W. Edwy Ryerson
The life and times of a local 'Titanic' survivor
Ed Ryerson 1878 – 1949
William Edwy Ryerson was a Canadian Titanic survivor, whose full life of adventure ended in Runwell, England, in 1949.
He was born in Port Dover, Canada on December 7th 1878, the son of George Arthur and Catherine Eleanor Ryerson. He was known as Edwy (named after his grandfather) as a young boy, and used the shortened version of Ed as an adult. His father George A. Ryerson was a local speculator and ran a grocery & confectionary store in Port Dover and by May 1880 was also a Captain in the Norfolk branch of the Canadian Army.
When Ed was 2 years old, his father died from Tuberculosis and afterwards his mother Katie decided to leave Port Dover and settle in Toronto to live with her brother there. Once Katie got on her feet, she opened a boarding house, and this is where she met the man who became her second husband, namely Thomas E. Williams. Tom was a lawyer, and after they were married in March 1887 he was able to provide Katie and her sons a comfortable lifestyle. Tom and Katie Williams became the proud parents of a daughter, Katie Hamilton Williams born on January 4th 1888. Tragically, the following year the elder Katie died, and suddenly Ed, his brother Arthur, and half-sister Katie were motherless. But not for long, as Tom Williams married to Lenora Glen Russell in 1896. At the time, Ed was 18, Arthur was 16, and Katie was 7. Apparently the new Mrs. Williams didn’t think much of any of her three step-children. She herself was the legal guardian of Ruby Elizabeth Jane Kirby, who was 4 in 1896, and was raised in the Williams household.
It wasn’t long after that the two Ryerson boys moved out, residing at Turtle Hall on Colbourne Street in Toronto. At this time Ed was a salesman with W. J. Gage, Limited, working there for several years. It was said that Tom Williams later placed his daughter Katie in a Convent at Sault Ste. Marie. We’re not sure how much stock to put in this story as Katie was 22 at the time she went into the Convent. Maybe she just got tired of living with the Williams family in Thessalon, ON. She would later graduate as a nurse from the “Children of Mercy Hospital” in Chicago, IL.
In December of 1899, Ed’s brother Arthur joined the Canadian Mounted Rifles to assist England in the South African (Boer) War. Ed was listed on Arthur’s recruit form as his next of kin. By April 1900, Ed had also joined the war effort as a member of “A” Squadron, Royal Canadian Dragoons, regimental number 2033. At a later date he was also attached to the 1stBattalion, Volunteer Militia Rifles of Canada. He had hoped to see service in the Boer War like his brother. When that opportunity did not materialize, he went AWOL from the Toronto barracks after May 1901 and made his way to England to enlist in that country. In a short matter of time he was sent to South Africa where he saw service during the most intense period of fighting; the Guerilla Warfare phase of the conflict. Ed served with the English army until the war ended on May 31st 1902. It’s thought that he may have been honored with a war medal, The Queens Medal with two clasps. (Cape Colony and the Orange Free State).
In July 1902 Lord Kitchener left South Africa for India, and it’s believed that Ed was part of the regiment that followed. While serving in India as a peace-keeper, Ed contracted enteric fever (a type of typhoid) and was not expected to live. He was sent back to England to either recover or die.
Thankfully, he recovered and later married to Florence Annie Mallison in Aston, Birmingham, on December 17th 1906. At the time Ed was a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery and lived at the barracks in Duddeston, Birmingham. Florence’s father, Henry Thomas Mallison, was a commercial traveler. Interestingly enough there was a Seventh Day Adventist Church just a couple blocks away, and it’s very possible Ed attended this place of worship. This will also come into play later in his story.
Ed and Florence’s first child was a son, Clarence Edwy, born in Oct 1907. At the time they still lived in Birmingham, and Ed was still attached to the Royal Field Artillery. At the time of his second child’s birth in September 1910, Ed’s occupation was now that of storekeeper, Royal Field Artillery, 15th London Brigade. They lived in Paddington, London County, England
Sometime in 1911 Ed secured a job with Cunard Ship Lines through his officer who was a Cunard family member, but he still remained connected to the Royal Field Artillery as well.
In April of 1912 he signed on with the White Star Line, being assigned to the H. M. S. Titanic as a 2nd Class Saloon Steward. We’re sure that his family was very proud of him getting on such a prestigious ship as this. By this time he and his family were living at 18 Salop Road, Walthamstow, London. By luck of the draw Ed was picked for life boat duty the evening of April 14, 1912. In case of an emergency, he would assist women and children into the lifeboats, and manoeuvre them away to safety. Of course, everyone among the crew thought that lifeboat duty was a lark. Who would have ever thought the unsinkable Titanic would have a disastrous meeting with an iceberg within hours? When tragedy did strike Ed Ryerson was there to assist, although he must have more than a little worried as he could not swim. He was assigned to Lifeboat #9, which was under the guidance of William Murdoch, and was commanded by Albert M. Haines. The lifeboat was lowered from the Titanic at 1:20 AM April 15th and held 56 people, including 15 crew members. Ten minutes later the great ship sunk beneath the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Three hours after the ship had sunk Ed’s lifeboat was among those sighted and picked up by the R.M.S. Carpathia, and then taken to New York. On April 29th Ed returned to England from the Big Apple on the ‘Lapland,’ which landed in Plymouth.
Ed never talked to his family about his experience on the Titanic, although he remained working on steamships up to the First World War, and then once again in 1924.
By May of 1914 Ed and his family lived in Bitterne, Southampton, England, where he continued to work as a ships steward. England declared war on Germany on August 14th 1914, and that following October Ed moved his family to 527 Baltic Street, District of Bridgeton, Glasgow, Scotland, to ensure they were safe from the bombing raids of the German Zeppelins. Once he was certain his family was sheltered, Ed enlisted in WW I in that city on March 1st 1915 serving in the 159th Gun Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, Regular Army. When his son Ron was born in January of 1918 Ed was listed on the birth record as a Ship Saloon Steward & Quarter Master Sergeant Royal Field Artillery.
By February 1915 the first German Zeppelins began dropping their bombs on England. Ed was quickly promoted to bombardier and then Battery Quarter Master Sergeant. He saw service in France three separate times and served right up to the end of the war. It is thought he fought at both battles of the Somme in 1916 and 1918. At war’s end his rank was Warrant Officer Class 2 with the Royal Field Artillery, Regiment #L6609. He received two medals for his service; The British War Medal and the Victory Medal. It is not known what became of these two priceless family heirlooms. He was transferred to Class Z Reserve on May 13th 1919, six weeks after he had already left the country! Ed was discharged on demobilization from the army on March 31st 1920. (It’s possible he never stayed in England long enough to receive his war medals.)
On April 2nd 1919 Ed and his family left England, sailing on the vessel ‘Scandinavian’ from Southampton to Halifax. When they first came to Canada, it was cold, and the family still wore the traditional Scottish dress that they had brought from Glasgow. Folks in Canada felt sorry for the kids, so they provided more appropriate clothes for them. The family arrived in Halifax, and then took a train to Montreal, and then on to Toronto, where Ed and his family may have stayed with his brother Arthur until he got established.
Ed found work as a pruner on an apple farm in Freeman Station, a whistle stop that is now part of Burlington, ON. On May 1st 1920 he signed a Land Purchase Agreement for some property that he had acquired through the Soldiers Settlement Scheme. The land was located between the towns of Newbury to the north-west and Wardsville to the South-East. (West of London, ON) Here Ed tried his hand at farming. There was a one story house on the property, a small orchard, and about twenty workable acres. In the fall the older Ryerson children went to school in Wardsville, and the family may have attended the Methodist church in the same town. The Ryerson farm consisted of ploughs, discs, harrows, a tractor, barns, and the house. They had corn, hay, apples, chickens, and horses. He worked for the County during the summer on the roads as well as running the farm. Ed & Florence’s last child was born here in 1920, and was named Ralph Egerton Ryerson.
This area of Ontario must have been too tame for Ed after all the excitement in his life, and in the early winter of 1922, he decided that he wanted to homestead in Northern Ontario, and arranged a land grant of 50 acres on St. Antoines Creek, which flowed into the Mattawa River. (North of Ottawa, ON) It was thought that Florence stayed behind to take care of the details of the Wardsville farm while Ed went up ahead to prepare the land on the new farm. He boarded off locals while he worked dawn to dusk cutting trees, and dragging and piling them up on the bank of the creek, so that when spring thaw came, the logs would roll into the water, and could be floated to the mill located downstream. Soon after the river broke, he began to work on a cabin, and it was about this time, April 1922 that his family arrived from southern Ontario by train.
While at Matawa he became involved with the Seventh Day Adventist church and was also asked to teach school in the area. Ed may have been involved with this church as far back as 1906, as there was one near his barracks at the time. The family’s cabin was built with notched logs, and pine boughs for the roof, which always leaked in the rain. They planted a garden, and sold produce over the summer. However, his English born and bred wife was not impressed with the “wild North.” She was quoted as saying, “This is God’s country, give it back to the Indians.” As a result, much to Ed’s disappointment, they left that area in the fall of 1922 and settled in Winona, just south of Hamilton which was “civilization” to Florence.
In the spring of 1923, Ed began working land for E. D. Smith Jams. When the night watchman was shot in a scuffle at the E. D. Smith Processing Plant, Ed got the job. The plant was only a short distance away from Winona in Stoney Creek, but work there did not last long.
By the end of 1923 Ed went to work at Firestone Rubber & Tire, laboring in the factory and he and his family moved to 424 Bedford St. in Hamilton. It was in Hamilton that Ed’s children remembered him telling neighbors over the wooden fence about his adventures in the Boer War and on the Titanic. He never told his family directly. It’s thought that Ed kept in touch with his brother Arthur in Toronto, and at this time he made contact with his half-sister Katie, who was now Mrs. George Welch and lived in Leroy, NY.
In June of 1924 Ed decided to take another shot at working on steamships, and left his job at Firestone to do just that. He made his way to New York City to join the crew of the Celtic. He was described as 5′ 9″, fair complexion, grey hair, blue eyes, Irish and was a tire finisher by trade. He returned to Canada in August of 1924 looking for a new occupation. He then took a series of exams which got him a position as a post office clerk. A year later at the age of 47 he became a Customs Officer for the Department of National Revenue, Customs and Excise. Other than his military career, he held this occupation the longest, retiring in 1939.
However, Ed was never one to settle on just one job, and about 1930 he bought a farm located sixteen miles outside of Hamilton, near the village of Milgrove. He and Florence lived on the farm for a year and a half, and then returned to Hamilton, leaving the farming business to their sons. After the death of his son Clarence on April 7th 1937, (From Tuberculosis ) the other boys lost interest in farming; Tom became a driver for American News, Ron and Ralph drove for various trucking firms, and Will worked at the Supertest gas station in Hamilton. Ed’s step-father, Thomas E. Williams died on April 11th 1937 at the age of 82.
Florence returned to England several times, more than likely when members her family died. She came to England on her own in 1929 and 1935, and in July 1937 both she and Ed returned. They always made their way back to Canada.
As war tensions grew in Europe, Florence felt it was important to be back home in England. Therefore Ed retired and they returned to the United Kingdom on August 3 1939. Apparently Ed’s health wasn’t all that good, being plagued by various war injuries. He and Florence rode out the Second World War living at various times in the towns of Pitsea, Windsor, and finally Runwell. During the war Ed maintained a Victory Garden at his home to help reduce the pressures on the public food supply.
Ed’s eventful life came to a close on December 9th 1949 when he died at his home, “Seaton” located on Church End Lane, Runwell, Essex, England, at the age of 71. He was buried on December 15th in St. Mary’s Churchyard, not too far from his home. There was no money for a gravestone, so he was buried without one, although we know the exact location from church records.
Ed Ryerson never made much in the way of an income, but he lived an adventurous and exhilarating life, living on the edge, whether it be in war, on the sea, or felling trees in northern Ontario. He always seemed to have a hunger for what might be just around the corner waiting for him. Usually it was some sort of excitement. He was also one of the most patriotic people I have ever come across, always willing to lay his life on the line for the defense of his country, whether it be Canada or England. I just wished he had my knack for writing things down, what a story he could have told first hand!
The author of this paper is indebted to several people attached to St. Mary’s Church in Runwell who have helped identify Ed’s unmarked grave, and hopefully by 2012 we can have some kind of marker at his gravesite so that visitor’s to the cemetery know that it is the last resting place of not only a Canadian native, but also a Titanic survivor.
As well, I’d like to mention that I was named Thomas Arthur Ryerson after my grandfather, who was the son of Ed. The Arthur came from Ed’s father, George Arthur, but I’m not sure if the Thomas was for Thomas E. Williams (Ed’s step-dad), or for Henry Thomas Mallison. (Ed’s father in law.) I personally think it was for Mr. Williams, but we’ll never know!