A peaceful silence envelops the small “Old European Cemetery” on Christmas Island. Its headstones silent testimonies of lives once lived; entire lives ultimately summed up with just a few inscribed lines and dates. This is what makes a headstone so important and the lack of one can set in train a whole sequence of events as you will read further on.
The following story of Norman Howard, who was laid to rest in that little cemetery, is not just of his tragic fate but is also about the loss of his identity in later years resulting from some strange events with regards to his gravesite.
The circumstances of Norman Howard’s death in early March 1924 are recounted below.
Christmas Island Tragedy.
Suicide of Phosphate Co.’s Officer.
It is only now that the facts have become generally known of a tragic occurrence that took place on Christmas Island early in March. For some time reports were current here that a tragedy had happened on the island but details were not available and it was impossible to publish the facts earlier.
It appears that Mr. Howard, who had a fine war record, came out about three years ago to join the service of the Phosphate Company, who, as is well known, have extensive works on Christmas Island, and, at the time of his death, was foreman in charge of No. 3 quarry. The deceased on the morning of the tragedy, was in the engine room at the quarry – it was about 7.30 – and as soon as the coolies had left for their meal, he shot himself through the head with his own revolver, the act it is said having been committed as the result of some private trouble.
Mrs. Howard, missing him, went out in search of the deceased, whom she discovered lying dead in the engine room. The gloom caused by the affair was naturally intensified among the community by the smallness and comparative loneliness of the island.
The deceased was very popular there, and every European assembled at the funeral, the service at which was read by Mr. W. E. Rigby, District Officer.
The widow of the late Mr. Howard, passed through Singapore recently, homeward bound.
An enquiry was conducted by the District Officer and the proceedings, as is usual in matters of this nature, are reviewed by the Government of the Colony.
The Straits Times, 1 May 1924, Page 9
As the years passed, the name of Norman Howard, otherwise known as “Bill” faded away; his young family long gone; only a headstone remained as a reminder of a once popular man and giving identity to his gravesite.
A photo from the National Archives of Australia dated 2nd Feb 1950 shows the new gravesite of Edwin Lewis with wreaths in the foreground and Norman Howard’s headstone can be seen in the background. In a survey map of 1970, the graves in the Old European Cemetery have all been identified except Norman Howard’s plot. It is marked as “Identity Unknown”.
Some time in those intervening 20 years, the headstone was snapped off at its base and its top part went missing. How and why this happened can only be guessed.
In the case of “the Unknown Sailor” 1 John Doohan, in his submission to the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Sydney II Seminar in November 2001, summed up an odd sequence of events with regards to Norman Howard’s gravesite:
That particular grave is one of the cemetery’s 10 established graves and is the only one where the identity record, at a later unknown date, inexplicably disappeared from the cemetery register and from where an identifying headstone had been removed by an unknown agency and (as transpired) hidden in the area.
Without a headstone, no name on the Death Register and no Shire or other records showing his name, the burial site of Norman Howard then somehow became associated as the gravesite of the “Unknown Sailor”. This was despite the fact that some knowledgeable Islanders such as David Powell and others saying that this was not the case. 3 Nevertheless, John Doohan stated that he made a “timber cross with metal memorial plate” to place on the Howard gravesite. A memorial service was held on the 9th August 1994 with family and friends of the HMAS Sydney II and the Australian Federal Police in attendance. The residual base of the broken headstone was removed from the plot for the “temporary wooden memorial cross” to be put in its place. 3 The base was left next to the grave. The service was videoed but in his submission John Doohan wrote
Without comment on my own thoughts at that time as to legitimacy of that acceptance, [ie. the Howard gravesite being identified as the “unknown sailor” gravesite] aside from paying tribute to HMAS SYDNEY’s Company, I hoped the consecration might focus mainland public attention on officially ignored requests of SYDNEY bereaved relatives to determine the status of the Unknown Sailor. 2
Norman Howard must have been turning in his grave!
A year later in 1995, the Howard headstone was found by Jonathon Kerr wrapped in a length of old conveyor belting and covered in debris near the base of a large tree near the Prideaux grave. The base and the headstone made a good fit. 3 And there they both lay unceremoniously next to the Howard gravesite before being eventually reinstated.
Was there some kind of deception or just an odd sequence of events that enabled the identity of the gravesite to be lost and another erroneously put in its place? The wrapping of the discarded headstone is curious. If the headstone had broken through natural causes and was then wrapped because someone was worried about its preservation, then why discard it? Why not notify the appropriate authorities and have it reinstated (as it would be eventually)?
It’s strange when you think about it; the once known identity of a man, was supplanted by a man with no identity.
May Norman Howard and the “Unknown Sailor”, now known to be Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark, both rest in peace.
If you liked this “Old European Cemetery” story there are more from that place that you can read about:
1. The “Unknown Sailor” was found in a Carly Float in 1942 in a decomposed state and brought ashore. He was buried in the Old European Cemetery in an unmarked grave. The carly float came from the HMAS Sydney which was sunk off the Western Australian coast by the German auxilliary cruiser the “Kormoran” in 1941. All hands on the Sydney were lost. For many years the final resting place of the sailor in the cemetery was unknown despite efforts to find him. Eventually he was located in 2006 and exhumed. He was was re-interred with full military honours on 19 November 2008 at the Geraldton War Cemetery, Western Australia. In November 2021 the Unknown Sailor was identified through DNA testing as Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark.
2. Submissions to the November 2001 HMAS Sydney II Seminar
Dr M. McCarthy – Compiler
Report Department of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Museum, No. 164
(John Doohan submission)
3. Graham J Collins JP
Christmas Island 6798 SUBMISSION No 143
20 April 1998
Submission to the Joint Standing Committee Of Foreign Affairs. Defence and Trade
Inquiry into the circumstances of the sinking of the HMAS Sydney.