This cemetery has the distinction of being the oldest cemetery in Port Elizabeth even predating the arrival of the 1820 settlers. Hence it was only when St. Mary’s church was built that it was managed by the church. It is also the burial place of Rev. Francis McCleland.
Main picture: St. Mary’s cemetery showing its current state of decay
In 1799 when Fort Frederick was being built, the military authorities laid out a burial ground to the south of the Baakens River. After the formation of the town which was to become Port Elizabeth, civilian burials appear to have taken place on a site to the north of the settlement. After the arrival of the 1820 British Settlers which brought an influx of people into the town, arrangements were made for civilians to share the military cemetery. Control of the cemetery was assigned to the colonial state church, the Church of England, in this case. Notwithstanding that for several years it also accommodated other Christian denominations within its walls. The one major group which could not be included was the Cape Malay community, whose members were Muslims. Thus adjacent to the Anglican cemetery a separate Muslim cemetery was laid out with a orientation facing east towards Mecca. The precedent for the separation of place of worship from place of burial once established, was to be followed virtually throughout the city’s history.
The growth of the town and the diverse religious affiliations of the inhabitants were such that increased demands were placed upon St Mary’s Cemetery. The solution was found in the allocation of small pieces of land on the town margins to accommodate the various Christian denominations. In the late 1830s and 1840s the Wesleyan Methodists, Roman Catholics and Congregationalists were all granted their own burial grounds to the north-west of the settlement.
History of St. Mary’s Cemetery
Apart from minor changes, this is largely a verbatim transcription of a blog by Liz Eshmade entitled A History of St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Algoa Bay was almost devoid of people when, in 1799, the British Army constructed the Fort on the hill overlooking the sea. The spot, which was to serve the military forces stationed here, was chosen because it was on the slope of a hill close to the beach and was surrounded with shrubbery, which gave it an air of peaceful tranquillity.
There are no records of interments prior to the cemetery being transferred to St. Mary’s church but we do know that there was a small section where civilians were buried and that is probably where some of the 1820 Settlers, who died soon after landing, were buried. There were also very likely to be crew members of passing ship’s and perhaps even victims of early unchartered wrecks, which may have occurred before 1820.
There are no gravestones or memorials extant for this period at all. Very likely there would have been cairns and wooden crosses, none of which would have stood the passing of the years.
In 1825, construction of Mary’s Church was commenced and a portion of the cemetery was given over to the church to use for burials under “certain conditions”, which have been lost in the mists of time.
In 1845/46, the vestry minutes inform us that the cemetery was surveyed and laid out into plots and in the process, some of the “natural and picturesque shrubbery” had to be removed, much to public’s regret. The hardy and exotic Nicotiana Glaucosa – the wild tobacco tree – was planted instead as it grows in almost any soil and braves the greatest exposure. When in 1845 it was declared a noxious weed by the Town Council, it had to be extirpated.
The ground appears to have been sold off in a very haphazard manner with plot 1 being next to plot 365. However, this may have been the result of people being buried among the military graves which already existing. The cemetery was consecrated by Bishop Gray on 30th August 1850 when he came to celebrate the first Confirmations in the new church.
There was then no wall around the cemetery and the wagons and carts used to drive through it as a short cut to the fording place on the Baakens River. As early as 1847 letters were appearing in the Eastern Province Herald complaining about the condition of the cemetery and the damage being done to it by the wagon traffic.
1849 saw the first floods and the Baakens come down in flood for the first time since the establishment of the town. It is not known if the wall had already been built and if not what damage was caused to the cemetery. By the next serious floods in 1867, which saw massive destruction in South End, there was already a wall in place and this may have saved the cemetery from huge damage. Also, after this flood, the municipality ordered that all graves be dug a minimum of two metres deep as there were a number of exposed coffins which could cause health problems to the surrounding community.
In January 1898, this cemetery was closed for new interments except for those who had space in family plots. By then even the pathways between the original plots had been sold off. The last known internment was of ashes in the nineteen sixties.
Complete neglect seems to have followed on closure and by 1962 journalists were commenting on the broken and splintered gravestones, the weeds and general overgrowth. It had become a place for the children of South End to play in and for vagrants to live in. There was then little interest in the ancestors or the first inhabitants of this city!
In 1963, the Historical Society recommended certain proposals to upgrade the cemetery and some of the ideas were carried out but careless felling of oversized trees caused more damage and the work was halted before it was finished.
In the 1970’s South Union Street and St. Mary’s Lane disappeared into the new Freeway and the cemetery gate was moved to Valley Road. No cemetery land was reclaimed for this project.
In 1990 a project to record the remaining gravestones in this cemetery was completed. By then a number of the stones had completely worn away into holes, and others had lost their inscriptions. In 2000, another sweep was made to see what was left and the destruction by the weather and man (but mainly the weather) was serious enough to make us realize how fortunate it was that we had recorded that cemetery when we did.
In 2013, a walk through this old place revealed a large number of people living there, nearly all the metal grave surrounds had been ripped out to sell as scrap and a large number of the graves were in a bad condition. Some of the large trees had fallen and the whole area was so thick with dead leaves that it was not possible to see those gravestones, which had been laid flat.
Briefly then, one will not find any gravestones there prior to 1845. There is one exception and that is William Long, the Captain of the Locust, who was buried in the military section in 1822 and whose gravestone was attached to the boundary wall in an experiment at some time in the 1960s, to see if it would be a good idea to move all the remaining gravestones to the walls. Furthermore, there are no gravestones here beyond 1895.
Mosenthals: A Metaphor for the Fortunes of Port Elizabeth
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Brickmaker’s Kloof
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Enclosed Harbour Scheme in the 1930s
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Harbour prior to the Charl Malan Quay
Port Elizabeth of Yore: St Mary’s Church
Port Elizabeth of Yore: New Church in Main Street
Rations, Rules and other Regulations aboard the Settler Ships
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Earliest Photographs
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Empire units in P.E. during the Boer War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Defences during the Boer War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Memorials to the Fallen in War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Albany Road
Algoa Bay before the Settlers: Sojourn by Henry Lichtenstein in the Early 1800s
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Captain Jacob Glen Cuyler
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Growth of the Population
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Murders most Foul
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Phoenix Hotel
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Echoes of a Far off War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Tram Era
Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: Customs House
The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968
A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Horse Drawn Trams
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Trinder Square
The Sad Demise of the Boet Erasmus Stadium
Interesting Old Buildings in Central Port Elizabeth
The Shameful Torching of Port Elizabeth’s German Club in 1915:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cora Terrace:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Grand Hotel:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Whaling in Algoa Bay:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: White’s Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Target Kloof:
The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth
What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?
A Pictorial History of the Campanile in Port Elizabeth
Allister Miller: A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth
The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour
The Historical Port Elizabeth Railway Station
Photos: Jonker Fourie
Port Elizabeth – A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine
The Collegiate Church and Parish of St. Mary Port Elizabeth by A.T. Wirgman & C.E. Mayo
A History of St. Mary’s Cemetery by Liz Eshmade: https://www.facebook.com/virtual.eggsa/posts/546229955536730