Stone mystery solved?

2014-10-06 00:00

A DURBAN man insists he has solved the mystery of how South Africa’s oldest tombstone was found in a local suburb.

He says his British immigrant neighbour had found the 335-year-old gravestone of Elizabeth Fowke in an English field — and kept in his Westville garden as a “keepsake”.

This week, experts recommended geological and “petrographic” tests to explain the origin of the ancient marker, which was discovered when a townhouse paving stone was overturned in Waterfall.

The tombstone predates Durban itself by more than 150 years, and is 80 years older than the oldest gravestone in the country’s earliest cemetery.

Meanwhile, historians from Simon’s Town to UKZN had suggested that the infant Fowke had either been a survivor of a 17th century shipwreck off the Transkei coast, or that her tombstone had been used as ballast from a ship, and brought into Durban in the belief that it was a paving stone.

However, retired marine engineer Albert Funga (90) said “I recognised that stone immediately when I saw it in [The Witness]; I know the whole story — and I had to laugh at all these stories about shipwrecks”.

Funga said the stone had to come to South Africa from England in 1972, when it found its way into the personal cargo of his former Westville neighbour, Ted Wyers, during his immigration to Durban.

“Ted told me he came across the stone lying loose in a field when he was walking in the countryside somewhere north of London,” said Funga. “The grave itself may have been there, but I think he thought it had just been discarded. He appreciated its age; I suppose he became attached to it.”

Funga said Wyers — a telephone technician — kept the stone “in a strategic spot” in his Westville garden, and continued to keep it outside his house after moving to the Forest Glen complex in Waterfall.

“I thought it strange, and Ted himself was a bit embarrassed about keeping it, but obviously he couldn’t throw it away,” he said. “I spoke to his two daughters and his grandson about it, and they didn’t seem to know why he kept it either.”

Wyers and his wife passed away recently.

But the tombstone in his garden was reused as a paving stone for Forest Glen residents to access their mailboxes — after workmen apparently failed to notice the carved inscription. It read “Elizabeth Fowke was borne (sic) Dec 1678 and departed this life Sept 24 1679”.

Complex resident Ann Lok commemorated the 335th anniversary of the child’s passing with flowers last week — but keeps the stone in her garage.

Having heard Funga’s revelation, Lok said: “It sounds very odd to me, but I’m sure Mr Funga is right about its origins. And let’s face it, the explanation is no stranger than the other alternatives.”

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