of which some were unmarked or with toppled stones. One of the graves may be that of the wife and possibly a son of Dr Mehliss .
Guthrie Family graves
There are also a number of largish mounds in the area, but they seem to be too big to be mounds from graves. I have no idea how many people are actually buried in this spot. Not too long ago there was talking of erecting low cost housing at the site, but then somebody remembered that many of the people laying there had died from highly infectious diseases, and there was no real way of knowing whether pathogens were still viable in the ground so the idea was shelved.
Just outside the admin building of Sizwe hospital there are 3 graves surrounded by a fence, these are are the graves of Dr JM Mehliss, Matron Mary Middler and Nurse Emily Blake. These 3 graves were moved from one of the 3 cemeteries to their present position a few years ago when the hospital turned 100 years old.
Somewhere is this large area of veld there are still 2 cemeteries to find, and the only real clues I have is that they face North-East looking across the valley onto the highway. On the opposite side of the highway there are buildings from the original farm Rietfontein, and somewhere in this area there must also be a farm cemetery associated with the farm.
Members of the Mehliss family.
The problem with finding the other two cemeteries in Rietfontein is that I was not too sure where to find them. This is a large overgrown area and given how well graves tend to blend in with their surroundings I stood very little hope of success. However, during my subsequent visit to the area I got talking to a security guard and he said there were graves about a kilo behind the old Superintendents house. The area he pointed to was past a burnt log that was the only feature midway up a hill, and while I couldn’t see anything from where I was I decided to start exploring from there.
Parking my car I headed off into the bush, it was a hot day, and I soon discovered that this area was really an upwards slope with a lot of dead ground. On my way I spotted an African minister and I asked him if he had ever seen any graves but he wasn’t able to help, however, one of his congregation pointed towards a clump of trees and said they were “by the trees”. The stump proved to have nothing around it though, so I climbed the slope a bit more, almost towards the top of the hill, traversing the area as I walked, hoping to spot a headstone.
The first headstone I encountered was a newish stone, and looking around me I was able to spot random headstones that dotted the area in front of me.
As I walked and photographed I kept on finding graves, many were really only mounds, while some had simple unmarked stones on them. What struck me though was that this was quite a large area and if there was full of graves then there must have been a lot of people buried here. The headstones dated from around the 1940’s although it does not mean that there were not earlier graves here.
People did seem to visit here too, because I did spot evidence of visitations, and some of the old headstones had been replaced with “modern” stones, I was able to photograph about 25 graves, (or spots that I could positively ID as being a grave). But how many simple headstones have gone missing or been vandalised I cannot say.
I am now happy to report that 2 out of 3 (possibly 4) cemeteries at Rietfontein have now been found and recorded and they are no longer “graves in the veld”. As for cemetery number 3 (4)? I don’t know, logic says it should be close to the hospital, but this will take a lot of investigation, and whether I will find it is another story for another day.
The story is not over yet, I did explore a spot near Linksfield Road, but it turned up nothing, although given the vandalism and general state of decay in this area all I may find at any potential gravesites are the remains of graves in the veld. A conversation with one of the security guards may just have revealed the whereabouts of one of the other cemeteries, and I will investigate that next week.
It has been a fascinating journey into the history of a little known institution, and the question begs asking, did any of soldiers end up here? did any of the survivors of the East African campaign die of blackwater or malaria within these walls? I will probably never know.
The Scope of Rietforntein.
In my previous blog posts about Rietfontein I was unaware of the sheer scope of the cemeteries associated with this 15 hectare site. It is one thing looking at the area with Google Earth, and then trying to translate that into physical features on the ground. Fortunately, a comment made on the blog has provided answers to a number of questions, and created even more questions.
One of the anomalies on the satellite view of the area are a series of terraces. I traversed the one terrace during my third visit when I found the second cem associated with the hospital. The security guard that had originally told me to look at the area around the burnt log had been correct. That whole area of terrace may be a mass burial site, and there are two sets of terraces on that 15 hectare site. From the ground you can’t really discern any detail because of the high grass and nature of the terrain, but I was told that there are some sort of demarcations and this area definitely needs further investigation.
The other question I had was, where is the other cemetery? Again the answer was provided by my correspondent. There is a dirt track/road that runs roughly parallel to the river and highway, crossing it at a small bridge. The cem is roughly North of the bridge, and in the 2001 Google Earth photograph was surrounded by trees. By 2004 the trees were gone. The biggest problem facing a photographer is actually accessing the cem, there are no real roads, and parts of this area are fenced.
However, there may be thousands of people buried here (Rietfontein Necropolis?), and the register is long gone so there is no way of knowing who they may have been unless a headstone is present. The fact remains that the area where the two cemeteries that I found are, is rapidly becoming a dumping site. I do not know how many headstones have already been lost under piles of building rubble. I do know that there may be as many as 6 cemeteries and not 3 in that area, although I expect they can all really tied to each other, and I know that those who are buried here are in a very pretty place which is relatively unspoilt.
The danger is that one day somebody will scheme, bribe and plot and suddenly lots of townhouses will pop up overnight. And unless we can further document this area who knows what the future may bring.
Thanks to Dave for all the information
© DRW 2012-2017