28 July 2007

Heroes and those long forgotten

On one of our early morning neighbourhood strolls my wife and I ended up at the historical Russell Road Cemetery as the sun was rising.

In our 29 years in Port Elizabeth I have never visited the cemetery, which is unusual for me, because I have a morbid curiosity with cemeteries, especially the older ones. This one dates back to the mid to late 1800’s, when Russell Road was still known as Hyman’s Kloof. There was no road then, it was just a gorge with a stream running through it.

One can glean a lot about the history of a place by reading the tombstones.

The rich and the poor lie side by side in their graves. Some graves are monuments to the life of one person, but what I found intriguing was, that whole families were often buried in the same grave. This was a particularly sad place because of the high mortality rate, especially among the women and children.

When you read about the unsanitary conditions in the town at the time one can understand why.

One tombstone that I found very poignant was that of the Brunkhard family – Ralph aged 23 years and 4 months died on October 4 th 1889; Thomas aged 3 years and 4 months; George aged 2 years; Annie aged 9 months and 7 days; Margaret Ward aged 7 years and 4 months and their mother Margaret Ward aged 51 died on July 29th 1892. A lot of tears for one family.

Many people of Irish descent are also buried there, originating from places like Tipperary and County Cork. One section of the city around Evatt, Alice and Strand Streets was known as Irish Town. I can only wonder if some of these people came from that infamous area.

Here follows a few quotes on Irish Town from the book Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days, JJ Redgrave, The Rustica Press, Wynberg Cape 1947:

“It was a paradise for depraved seamen and drunken Hottentots of both sexes,
and was known as Irish Town. Interspersed between these drinking dens were a few low shops where big profits were made from smuggling liquor”.

At that time the police were only on duty from 8 am to 6 pm and,

There were no night duties and the town was left to make its own arrangements to prevent burglaries, assaults, drunken brawls and other crimes that occurred under
cover of darkness, and Irish Town, the hotbed of vice, was given a wide
berth by respectable people, including the constables”.

Today the police fortunately patrol at all times of the day and night.

“The buildings in Strand Street were the veriest rookeries, reeking of filth and
swarming with rats”.
They are still there - came across a dead rat in Strand Street just the other day.

When you read the history books, it was like the Wild West.

The wheel has turned - today Irish Town no longer exists. The same crimes are still very prevalent today, but the characters have changed. We are now faced with the scourge of Nigerian criminals who are into drugs, prostitution and any other crime that brings in a quick buck. (I will save that subject for another day though)

Amongst all the decay of the cemetery one can’t help but notice a well tended grave at the far end of the cemetery. James Langley Dalton a survivor of the Battle of Rorkes Drift and the recipient of the Victoria Cross. Dalton was an Acting Assistant Commissary with the Commissariat and Transport Department.

The action at Rorke's Drift, took place from 22 to 23 January 1879, when 139 British soldiers defended a supply station against about 4,500 Zulu warriors. About 500 Zulus died in the battle and 17 of the defenders were killed. What was remarkable about Rorkes Drift was that 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded – the highest number ever awarded in any battle. Dalton’s character was featured in the 1964 film Zulu, which was about the battle of Rorkes Drift

War buffs can read more about James Dalton and the battle of Rorkes Drift at
rorkesdriftvc.com and britishbattles.com

Grave yards are fascinating places, you never know what will emerge, like this vagrant who has made his home behind one of the crypts.

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