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Captain Syder and The Pirates of the South China Sea

Located alongside one of the circular pathways in Ladywell cemetery perched at a perilous angle lies a family headstone whose inscription is all but weathered away. In a serendipitous moment when undertaking tombstone research the sunlight caught the stone and the bare outline of the word 'Pirates' was briefly visible!  Other lettering revealed the name of a Captain William Catherall Syder ,' Killed by Pirates in the South China Sea' ( October 1885) aboard S.S.Greyhound.

Pirates of the South China Sea - source :Southern Council 2019.  In the 19th century, Hong Kong was known as the pirate capital of the South China Sea.

William Syder was born in Woolwich in 1854. Having departed from Hong Kong on the 17th October 1885 on the steamship Greyhound, which was sailing down the coast of mainland China, pirates disguised as passengers attacked the Captain and other crew members. After a violent struggle in which Captain Syder was shot and stabbed he was then thrown overboard. Having ransacked the ship the pirates made off with their booty in awaiting junks. The steamship returned to Hong Kong. When news of the piracy became known, the British authorities in Canton , despatched three gunboats to hunt down the suspects who were quickly apprehended for this outrage. The fate of those caught in piracy was invariably exemplary execution by beheading.

As a sad footnote to the above a copy of a letter of sympathy now held in the Greenwich Maritime Museum informs the reader that :

Letter of sympathy for Mary Syder (nee Durrant) widow of the murdered Captain William Catherall Syder of the SS GREYHOUND.  He was thrown overboard by Chinese pirates who had posed as passengers; the letter was sent by the passengers of the SS DENBYSHIRE, 1885 asking for donations to help support the widow as she had been on her way to join her husband in Hong Kong and no longer had a way of supporting herself. Signed by Captain Cunning and all those that donated a total of £410.


The British steamer Greyhound, of London, was captured by Chinese pirates on Oct. 17 when 70 miles from Hong-Kong and about 30 miles from the Ladrone Islands, the historical hunting grounds of the Kwangtung pirates. She sailed for Hoikow with a general cargo, 120 Chinese passengers, and a crew of 30.

(Headline from the The New York Times - December 7th, 1885.)

The Syder family headstone in Ladywell cemetery (courtesy of Phillip Barnes-Warden)

Photo : The Most Reverend Pierre-Noël-Joseph Foucard ( 1830-1889), Titular Bishop of Zela, Prefect Apostolic of Kuamsi - he was a passenger aboard the Greyhound during the piracy.

Photo of Chinese Pirates awaiting beheading , at Kowloon execution ground ( Hong Kong) c.1891 ( Wellcome Collection)

Footnote :

Another headstone in the same section of Ladywell cemetery has the inscription :

Captain Smallman Toovey died in China Sea , on board his ship St Dunstan , 1868.

He invented a nautical dial , 'Captain Smallman Toovey's Azimuth Dial".( National Maritime Museum) and was related via his sister Ann d.1910 who is buried here to Sir Philip Watts (1846-1926), KCB, FRS, who was a British naval architect, famous for his design of the revolutionary Elswick cruiser and HMS Dreadnought( (launched in 1906 and which revolutionised the world of naval warfare).