Trawling through many historical Christmas Island photographs in early 2021, one particular man’s face appeared several times in various photos. Fortunately, in a couple of the group photos in which he appeared his name was labelled; William Rusholme. I wondered what job he had on the Island but as I was preparing an exhibition for Territory Week all my time was taken up. So I put William Rusholme and any future research about him on the backburner. Some of the photos in which he appeared are below.
I went to Christmas Island for the exhibition in October 2021 and whilst there visited South Point. I was standing at the base of a ruined building and just happened to look up. I saw an inscription high on the wall. It had been inscribed in the wet concrete during the construction of the building.
The initials W.H.R. intrigued me. Who did they belong to? It seems obvious now but it wasn’t until I returned home, and saw William’s photos again, that the penny dropped. They were his initials! He had left his mark at South Point on a building that was being constructed possibly under his supervision.
So who was William Rusholme and why was he on Christmas Island? He was born in Selby Yorkshire in 1878 and he followed his father’s profession as an “iron work erector”. He went on to marry Elizabeth (Bessie) Jones on the 23rd December 1902 and had two daughters.
Over the years, on various records his occupation/position was shown as:
1901 Iron Worker
1907 Iron Work Erector
1925 Foreman Erector
1942 Engineering staff
His connection to Christmas Island started in its early mining days. The first shipping record I find of William was in a Singporean newspaper. He had arrived on the 3rd July 1908 as a passenger on the Sanuki Maru. It is likely he was heading to the Island.
John Hunt confirmed to me that William was a construction engineer and also sometime assistant pilot and told me that William worked on the construction of the Islander pier from 1912 to 1914.
William’s link to Christmas Island was a very long one. Amazingly, it would appear he was travelling between Christmas Island back to the UK to see his family from between 1908 to at least 1935 and likely beyond as he was on the island in 1942 when the Japanese arrived. (He was one of the Europeans left behind after the final evacuation.) This means his working link with Christmas Island covered a period of approximately 34 years! Shipping lists bear witness to his travel. These were some I found but there may be more.
- 28th December 1910 Passengers for the Straits Mr W. Rusholm per N.Y.K. Miyazaki Maru.
- 15th August 1919 departed London U.K. per Khiva to Singapore.
- 16th September 1919 Mr W.H. Rusholm – passengers arrived per Khiva.
- 11th September 1922 W.H. Rusholme by S.S. Charon from Fremantle to the north.
- 22nd September 1924 Mr H. Rusholme – Passengers arrived per S.S. Islander
- 15th August 1925 William Henry Rusholme departed Liverpool U.K. to Singapore
- 30th May 1929 W.H. Rusholme Outward Passengers – The China Express and Telegraph
- 12th April 1935 – On the passenger list for the Dempo leaving South Hampton U.K. William Rusholme’s destination is shown as Singapore. He travelled via the Netherlands and India. His country of future permanent residence was the Straits Settlements.
His name also appears in Singaporean newspapers with regards to donations. For example:
- 30th August 1924 Mr W.H. Rusholme Royal National Lifeboat institution from Christmas Island Staff $10 each
- 1940 Mr W.H. Rusholme sent a wreath for the funeral of Mr George Farr in Singapore.
Why did he travel so far from home to work on such a remote island? The allure of Christmas Island and its lifestyle must have been strong for him. It could not have been about money alone. After all, he was a married man and would have seen little of his wife and daughters Violet and Gwladys over those years. Others fond of the Island were unable to stay so long even with cash incentives. Dr Allan, a single man, wrote in 1909 that the “moth, rust, and mental decay” outweighed a generous offer of an additional 500 pounds to stay longer. This was after a period of only 18 months. These two men would have known each other.
The following is the front and back of a postcard dating prior to WW1 sent by William from Christmas Island to his wife’s family’s in Llandudno, Wales. The postcard is now located in Ohio U.S.A. William had two nephews (brothers) who were sent to Halifax, Canada as part of a re-settlement for poor young British boys in the middle of WW1. Before the boys left the U.K. they were given some family photos including this postcard. Chad Kirk, a descendant, very kindly gave me this back story of the postcard and permission to display it with this article.
In 1942 with the ominous knowledge that the Japanese would eventually reach the Island, evacuees being the non-essential Europeans, a few Chinese and Indian policemen with their wives and children sailed for Fremantle in Western Australia. William was not amongst them. He remained on the Island. What thoughts must have been going through his mind knowing that the enemy was at hand and his fate very uncertain.
As it turned out he survived the occupation on the Island and later internment. William returned to the UK. He was on a list of embarkees on the Dominion Monarch that arrived in Southampton on 15 November 1945. The port of origin was Sydney, Australia. He was aged 68 and listed as an Engineer. The list is headed, “Hong Kong and Malayan internees embarked at Sydney for the United Kingdom”. The ports of call for the voyage were: Fremantle, Aden, Suez and Port Said. He would never return to Christmas Island retiring to a very different life back in England.
William lived to the good age of 87 and died in 1965 in Chard, Somerset. His wife had passed away in 1955 also having lived in Chard. Despite being separated for very long periods it appears they were together in their final years.
William Henry Rusholme lived an adventurous life compared to many. Traversing backwards and forwards across the globe, away from family for long stretches, living on a tropical Island and being part of its amazing history and surviving WW2 at the hands of the Japanese. There must be so much more to his story but for now, the above is what can be told.
How wonderful then that he left a personal physical mark on Christmas Island. The mark is a date and his initials, but it is really saying “I was here”; literally a concrete link to this colonial engineer.