Thursday, 1 November 2012

Graves in the Veld: Rietfontein Hospital.

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 .


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 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.

I did revisit the site and was able to document some of the other cemeteries. These are on my blog as follows: "Rietfontein 2"  "the Scope of Rietfontein"  "Rietfontein, The last Word" "So what happened about Rietfontein?"

Images of the graves that I managed to photograph are at Eggsa.
Rietfontein 61_1
Rietfontein 61_2 
Rietfontein 61_3
Rietfontein 61_4

Update: The final Environmental Impact assessment was made available in 2015 and was available to download from the consultants. The deadline for submissions was 8 March 2015.

11 comments:

Carpet Spring Cleaners said...

i have done extensive research in the area and am aware of all 4 sites. the earliest site has a few stones dating before 1900. about 10 stones are evident
a mass grave site is evident in 2x areas. no stones are evident.
the fourth site is the one you refer to. about 20 stones are found but are fastly dissapearing due to dumping!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
i have written and sent pictures to my local councellor.
if you would like photos of the area contact me at
fisherd@telkomsa.net

DRW said...

Thanks, as you can see I did pick up one of the other cems, but I really would like to document the 2 others that are at the site. I have sent you an email in this regard.

Pam Marais said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DRW said...

Hi Pam, Thanks for your comment. I did remove it for your privacy (tel number etc) but have passed the information onwards to Egssa who will hopefully contact you. I am no longer in South Africa.

l&w said...

Just out of interest, this area is now seriously being considered for development and there is talk of the exhumation of 7000+ graves related to this site. From your article it seems that they're going to have a lot of fun finding 7000 burial sites. Nonetheless, environmentalists are boycotting this low cost housing development which also lists 2 schools and a recreation centre as being in the pipeline. This is all to be found in a front page article in the local newspaper...

l&w said...

Just out of interest, this area is now seriously being considered for development and there is talk of the exhumation of 7000+ graves related to this site. From your article it seems that they're going to have a lot of fun finding 7000 burial sites. Nonetheless, environmentalists are boycotting this low cost housing development which also lists 2 schools and a recreation centre as being in the pipeline. This is all to be found in a front page article in the local newspaper...

tim capon said...

I am the great nephew of nurse emily blake who died of plague and is buried at the site. I would be interested to here from anyone who knows more about the site.

DRW said...

I have a pic of her grave if you want it. The info I do have on her is as follows: "she arrived in March 1899 on the SS Kilburn in Saldanha Bay where she nursed at the Uitvlugt Hosptital in Pinelands during the cape Town outbreak. That hospital closed on 30 November 1901 , after which she came to Rietfontein where she died in March 1904 at the age of 27 of bubonic plague. It is said that she contracted the disease after kissing a child goodnight, She was originally buried in grave 218 at the plague cemetery. Pics of the grave are at http://www.eggsa.org/library/main.php?g2_itemId=2393547

tim capon said...

Great seen the photo that's great, where did you get the other info from I'd like to investigate further

DRW said...

Hi Tim,
I have a booklet that I got at the hospital about the history of the hospital and some of the people that worked there. That info was amongst the info in it. The booklet was published to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the hospital in 1995. If you contact Dave Fisher (email is in the first comment on this blog) he has an electronic copy of the booklet, and is also very knowledgeable about the cemeteries and the area.

DRW said...

The Environmental Impact Assessment was been completed and the final deadline for comments passed on the 8th of March 2015. It may be possible to download the assessment at http://h.bokamoso.biz/index.php/project-download/category/7-linksfield-final-eia-report-2015

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