SJ de Klerk

At five o clock in the afternoon of Saturday 19 December 1925, a wisp of smoke was seen to rise lazily from the thatched roof near the kitchen of the Groot Constantia Manor House. Moments later the huge thatch roof caught fire creating an uncontrollable inferno. With no brandsolder to contain the flames, the blaze crashed through to the boarded ceilings of the rooms below and through that to the main floor.

Readers will no doubt be puzzled by a supposed mining link connecting Cape Governor Simon Van der Stel (1639-1712) to US President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964). They not only lived in different centuries, but also on separate continents 12 700 kilometers apart. Well, read on and decide for yourself!

It is fortunate for posterity that Group Captain Rupert Taylor, a Johannesburg businessman in 1964 became interested in the old Simon’s Town Seaforth Cemetery or the ‘Old Burying Ground’, as it is called. Like his war-time contemporary ‘Sailor’ Malan he began his service career in the Navy before switching to the Airforce during the Second World War. While in the Navy he used to occasionally sit under a plaque to Midshipman Hammill in this cemetery admiring the sea view.

What do names such as ‘Astoria, Regal, Plaza, Victory, Pigalle, Empire, Roxy, Odeon, Vaudette, Regent, Apollo, Ritz, and Bijou’, mean to you?

Generation Z will probably think they are apps and Millennials that they are computer games. Generation X will think of them as names of men’s suits, restaurants or maybe small-town hotels. Only the Baby Boomers will recognise the evocative names of long closed and largely forgotten bioscopes.

Sometimes an interesting question is asked. ‘Which Cemetery is the most venerable in South Africa?’ Not so easy to answer as one may think. There are some strong contenders but the Tana Baru in the Bo-Kaap, the oldest Muslim Cemetery in Cape Town, can certainly stake a very credible claim. This is the only historical cemetery in South Africa of which an informative book has been written, The History of the Tana Baru, by Achmat Davids.

When you read the book ‘Letters of Stone’ by South African author Steven Robins, which tracks the lives and fates of the Robinsky family in Southern Africa, Berlin, Riga and ultimately Auschwitz, you may be tempted to visit Williston to experience first-hand where one of the principal figures of this poignant story lived. Here you will find Robinsky Street, commemorating Robins’ great uncle Eugen Robinski who fled Konigsberg, East Prussia to become a successful businessman, hotel owner and one-time mayor of this small Karoo town.

It is a pity that artistically designed bookplates or ex libris as they are referred to in Europe, have fallen into relative disuse in South Africa. Antiquarian bookdealers have long known that a well-designed bookplate adds not only to the appearance and interest, but also to the monetary value of a rare book.

By him who bought me for his own,
I’m lent for reading leaf by leaf;
If honest you’ll return the loan, 
If you retain me you are a thief.

Middelburg is one of those towns one usually bypasses while travelling to the Loskop Dam, the Kruger Park or the Mpumalanga Escarpment, not realizing it offers interesting sightseeing opportunities.

There is a historic Dutch Reformed Church established by the controversial Reverend Frans Lion Cachet in 1866, when the community was still known as Nazareth. Later the town’s name was changed to Middelburg, as it was midway between the two principal Transvaal towns of Pretoria (Tshwane) and Lydenburg (Mashishing).

A friend who grew up in Germiston claimed at his recent birthday bash that while you could leave Germiston, it would never leave you. His words mulled through my mind as I arrived at the Primrose Cemetery. Visiting a historic cemetery like Primrose is similar to visiting an interesting museum. Instead of viewing artifacts one sees the tombstones of people who participated in events that may have shaped one’s life in one way or another. One also starts better interpreting the tombstone symbols and appraising the epitaphs. 

 

Perhaps you recall the 1980s advert, ‘Where did you have your first Campari? – in Benoni.’ That was well before Charlize Theron made Benoni famous.

Well, you do not have to be a taphophile (someone who takes an interest in cemeteries and tombstones) or require a taste for Campari to visit the Rynsoord Benoni Cemetery.

Most Gauteng holiday makers break their journey to the KZN Coast at one of the Ultra City or Star Stop facilities at Harrismith or Van Reenen’s Pass. Once fortified with fuel, fast food and soft drinks, they continue on their way, aware they are halfway to Durban.

This is a pity as they miss the opportunity to visit one of the more interesting and historical cemeteries in South Africa. This is the old Harrismith Municipal Cemetery, situated north-east of the corner of Laksman and Greyling Streets.

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