The curious case of the absent dead Englishman
Next to an ancient and now deceased gum tree on a lonely road over the Pakhuis Pass in the Cederberg is a Boer War grave beside which a sister mourned her brother for 30 years without knowing it was empty.
Carved on a stone beneath a Celtic cross are the words “In sacred memory of Graham Vinicombe Winchester Clowes, Lieutenant, First Batt., Gordon Highlanders, killed in action on this spot on the 30 January 1901.” On the cross is inscribed Brave and True.
It’s known locally as The Englishman’s Grave and seems never to be short of fresh flowers, placed there by pupils from the nearby Elizabethfontein Primary School. The tree next to it must once have been huge, but succumbed to drought in 2017 and is now a gnarled stump.
Visitors on their way to Wupperthal or Calvinia often stop and puzzle over its poignancy among such empty hills and in the absence of an explanation. It perfectly symbolises the much-quoted lines of World War 1 poet Rupert Brook:
If I should die think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
The grave has a story, of course, but not a simple one. The Pakhuis Pass was a major route into the interior and much-disputed territory as the Boers moved towards the Cape West Coast then back in retreat.
The Gordon Highlanders were billeted at the Brandewyn River near what is today Elizabethfontein farm. It’s unclear if they knew that Boers were in the hills above.
The day before Clowes was killed (30 January 1901) there’d been a skirmish in the Pakhuis Pass with the Boers, who were retreating after their brief occupation of Clanwilliam. There was another skirmish on the flats near the Doring River later the same day.
Captain Robert Gordon was ordered to take a three-man patrol up the road towards Calvinia. They would have been clearly visible to the Boers in their redoubt for almost the whole ride up from the Brandewyn Drift. In fact the redoubt was clearly built to keep an eye on the British camp at Elizabeth’s Fontein.
As the English neared the top of a hill, Boers who had apparently dug in opened fire. Lt. Graham Clowes was killed instantly.
Trooper Clark was shot in the stomach, robbed of his horse and left to make his own way. He was found by the British army the next day and died in Clanwilliam where he’s buried in the churchyard. Gordon was shot in the foot and managed to mount his horse and escape.
Clowes’s body was found two days after his death. It had been lying in the intense January heat and he was undoubtedly hastily buried in a rough grave “next to the road”.
Graham Clowes, however, was not a simple foot-soldier but part of British landed gentry. His father, on his death in 1900, left the family a considerable estate — equivalent to millions of pounds in today’s value.
Graham’s elder brother, bearing the grand name of Winchester St George and four years older, could afford to arrange for a decent grave, but administering its construction from faraway England would have been complicated in the aftermath of war.
It’s probable that he would have written to contractors in Clanwilliam with money and instructions to have the inscription engraved, erect a cross and have the grave surrounded by a railing.
In those days the road there swung left along the ridge before turning down a gentler slope into the Doring River valley, a fact worth mentioning as you’ll see. The Boer redoubt guarded this road which is not where the present one runs. So when the family ordered the erection of a monument over the grave “next to the road”, it was in fact no longer next to the road the contractors were ordered to erect it besides.
Far easier, in the absence of an overseer and with sketchy local information from farmers very uninterested in things English, to simply build it next to the newer road, which they did. This fact has lived on in a hush-hush sort of way among descendants of the construction crew.
Graham’s sister, Eileen, was 18 when he was killed and must have loved him dearly. She may have been sent out to supervise the work, but given her age and the conditions in the country that’s unlikely.
However, with dogged determination each year for 30 years, she made the uncomfortable boat trip to Cape Town, the long journey to Clanwilliam by wagon and the arduous trip over the Pakhuis Pass to lay flowers on the grave and mourn Graham’s untimely death. She also planted the tree.
The labourers who constructed the grave would have known it was empty but — if they ever met her — probably wouldn’t have had the heart to tell her. And there could have been uproar best to avoid.
There’s a sequel to the story.
Last year, while surveying the route for a mountain-bike track, Jas Strauss and Edu van Rijswijk of Traveller’s Rest farm found a grave about two kilometres from the Celtic cross, clearly hastily built but not in the style of local shepherds or the /Xam who inhabited the area before them. It has a headstone and a cross of stones lies upon the mound.
An elderly retired farmer in the area had long spoken of this grave as the “real” Englishman’s Grave, but no one had been able to locate it. Jas and Edu also found a redoubt of piled-up stones on the hill above, with rocks perfectly placed to support a rifle.
So the cross down below may be a monument, but it is unlikely to be an Englishman’s grave. It’s probably better that Eileen never knew. DM/ ML
If you want to explore secret places and interesting byways in the Cederberg, the best maps can be found here.
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