During the search for the “Unknown Sailor” in the Old European Cemetery many years ago, there was some question as to whether there was also another unmarked grave there of a seaman. Reading Graham Collins’ 1998 submission into the circumstances of the sinking of the HMAS Sydney he identified that seaman.
Benjamin Hobson a British subject (English), Second Engineer from S/S King Neptune died at the Christmas Island Hospital aged 65 years on October 31 1950.
Graham J. Collins JP, Christmas Island Pharmacist and Hospital Administrator and local historian in his “Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Inquiry into the circumstances of the sinking of the HMAS Sydney”.
Collins thought there may even have been a possibility that Hobson was buried at sea. Being curious as to whether Hobson was in fact buried in the Old European cemetery, I thought I would have a “dig around” (excuse the pun) to find out conclusively.
Fortuitously, I came across his death notice that his family had placed in the Belfast News-letter, on the 2nd November 1950.
From this notice it is clear he was buried on the Island.
Fred Christian, who died on the 18th November 1950, was the first burial at the new European Cemetery along Gaze Road. Therefore it is almost certain that Benjamin Hobson was indeed buried in the Old European Cemetery.
This is absolutely confirmed in Kevin Lourey’s account that appears in Marg Neale’s book “We were the Christmas Islanders”. His account below does not name Benjamin Hobson, but there is no doubt he is describing the seaman’s difficult burial that would immediately set off a hunt for a new cemetery site. This in turn would result in the almost unbelievably strange twist of fate for the man who gave approval for that site location.
Part of my job was to survey and plot gravesites. In 1950 I took a gang of Chinese workers up to the old cemetery behind the Christmas Island Club to dig a grave for an old seaman who died on the Island. It was such an effort digging down between the pinnacles and carrying the coffin uphill that Ted Cameron [Island Manager] said it was time to find another site for a cemetery. We selected a place which we thought was quite a way past the European settlement. We had to wait for approval from Mr Christian (General Manager from Melbourne Office) who was arriving the following week. I remember that particular meeting at the site with Mr Christian very well. He nodded very seriously and said, “This is an excellent place for a cemetery. And within a week I was out there digging his grave. He had a cerebral haemorrhage and died shortly afterwards. So I was involved with the last burial in the old cemetery and the first burial in the new one.
“We were the Christmas Islanders” by Marg Neale page 116
So where exactly is the gravesite of Benjamin Hobson in the Old European Cemetery?
In his submission Graham Collins went on to say:
“I believe that the site of the other sailor’s unmarked grave is probably somewhere near the Prideaux grave. This is the general area described as the “seaman’s grave” by David Powell, Jonathan Kerr and others to whom I have spoken. The grave is likely to have had a masonry surround, but probably no headstone. It is probably this masonry which is now spread around below and near the Prideaux grave. Perhaps this may have been the grave which was undermined by floodwaters during the time Bob Forrester lived in the house.
… At least one “corner-piece” is in evidence on the surface below the Prideaux grave – such as might possibly have been a corner of a masonry grave surround.
Bob Forrester lived for many years in the Manager’s house next to the Old European Cemetery (and behind the Christmas Island Club). This is what he had to say:
…My first knowledge of an unknown grave came in rather unusual circumstances. My house became subject to severe wash-aways. Drainage from a new installation was channelled into one storm-water drain and allowed to discharge over the cliff face, about 700 feet up, and find its own way down the cliff. Hence, the wash-away. I saw my dog with rather a large bone, which I recognised as possibly human, and immediately put two and two together, went up the slope to the cemetery, which had been badly eroded and covered in silt. The Malay gardeners were called in to clean up the mess.
The Mystery of Australia’s Forgotten Son – Was He Lost from HMAS Sydney in 1941? by Bryan Clark. Published in the December 1989 edition of the Naval Historical Review.
He does not say which grave may have been uncovered. Looking at the gravesites today they all look intact and unless there is yet another mystery burial it is quite possible this bone came from the Hobson gravesite.
In his archaeological survey of the Old European Cemetery Professor Martin Gibbs also wrote about the area below the Prideaux gravesite:
Scattered down the slope on the west side of the cemetery, particularly around and below the grave of Charles Prideaux, are assorted fragments of what appear to be grave surround not recorded in the 1970 survey. These fragments correspond to the dimensions of the other surrounds on the site and would suggest that there has been a further grave, probably situated below Prideaux, of which at least the upper portion has broken up and fallen away.
Gibbs, M. 2001 The Corpse in the Carley Float – An archaeological survey of the Christmas Island Cemetery and the possible site of an HMAS Sydney sailor. The Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 24:99-104
And so there is the possibility that the top of the gravesite and even the mortal remains of Benjamin Hobson have been disturbed by land movements due to heavy rains.
Despite dying on a remote Island far from family, with no official listing for being buried in the Old European Cemetery (as far as I can see), no headstone to remember him and likelihood that his grave may have slipped down the hillside, may Benjamin Hobson rest in peace.
Being the last burial in that historic cemetery, it would therefore be fitting to honour his memory in the form of a plaque.
Would you like to know more about other people who were buried in the Old European Cemetery? There are two further stories: