THE COMMERCIAL ROAD CEMETERY
In the usual layout of Voortrekker towns we find the cemetery situated on the perimeter of the town. Pietermaritzburg was no exception and the early Voortrekkers buried their dead in what is now known as the Voortrekker section of the Commercial Road Cemetery (the old Grey’s Hospital side.) (1)
Unfortunately the names and dates of early settlers buried before 1889 (when the cemetery registers were started) (5) and who did not appear in a church burial register, or have stones erected in their memory, are now lost to us. The earliest inscription on a tombstone is that of Hendrik Van den Berg, who was born 1.3.1785 and died 5.9.1839 in the City at 54 years. (He was a Voortrekker whose burial took place within a year of the founding of Pietermaritzburg.)
It would seem that from the earliest times, the cemetery was divided up according to various religious denominations – Anglican, Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian and Wesleyan. In Bishop Colenso’s book, “Ten Weeks in Natal”, (published 1855), he mentioned how on 7.2.1854 “we rode over the bridge …. and passing the burial grounds (where differences which separate Christians during life are still permitted to part their bodies after death) we entered the broad streets of the City.” (2)
It was as early as the year 1860 that the City Council appointed a Public Cemetery Committee, one reason being to decide on the best site for a cemetery and the amount of land required. It was in these early years that the selling of plots for burials also came into being. In 1883 and 1885 the area was fenced and the Municipality employed a caretaker who supervised the maintenance. (4).
In the early 1900’s the Churches seemed to take over some responsibility and controlled the sections of the cemetery which had been allotted to them. (3).
In 1918 the Anglican Church required more land for burials and purchased it from the Dutch Reformed Church. Thus Anglican graves can be found on both sides of Commercial Road. During the years the Anglican Church spent sums of money on maintaining the area allotted to them, with regular amounts being spent on labour, on replacing iron work and painting. Some money was also spent on the Chapel Arch. Plots continued to be sold for burials. (3)
Cremation was first introduced in Pietermaritzburg in the year 1921.
During the year 1937, further Church funds were spent as it was necessary to place iron gates at each end of the Chapel Arch to exclude undesirable people from entering the grounds at night. (3)
On 11.11.1948, the Secretary of the Church of England Cemetery Committee, reported that the Corporation had passed by-laws in respect of private cemeteries whereby they (the Corporation) had agreed to a resolution on 27.10.1948 assuming immediate control of the Commercial Road burial grounds. It was subsequently decided that the Church of England Cemetey Committee be dissolved as all responsibilities were now in the hands of the Municipality. (3)
The cemetery was closed for further burials, apart from some exceptional circumstances, e.g.: where plots had already been purchased and not taken up. Ashes can still be interred in graves in the cemetery. At a later date, the Municipality handed over all registers and maps regarding the Commercial Road Cemetery to the Natal Society Library for safe keeping. (5)
Having reconstructed the history of the Commercial Road Cemetery from the Anglican Church records and from the research as listed, and having spent many hours working in the cemetery documenting the inscriptions on the gravestones (on both sides of the road), I find it most distressing to see on every side the state of extreme neglect, vandalism and disrepair. The cemetery is very overgrown with grass and weeds, the fencing is most inadequate, litter is strewn about, and pieces of broken gravestones lie scattered. It is only too obvious that people are misusing the cemetery and are also sleeping there at night. Furthermore I was appalled to learn that there are now only two men employed for this large area, and their work includes cutting the hedges. I am sure that you will agree that this is an impossible task for two men.
We claim to have a well preserved Victorian City of historical interest which is also linked with the Voortrekkers. But what of our forefathers and pioneers? Is it not hypocritical to preserve our historical buildings and places of interest, while the early settlers and Voortrekkers who built Pietermaritzburg lie neglected and forgotten?
Diane Scogings 2/4/1992
(1) “Pietermaritzburg 1838 – 1899” A new portrait of an African city. Edited by J. Laband and R. Haswell 1988.
(2) “Ten Weeks in Natal” By John William Colenso D.D. 1855
(3) Natal Diocesan Archives. Diocesan Administration – Minutes of the Church of England Cemetery Committee 1910 – 1948.
(4) Cemetery Minute Books 1856 – 1921. Housed in the Natal Government Archives. (Research carried out by Mr. C.O. Holness)
(5) Cemetery Registers of Burials – Natal Society Library from 1889, with maps relating to the graves.