William Joseph Ryan – The man beneath the grave

Many thanks to Chris Su, Manager Governance, Research, Policy & Grants, Shire of Christmas Island. Without him I would not have been aware of this wonderful story.

“The Man Beneath the Grave

Gillian Sandle of the UK visited Christmas Island in October 2016 for the first time, finishing the end of a decades long journey to learn about the life of her grandfather, William Joseph Ryan who lived and died on Christmas Island a century ago. ~ The Islander Magazine”

©Chris Su. Used with kind permission.

“There is a grave in The Old European Cemetery where the remains of William Joseph Ryan, who died on 19th July 1917, have lain for nearly a hundred years. To many it may appear to be a forgotten grave but I am his granddaughter, Gillian, and this is my story of how I found out about the man behind the name and my journey to see his final resting place.

My desire to find out all I could about my grandfather began back in 1983. My father Victor, William’s youngest child, had wanted to know for certain where his father was buried. He was only two years old when he died and had no memory of him. Victor’s mother and siblings had long since passed away and there was no one to ask. At the time computers were not available for research so it was down to old fashioned letter writing. In December 1983 having written to the Island I received a letter back from Government Offices confirming that my grandfather was indeed buried there and to our joy some lovely photographs had also been included. Sadly my father died in 1996 knowing only part of the history.

It was then that the desire to find out all I could about my Grandfather’s life in Christmas Island (and prior to that Singapore) truly took hold. I knew that William had been born in Gosport Hampshire England on the 8th May 1876 so how had he come to live in these remote places and how had he met my Grandmother Sybil who lived in Looe a small Cornish coastal town?

The clue was in William’s father Thomas Ryan. Thomas was born in Moroe, Limerick, Ireland and at the age of 22 decided to join the army which would take him across the seas with the British Empire. It was when his regiment was sent back to England for a while that William had been born. After many journeys to different parts of the Empire, and after 21 years in the army Thomas decided to leave his mother country and settle in Singapore. William was seven years old when the family settled there and it was then that he went to a proper school for the first time.

All the evidence I have come across points to him being a sporty young man with an aptitude for languages. Consequently this would have been the prime reason why he was picked to be trained with the Chinese Protectorate from a young boy. His first appointment with the Protectorate was in 1894 as a student Chinese interpreter at the Police Court. He then became Assistant Boarding Officer in 1896 but he soon progressed to an Inspector within a short period of time.

How did he meet my grandmother? Well I can only assume that as her father, Arthur Bailey, had also been in the same regiment, the families were friends and kept in touch when Arthur also left the army but decided to go home. William did return to England in 1902 with the Singapore Volunteer Corp for the King’s Coronation and probably visited the Bailey family in Looe.

In 1904 he sailed home again but this time to marry my grandmother, Sybil. After spending 12 months leave in England he sailed back to Singapore with his new bride. Sybil settled into the married life of a privileged European and had four children, Phyllis, Arthur, Eula (who sadly died in 1912) and my father Victor.

In July 1914 William was appointed to Christmas Island as an Interpreter and so he and the family went sailing on the” Islander” to their new home in the Edinburgh Settlement on Christmas Island. My Grandmother returned briefly to Singapore in 1915 where she gave birth to my father.

© Gillian Sandle. Used with kind permission.
Sybil and William Ryan, grandparents of Gillian, sitting on the steps of their bungalow on Christmas Island
with their children and the Murray children.
Top step L to R: Sybil Ryan, Arthur Ryan, Grant Murray, William Ryan.
Lower step L to R: Margaret Murray, Phyllis Ryan.

William’s work must have been a challenge trying to look after the welfare of the Chinese workers in the poor conditions that prevailed at the time. Nevertheless, the family appear to have enjoyed their social life with other European families and stayed there happily until the untimely death of William (from a heart attack) on 19th July 1917.

In those days there was no option but to bury him on Christmas Island and for whatever reason my grief stricken Grandmother chose to return to Singapore returning home to England in January 1921 where she settled, once again, in Looe, Cornwall where she had grown up.

With the onset of computers and the internet I have been able to search Singapore newspapers and have found many articles regarding his work for the welfare of Chinese people especially the women and children. His name appears in many cricket matches and he was a Sergeant trumpeter for the SVC.

Having pieced together a picture of his life, and with my thoughts increasingly drifting across the countless miles to the tiny island in the Indian Ocean where he was buried it dawned on me that I had a real need to visit it myself. That need was satisfied this September when I proudly became the first descendant of the Ryan family to return to this wonderful place. The trip involved a lot of organisation but was worth all the effort. I will certainly never forget the touchdown and the mixture of excitement and emotion that I felt.

My actual first visit William’s grave is one that will stay with me forever and I am comforted by the thought that the surrounds of his resting place have remained more or less the same, overlooking Flying Fish Cove not far from where he had lived with his young family.

My journey started with the need to visit Christmas Island for a purpose. What I did not expect was to fall in love with the place. It is a hidden gem of beautiful beaches, wonderful wild life and friendly, hospitable locals. I spent five totally relaxed and carefree days exploring the island and created memories that will linger long in the mind. Needless to say I am already planning my next trip. Thank you Christmas Island!

This article would not be complete without mention of two special people. In January of this year I received an e-mail from Helene Bartleson (Heritage Consultant) telling me about all the restoration work that had been done on William Ryan’s grave and indeed all five of the Island’s Heritage cemeteries with the help of Nick Lukacs (Heritage Stonemason). Having now experienced this first hand, I cannot thank them enough for all of their hard work. It provides me with great comfort to know that his grave and the little cemetery are being cared for by such dedicated professionals.”

Republished with the kind permission of Gillian Sandle

©Chris Su. Used with kind permission
Part of the Old European Cemetery.