In August 1988 an article appeared in The Star with the headline 'Sandton historians seeking facts about mystery man'. Researchers from the Sandton Historical Association (SHA) had found a neglected grave in the veld just off Sloane Street in Bryanston but knew nothing of ‘John Richard Davis, born 8th December 1876, Died at Craigieburn, 25th May 1948’. The case generated significant interest and caught the attention of Davis’ daughter Molly Steel and others who helped researchers to build a picture of Bryanston’s mystery man.
Davis grew up in Rossacarbery, County Cork in Ireland, was schooled in England and completed a Diploma in Engineering while studying in Glasgow in the 1890s. The reasons why he came to South Africa at the turn of the century are unclear but according to Steel he arrived ‘with only 6d in his pocket… and spent it on a cup of coffee!’ He worked on the mines for many years before starting a spare parts business, specialising in Austin engines, in Motortown in 1920. The same year he met and married Nora Coventry from Bergville, Natal. The couple had Molly in 1923 but separated a few years later.
By the mid 1930s Davis was a wealthy man thanks to hard work and the rapid growth of the motor industry. Along with his partner John Macrae, he established Craigieburn, a grand hunting estate located to the east of where the Bryanston CBD is today. He was active on the social scene and counted many affluent Johannesburg citizens as friends including the Eriksens who built their palatial home Norscot nearby.
Norscot Manor (The Heritage Portal)
Before he died Davis expressed the desire to be buried beneath his beloved pines and for the surrounding land to be protected. By the time the SHA researchers arrived on the scene, however, the development of housing complexes was threatening his final resting place. A beautiful park had been established on the other side of the river, on the corner of Sloane and Ebury Streets and Steel felt that the best way to fulfill her father’s wishes would be to scatter his ashes in the forest. She planned for the grave either to be moved to the park or to be built into a wall of one of the complexes as a plaque.
The park on the corner of Ebury and Sloane (The Heritage Portal)
The old story of Bryanston’s Mystery Man intrigued the Heritage Portal Team so much that we decided to venture into the forest to see which option Molly Steel decided on...
Grave of John Richard Dravis built into the wall of a housing complex (The Heritage Portal)