Forgotten Headstones – Friends of Johannesburg Cemeteries

The Friends of Johannesburg Cemeteries group, which was started in 2018 under the umbrella of Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, has done some solid work in the Braamfontein and Brixton cemeteries over the past 4 years.  We have a great following on our WhatsApp group, which is for people who want to join our work parties in the cemeteries, and on our Facebook page.

Now, I’d like to tell you about one of the lesser-known aspects of the work we do – erecting headstones on the graves of people who died decades ago.

The first one I did was for a Dutch family, living overseas.  The grave marker they had erected on their ancestor’s grave had broken off and it was pure chance that I found it lying elsewhere in the cemetery and recognized it as the one JHF had erected for them at an earlier date.

The next one was for a woman living in Cornwall, who asked me to find the grave of her great grandfather.  With the help of the maps at the Braamfontein cemetery, I was able to locate the exact spot and asked our stone mason, Peter, to erect the first headstone on this grave.  This he did, in pouring rain!  The family sent me money for flowers to put on his grave and every so often, they make a further donation to the Friends fund.

Another one we erected was at the far end of Braamfontein. Mr Elliott wrote to me, having found out about the Friends from our Facebook page, and asked me to find his ancestor, who had died here when there had been no money at the time to erect a stone. Peter once again made and erected the stone for this man, who came to South Africa from Sligo in Ireland (along with many other Irishmen, it turns out) to make some money during a very depressed time in Ireland. Unfortunately, he died in the early 1900’s.

The fourth one I helped to erect was for a local man whose great grandfather had been a baker living in Fordsburg who used to walk to town every day to his place of work.  This man wanted to do his own stone.  Being an interior designer, he had some good ideas.  He found a piece of granite, an offcut from one of the jobs he had done, had it inscribed and then laid out the grave one morning while I watched the procedure.  It was certainly something different!

In Brixton, I found the grave of a Mr Browne for his great granddaughter and put her in touch with our stone mason.  She then took over and saw the process through on her own.  I arrived at the cemetery one morning to find her and the stone mason erecting the stone.  It was a beautiful day and they were quietly chatting while the men were working on the stone.  She was very happy with having found the grave and then putting up a stone to remember her great grandfather.

We have also been part of the repair of significant headstones in Brixton:

Stafford Parker was a colourful man in the early 1900’s, working on the diamond diggings around Kimberley.  Later he moved to Johannesburg where he died penniless.  However, after his wife died, a beautiful art nouveau stone was erected but had fallen over before ever I started work in the cemeteries.  By a careful process, I found it and the Friends stone turning team moved in to turn it over.  It was very exciting when the stone confirmed that we had the correct grave.  We got SAMCRO to glue the two halves together and stand it up again.

Reverend Phillips was one of the first ministers of the Ebenezer church and for years I searched for his grave.  Eventually I located it only to find that the imposing stone had also fallen over.  As this was someone who had contributed to the early community of Johannesburg, we felt it was right that we should have it repaired.  This was also done by SAMCRO.

In March last year, we celebrated the centenary of the Rand Revolt by erecting a large stone near the crematorium in Braamfontein cemetery.  This event was attended by a representative of the City Council, members of several of the Regiments in Johannesburg and other dignitaries.  Ahead of this event, we put down grave markers of the miners who had died in the Strike and whose graves were not marked.  As a result of this, we have been able to assist some of the Regiments to repair stones of their fallen members as well as one which had no headstone and which we are assisting the regiment to erect now.  Previously, the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust (forerunner of the JHF) had erected headstones on some of the 1922 Strike’s innocent civilian casualties.

And the work continues…..  At this moment, we are negotiating to erect a stone in Brixton for the 1922 Strike victim on behalf of his Regiment.  We have met with an Irishman who came out to SA especially to find the grave of his uncle. He joined a group of us in the cemetery 2 weeks ago to find the grave and was very taken with the beauty of the cemetery and the number of Irishmen who came from his hometown of Sligo, who are buried in Brixton.  The third one I am working on is for a Jewish woman in the US.  I found the grave of her ancestor in Braamfontein Jewish cemetery but no stone.  This will be the first Jewish one I have assisted with.  I thought it might be a problem with the Hebrew lettering but our stone mason has done a wonderful job of the layout and our woman is very happy with it.

This work will continue I am sure, as more people do their family trees and realise that ancestors are buried in South Africa without headstones.

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Sarah Welham – January 2023

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