Fisher Island mystery

Nelly O’Driscoll’s grave, from Findagrave.com

Who was Nelly O’Driscoll? I have been asked this more than once, and you can find numerous Chinese tourist blog posts and others asking the question. Her grave sits next to the Hsiyu 西嶼) Lighthouse — formerly known as Fisher Island Light — in the Penghu group (or Pescadores) west of Taiwan. The map of the site shows a ‘洋人古墓’ — a ‘foreigner’s old grave’ just outside the compound. A colleague just sent me a postcard of the lighthouse, one of those designed by scottish engineer David Marr Henderson, who served as Engineer in Chief of the Chinese Maritime Customs from 1869-1898.

I do not have an answer, but I have got closer. Thomas O’Driscoll joined the Customs as a Third Assistant Lightkeeper in January 1887. After serving on Ockseu (Wuqiu) Island, he was posted to Fisher Island where he was serving by July 1890. Nelly might have been a child, for there is only a single year engraved on the stone, but may also have been his wife: ‘Nelly’ is as likely to be an English name given to a Chinese woman, as the name of a foreign spouse: and an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper only three years into his post was more likely to have a Chinese or indeed a Japanese wife or housekeeper than a fellow national. It is possible that he did not know her precise age.

O’Driscoll himself has left few further traces in the records. He left the lights service in 1902, after a period of leave, and moved to the ‘Outdoor’ staff of the Customs as a Tidewaiter at Shanghai, but stuck that for barely a year. Therafter he surfaces as a supervisor of some sort for a firm of Civil Engineers, Davies and Thomas, overseeing some bunding at Wuhu in 1907, testifying in a court case related to building at the Astor House Hotel in Shanghai in 1909, and taking part in the Customs Club Fancy Dress Ball in 1911 (he wore a Chinese costume — such are the odd traces we leave behind us). In 1912 his 33-year old wife Helen died at their home in Shanghai, but by the time he died in the city on 15 May 1915 he had remarried. O’Driscoll is listed as a ‘Clerk of Works’ in the consulate records, and his last appearance in the North China Herald was a member of the Committee of the St. Patrick’s Society at Shanghai.

O’Driscoll most likely fetched up in China as a seamen, joining the Customs Lights Service in Amoy (Xiamen), as a softer perch than one afloat. Lives like his on the China coast generally throw up few traces. The lIves of their partners, wives or daughters are even less accessible. I can only approach Nelly through the man O’Driscoll, although it is her gravestone and name that has eingmatically remained, while Thomas O’Driscoll himself has been buried in the archive.

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