Historical gravestone in Seletar to be left in peace

Melody Zaccheus The Straits Times AsiaOne 29 Mar 14;

SINGAPORE - For several decades, a gravestone of a woman named Jane Buyers has stood, alone, in Seletar.

And it will continue to remain there after residents highlighted its historical value to save it from new developments at Rowers Bay, along the Lower Seletar Reservoir Park.

Little is known of the woman, other than that she was the wife of a shipbuilder, JC Buyers, who worked in Singapore from 1863 to 1885, and that she died in 1867.

But her grave, which pre-dates the 1907 Bidadari and 1922 Bukit Brown municipal cemeteries, is one of the oldest here.

When the Seletar Hills Estate Residents Association, which has been championing the estate's heritage, learnt of national water agency PUB's plans to build new amenities such as footpaths, carparks and toilets at Rowers Bay, they quickly alerted the National Heritage Board (NHB) to save the piece of history.

The board, which believes the grave could have been relocated from Bukit Timah Christian Cemetery which was used from 1865 to 1907, found that it has "significant age-value".

NHB's group director of policy Alvin Tan said it then recommended to the agencies - including National Parks Board and Seletar Country Club - involved in the upgrading of the area next year to retain the grave.

PUB also plans to enhance the area around the tombstone with "suitable plants and trees".

The chairman of the residents' association, Mr Percival Jeyapal, 72, welcomed the move. "Our concern was that if the grave stone is not properly demarcated, something of historical value could be destroyed, especially with contractors coming in and out of the area," he said.

The inscription on the gravestone, which sits on state land, reads: "Sacred to the memory of Jane, the beloved wife of JC Buyers, shipbuilder who died on the 14th June 1867, aged 42. Also their sons John and James who died in infancy."

The association, which wrote about the grave in its 2013 book Down The Seletar River, is taking the lead in piecing together the Buyers' story. The information, which it plans to share with NHB by September, will be displayed on storyboards around the grave.

While the couple were not renowned figures in society, newspaper reports then pointed to a "JC Buyers' ship-repairing dock" that was built around the mid-19th century on the southern isle of Pulau Brani. Research also found that JC Buyers had built the first large commercial ship here. The 600-tonne vessel carried mail between India and Holland just before 1857.

Mr Jeyapal believes the presence of the gravestone in Seletar could shed light on how the area - which was home to rubber, pepper and gambier plantations - might have been be a hive of shipping activity.

Plantations could have sent their goods down the Seletar River and across the Malacca Strait. Colonial ship-building activity could have also been based there.

The association which represents 500 households and 3,000 residents, said it is trying to get in touch with the Buyers' great- great granddaughter who lives in Scotland.

Added Mr Jeyapal: "We also hope that people who know about the family's ties with Singapore can come forward and share more information with us."