By Judy Chant
Sydney Dick Chant (1885 – 1947), known as Syd, was the second of six children born to Richard George Chant and Matilda Martha McKenzie on 27th February 1885, in Sydney NSW.
He was baptised at St Peter’s Church of England, East Sydney. In 1993, the heritage listed stone church was absorbed by the Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School (SCEGGS) and now stands as the great hall, where assemblies, services, social functions, musicals and dramatic performances take place.
On a wall of the former church, opposite where the family pew stood, hangs a marble plaque in honour of Syd’s grandparents, Joseph Chant and Isabella Ensley, who migrated from England and Ireland respectively and were founding members of the church. The plaque was donated by Syd after their deaths.
At 16 years of age, Syd joined the NSW Government Railways and Tramways, undertaking a five year Boilermaker apprenticeship. His wages ranged from 10 pence to five shillings per day during his apprenticeship.
On completion of his training, Syd became an engineer at Eveleigh Railway Engine Shop, Redfern, where he worked for a total of 16 years. He left the Railways on 4 May 1919. During World War I (WWI), Syd was also in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR) which can trace its origins back to 1863. Syd was a Petty Officer, Chief Yeoman of Signals. The two stripes on the left sleeve indicate eight years of service.
Syd later worked as Supervising Engineer, Construction Branch, for the American Standard Oil Company of New York (SOCONY). The name SOCONY was in use between 1911-1933. The company was the pre-runner of Mobil Oil and has been in Australia since 1895. Prior to 1911, SOCONY was known as Standard Oil.
SOCONY was one of the most influential foreign companies in China at that time, demanding hard work and loyalty from their staff. Chinese business had traditionally revolved around concepts of relationships, clans and guilds. SOCONY’s success in China was largely due to the company sidestepping those relationships by building its own distribution complex, investing in China and sending trained personnel into China to introduce an improved and cheaper kerosene lamp.
Standard Oil’s MEI FOO kerosene lamps introduced illumination across China, opening China to world trade as a vast new market for the company and expanding American economic influence. At the turn of the century (circa 1900), Shanghai was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.
On his departure from Eveleigh Railway Engine Shop in 1919, Syd’s forwarding address was 22 Park Lane, Shanghai, China, placing him in China during the 1920s. Syd spent time living and working there where, according to family legend, he was dramatically kidnapped during the Boxer Rebellion.
Between 1898 – 1901, the Boxers rose up in opposition to foreign imperialism, opium traders, unequal treaties and Christianity. These dates don’t add up and I suspect Syd was in Shanghai during Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang’s violent suppression of the Communist Party of China, known as the Shanghai Massacre of 1927.
During the massacre, hundreds of communists were arrested and tortured. Most were also executed. At the time, the legendary Mao Zedong was rising in popularity as a voice for poverty stricken peasants across the country. The uprising was anti-imperialist in nature, whereby protestors demanded the return of Shanghai’s international settlements to Chinese control.
Fortunately, Syd escaped the violence by being smuggled out of Shanghai in a laundry basket by a Chinese coolie. The incident was not reported in the Australian newspapers. Sadly though, Syd never fully recovered from witnessing a number of public beheadings on the streets of Shanghai and the harrowing experience sent him bald. While there are no records of Syd leaving Australia, on 7 September 1928, he returned to Sydney from London on the ship, Jervis Bay.
Syd’s home at Wagstaffe Point on the Central Coast of NSW was named after his mother’s maiden name, Ensley. The home was said to contain an extensive collection of Chinese exotica. In the 1930s, Syd brought an exquisite bamboo and ivory Mahjong set back from China for his brother, Richard, whose grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren continue playing the ancient game.
On 12th June 1947, Syd died in Gosford, at 62 years of age. He is buried at St Paul’s Church of England cemetery, Kincumber, NSW, known as the shipwright’s church, due to the many pioneers buried there who were connected to ships and the sea.
On his death certificate, Syd was known by the surname Winter-Chant. He shared his life with Ralph Clement Winter (Nick), third of five children born to Clement and Charlotte Winter. Nick was born in 1915 at Croydon, NSW. He was a Staff Sergeant during WWII, service number N270374. Nick died on 4th October 1987. The funeral service was held at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Kincumber, NSW, where both men are buried.
At a time when homosexuality was illegal, on one of the death notices in the Sydney Morning Herald, Syd was described as the ‘uncle’ of Ralph Winter-Chant. Syd’s property and personal effects were left to his sister, Hilda Turner (nee Chant). Title deeds of the property at Wagstaffe Point, advertised as ‘the Manly of Brisbane Water’ by the local Real Estate agent, were in the name of Sydney Chant and his partner, Ralph Winter. The property comprised of a weatherboard cottage of three rooms, kitchen and office, front veranda, iron roof, detached room, laundry, boatshed, jetty, baths and fibro room.
Syd was regarded by his siblings as a gentle soul, who wished to live his life in peace and not be judged by those with no understanding of the loving relationship he enjoyed with Ralph.