In February 1957 teacher Edna Thomas, seeking new challenges, was on a ship bound for Christmas Island. In her early thirties, single and independent, I wonder what her thoughts must have been as she sailed into new waters. She could not have known that the decision to apply for and then accept the teaching post at the Island’s infants’ European School would, within a short time, change the course of her life.
The story of Edna’s one year stay on the Island may have been lost forever were it not for her son Antony contacting me and providing some wonderful photos (a few of which are featured on this page). He tells his mother’s Christmas Island story here:
Edna Thomas moved to Perth in Western Australia in 1951 looking for a change of direction in her life. She knew always that she wanted to work in child care or teaching and the Education Department was looking for mature age students at the time.
She decided to become an infants teacher and enrolled at Claremont Teachers College in Perth. After graduating in Rural School Teaching in 1952 she volunteered for her first three years teaching post at Forrest River “Oombulgurri” in The Kimberley. Returning to Perth after her three year term she missed the challenges that she was used to and heard that the Department was looking to fill a post at the Christmas Island European Infants school, she applied and was accepted.
She arrived on the Island in February 1957 on board the ship M.V. Corona from Fremantle to take up the position of Head teacher of the Infants school.
She had a room that looked out over the bay and would often see the postal and supply ship the T.S.S. Islander, load its cargo of phosphate. Despite the difficult access and lack of a wharf which meant that passengers needed to board via small boats, these supply ships were the main link for the Island.
Edna was a good friend with the secretary of the BPC management. The secretary asked her to join her on board the Islander and it was there that Edna met her future husband, Frank Gray who was the ship’s captain.
As Edna explained, “I didn’t go out with him at all, I got to know him when I went on board with the manager’s secretary because she was mad keen on the first officer, Arthur Spears and she was told she couldn’t go unless another girl went with her. She asked me. ‘Of course I’ll go with you, I said’.”
The two girls joined the Islander on its next section of its supply run. Edna said, “We went to Cocos Island and Home Island on that trip, that’s where I got to know Frank quite well. There was nothing out of place, he was always very correct and proper …”.
She enjoyed being on the Island and really loved the Island landscape, talking many times about the impressive sight of the Christmas Island red crab annual migration.
However she found her position as a single girl in the European community there somewhat claustrophobic, used as she was to leading her life independently. Edna said ” … I mean 45 single men and 4 single women was a bit much to take. It was a beautiful Island and it had a lovely swimming pool. I was a trained swimming teacher, I would take the children for examinations in lifesaving. I enjoyed my year there but when they asked if I would stay for a second year I said no.”
She knew they were planning to move the women’s accommodation closer to the single men’s accommodation in the following year, in her view, closer to “the prying eyes”. She considered she had enough and did not renew her contract leaving in March 1958.
But her brief time at Christmas Island was indeed fortuitous. Captain Frank Gray had said on his last voyage to Christmas Island before he took up a permanent position in Singapore, ” … whenever you have had enough … come up to visit me in Singapore.” Edna took him up on his word and it was then that he proposed to her. They were soon engaged and were married in September 1958.
In her wedding photo album was the congratulatory telegram from her Christmas Island friend. Both Frank and Edna wanted Arthur Spears to be the best man at their wedding but unfortunately he had just been promoted to captain himself and was away at sea.
Edna loved her job as a teacher and the role she could play in the lives of the children she taught. She continued to teach in Singapore while raising three children. In 1971 the Gray family moved back to her home town Sydney where she still lives.
Christmas Island always remained a very special place for her, even today there is a photograph on the wall of her bedroom that her husband took of his ship the Islander at anchor in Flying Fish Cove. Her memories are her own now but I know that the Island never left her.