Sprigs of heather on the Mpumalanga grave of an English soldier hint at a long-lost love
In a small town steeped in Boer War history and serenaded by frogs, a century-old tradition endures around an old grave, a mystery fiancée and forbidden romance.
Every October, a group of schoolchildren gather around an old grave in the small Mpumalanga town of Chrissiesmeer.
First, they lay flowers on the grave; then they sing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.
But in their version of the old Scottish folk song, the word “Bonnie” is replaced with “body”.
And, in so doing, the meaning of the song changes. It is sung from the perspective of a soldier whose death is the centre of a mysterious love story and a century-old tradition.
The grave that lies in the Lake Chrissie cemetery belongs to Arthur William Swanston, who was 25 years old when he came out to South Africa and died fighting the Boers. The Scottish lieutenant was killed on 16 October 1900 in a skirmish near Tevreden Pan in what is now Mpumalanga.
The inscription on his tombstone tells of how he died while trying to save the life of one of his men, Private J Garrick.
It was shortly after the end of the South African War that sprigs of heather began appearing on Swanston’s grave, always around the anniversary of his death.
The heather would arrive in a parcel addressed to the postmaster of the Chrissiesmeer post office. One year it would be blue heather, the next pink, always wrapped in a matching ribbon. In the parcel would be a short request to place the heather on Swanston’s grave.
For close to six decades, the heather would arrive at around the time Chrissiesmeer’s infamous frogs had resumed their nightly summer serenade.
Then, in 1957, the then postmistress, Rensie van Rensburg, received a note with the usual parcel. In it, the sender wrote that, because of ill health, she would probably not be able to send more parcels in the future. She also provided a clue as to who she was when she said she had been Swanston’s fiancée. She said she had never married.
She then thanked the Chrissiesmeer post office for helping her honour her fiancé.
The heather arrived for another two years, then the town of Chrissiesmeer heard no more from the mystery lady.
They did often wonder who the sender was and, later, local town historian Ton Sanders looked into the story.
“The postmaster couldn’t remember anything about it. She knew about the parcel and so on, but when they asked her, she couldn’t remember the name on the parcel,” recalls Sanders.
Van Rensburg has since died.
After the parcels stopped arriving, the post office continued the tradition of laying flowers on Swanston’s grave.
In the early 1990s, news arrived that the post office would be closing. The postmaster approached Ann Roux, the head of Laerskool Chrissie, and asked if the school would continue the tradition.
Although the post office reopened two years later, it is the school that has continued with the yearly ritual ever since.
In the UK, William Miller, the Swanston family historian, found out about the story on the internet. After a bit of digging, he has come up with a few likely candidates for who the mystery lady could have been.
Guiding him was something Dorothy Swanston, a relative of Arthur Swanston, had said. She had heard that Swanston’s father John had refused to accept the woman that his son had wanted to marry. This had prompted Swanston to head off to South Africa to fight the Boers.
Swanston had been born into a wealthy shipping family. They were in partnership with the Miller family and here lies a clue to Swanston’s fiancée and the blossoming of a forbidden romance.
“I tried to think, which are the most likely girls that Arthur grew up with,” says Miller.
He settled on the Miller sisters – in particular, Dorothy and Elsie. They would have been related to Swanston as their parents were cousins. The fact that they were related and that the families eventually fell out could be the reasons Swanston’s father refused to give his blessing to the relationship, Miller suspects.
“I think that it was more likely Dorothy,” he says. Dorothy was the oldest and would have been 21 years old when Swanston died.
“She wanted to train as a doctor but it wasn’t considered a suitable career [for women] in those days so she was sent to study music instead,” explains Miller.
Those who remember her recall her being quite a character who was known to dress oddly. She died in 1962.
Miller doesn’t know the state of her health towards the end of her life. It might be, he suspects, that in the last three years of her life she was unable to send the parcels of heather to Chrissiesmeer.
Her sister Elsie was 17 when Swanston died. Like her sister, she never married and died in poverty in 1961.
Vince Matthews knew the two sisters. “I would have thought Dorothy was the more likely from their personalities,” he says.
In the years since the school took over the task of laying flowers on Swanston’s grave, Chrissiesmeer has changed.
The small town has blossomed into a tourist attraction. Visitors come for bird-watching and guides take tourists out so they can see and hear the many different frog species found in the area.
Military boffins come to visit the cemetery where Boer and British soldiers are buried side by side.
It was Roux who introduced the song, My ‘Body’ Lies Over the Ocean. “Bonnie is a girl’s name,” she laughs.
This year, there was concern that the ceremony might not take place. Roux retired earlier this year and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic had created a lot of uncertainty.
But it did happen and, once again, a tragic love story was remembered.
Many believe the identity of Swanston’s love will never be known.
“We have done our best, and we can’t go any further,” says Sanders. But Miller has not given up. There are still paper trails out there that can be followed.
Some of Swanston’s letters were apparently sent to the Inniskilling Dragoons headquarters shortly after his death. Perhaps hidden in there is a letter from a sweetheart.
“You never know,” says Miller. “There might still just be something.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.