The Joseph Family of British Ceylon: Service to Mankind across the Oceans

Joe Simpson. reproducing his article in

This dashing military-style portrait is of Sidney Percival Joseph (1873- 934) who was one of 15 children of Arthur Francis Joseph’s younger brother Eugene (1839-1915) and his wife, Georgiana Jemima (nee Ohlmus) (1848-1906). Sidney would thus have been a nephew of Arthur Francis Joseph (“AFJ”) and Eugenia, and a first cousin of Lawrence Joseph and his brothers. As the two cousins were almost exactly the same age, Sidney and Lawrence were probably childhood friends and remained so after Lawrence Joseph (later Joseph Lawrence) moved permanently to Scotland in the early 1890s.

This photograph has been with the Canadian branch of the Lawrence family for several generations – Hugh Lawrence’s brother Brian, who lives in Kelowna, south-central British Columbia, Canada, recently unearthed it in his collection. Still visible in dark blue ink against the dark brown backing to this photograph are the neatly handwritten words:

With Love 



       9th August 1902

         Coronation Day”.

For years no-one in the Lawrence family in Canada or Scotland knew for certain who “Siddie” was.

An obituary published in the JDBU of 1934 describes Dr. Sidney Percival Joseph L.R.C.P. & S. (Edinburgh) and L.F.P. & S. (Glasgow) as “so useful a citizen, so excellent a man”. When he retired from Government service to settle down in Colombo, he had served 27 continuous years in Ceylon’s scattered outstations as a Medical Officer / Provincial Surgeon working for the Medical department. According to Who’s Who of Ceylon 1918-20 his postings included Maskeliya and Trincomalee, and he was promoted to Grade 1 in May 1918, at which time he was living in Balapitiya.

Note the uniform that the young Dr. Sidney Percival Joseph (“Siddie”) is wearing in this photo. He joined the volunteer militia body known as the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) in 1890, at age 17, and was posted to Bearer Company as a Private. His presence (aged 29) in London in 1902 was due to his being a member of the CLI contingent that attended the coronation of King Edward VII that year. At the time, Sidney was a L./Sgt. in the CLI. In 1911 he went on to be a member of the Ceylon Volunteer Medical Corps (CMC) when it became a separate unit. He was commissioned as a Lt. in the CMC in 1920, and on October 2, 1925 received the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers’ Medal when he was a Lt. in the CMC. (This allowed him to put the initials “V.D.” after his name, short for Voluntary Decoration, the medal awarded to commissioned officers in the Colonial Auxiliary Forces). He was a Captain-Major in the CMC between 1927-33, at which date he was posted to Reserve (aged 60) before passing away the next year.

A much later photograph shown below, the original of which is in the possession of Shelagh Gunawardene, shows Dr. Sidney Joseph wearing three medals:

  • the Coronation Medal 1902 (which appears also in the 1902 photograph)
  • the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Long Service Medal awarded on September 23, 1910 when he was still a non-commissioned L. / Sgt. with the CLI
  • the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers Decoration awarded on October 2, 1925 when he was a Lt. in the CMC (giving him the “V.D.” designation)

Shelagh Goonewardene is one of the grand-daughters of Dr. Sidney Percival Joseph; her mother is the little girl, born in 1906 and named Georgiana, perched on the small table in the 1909 Joseph family portrait included below. (Three other children followed: Sidney Eugene Edward Ohlmus (called Eddie), born 1910, who died in Australia; Louis William Abraham Ohlmus, born 1912, who died in Colombo in the 1950s; and Victor Christian de Meuron Ohlmus (called Vickie), born 1916, who died in Australia in 1971). Shelagh’s father was Lt. Col. T. R. Jansen, OBE, ED (also of the CMC, and one-time Commander of the volunteer corps).

Shelagh and her family now live in Australia. Her sister, Suzette, also emigrated from Sri Lanka to Australia. According to Shelagh, the family once had a large photograph portrait of Sidney in uniform and sporting a military-style moustache, along with a companion portrait of his wife, known to the family as Noble, both probably taken around the time of their engagement a few years after the 1902 photograph was taken in London. Sadly these two photographs both vanished in mysterious, indeed tragic, circumstances. As Shelagh tells it, before emigrating in 1988 Suzette had entrusted them to the care of the Dutch (Burgher) Museum in Colombo, for exhibition purposes. Shelagh and Suzette suspect that they may have fallen victim to the civil war in Sri Lanka, in that – tragically – their custodian, the lady librarian at the Museum, was killed in 1996 when a terrorist bomb exploded at the Central Bank in Colombo where she worked. It takes little imagination to picture the joy that Shelagh, Suzette and their brother Roger must now feel at being able to see these portraits of both their beloved Joseph grandparents that have finally emerged into the light of day in the care of long-lost cousins in far-off Canada.

Sidney’s much older relative, Abraham Orlando Joseph (son of Gerardus Petrus, another of the sons of the founding patriarch, Abraham Joseph from Alsace-Lorraine) was a leading proctor, freemason and among the first complement of officers of the “Ceylon Light Infantry Volunteers”. “AOJ” was the father of Ernest Henley Joseph (b. 1868) another outstanding cricketer, who rose to high position as a Lt.-Col in the Ceylon Garrison Artillery (CGA) and thus also held the V.D. designation. “EHJ” was in turn the father of Lt. Col. Ernest Mervyn Corbet Joseph (b.1890) also of the CGA who was commander of the Galle Face Battery and Chief Recruiting Officer, Ceylon during WW2. A peace-time proctor and later Colombo’s senior magistrate, he is mentioned with credit in Noel Crusz’ published (2000) account of the wartime Cocos Islands Mutiny.

The JDBU obituary testifies to his three main interests at the time of his retirement: the Dutch Burgher Union (of which he was Treasurer “at a time of difficulty”); the Dutch Reformed Church (of which he was a Deacon, Consistory Scriba, Sunday School teacher and – latterly – Wolvendaal Church Sub-Warden); and the Colts Cricket Club in which Josephs had been active since its founding in 1873, the year of his birth. Obviously a methodical man, he spent his all-too-short retirement arranging and indexing the Wolvendaal old registers and archives. Kind-hearted to a marked degree, he worked among the poor – “who were especially dear to him and who will miss him sorely” – paying pensioners their grants, visiting them in their homes, and above all taking a personal interest in them. “In fact it was this personal touch that constituted his peculiar charm and caused him to be beloved by all.” (Shades of his much older first cousin, Dr. Louis Joseph, a son of “AFJ” who died prematurely at a roughly similar age, in Newfoundland around 1900 after years of dedicated medical work in remote outstations such as the Shetland islands and northern Newfoundland).

When Treasurer of the DBU, Dr. Sidney set about indexing particulars of births, deaths, baptisms and marriages from the old records, in order to prevent unnecessary delays in dealing with applications for admission into the Union. Most tellingly, the anonymous obituarist pays tribute to his having “ignored all the prejudices and divisions which are so destructive to the well-being of all communities in the Island”.

Dr. Sidney was elected a Colts Cricket Club member in March 1892, just after his 19th birthday. He remained an enthusiastic member for 42 years until his death. A distinguished cricketer, he played in all the local test matches against European teams until 1900. On his retirement and return to Colombo, he took up the Honorary Secretaryship of the Club at a time when its cricketing prominence was sliding. His keen interest in Club activities and enthusiasm with which he inspired the members, were greatly missed after his death. As mentioned above, Josephs had been active with the Club since its inception in 1873 as Ceylon’s first-ever cricket club; Sidney’s distant cousin Ernest Henley Joseph (b. 1868) – see above – had been a Colts team player since 1883 (when he was 15!) and had played in a Ceylonese eleven against a European eleven. “EHJ” inter alia went on to become a well-known tennis player and Vice-Chairman of the Colombo Association Football League.

On September 4, 1905 at Wolvendaal Dutch Reformed Church, Colombo, Dr Sidney Joseph married Anne Noble Ohlmus (1878-1949). As mentioned earlier, they had four children born between 1906 and 1916, the youngest of whom, in honour of the Swiss regimental connection through old Great-Grandfather Abraham, was resplendently named Victor Christian de Meuron Ohlmus Joseph.

(Another Joseph family member with the de Meuron name is Darian Egerton de Meuron Joseph, born Feb 21, 1944 in Colombo and a descendant of Wilhelmus Arnoldus Joseph (born 1813), another son of the founder of the Ceylon Joseph clan who has been in touch with me by e-mail recently. Darian Joseph of Sri Lanka and his distant cousin Hugh Lawrence of Canada (born April 3, 1944) are therefore almost exact contemporaries, having been born only 5 or 6 weeks apart. Hopefully one day they will meet, perhaps when Hugh and Fiona take that retirement trip to Sri Lanka in a couple of years’ time)!

To round off our look at the dashing Dr. Sidney Percival Joseph, below is a family group photograph dated 1909 that has come down to Hugh Lawrence through his father and grandfather, Lawrence Joseph who became Joseph Lawrence. On the back is handwritten:

With love from Cousins at Lothringen, Maskeliya, 15/9/09“.

Comparing the features of the man in both the 1902 and the 1909 photographs, bearing in mind the close connection and age similarity between Sidney and his first cousin Lawrence, remembering that Sidney once served at Maskeliya as a government medical officer – presumably dealing much with the Tamil plantation workers of that hill country station, surely a congenial role for one so clearly devoted to the welfare of the poor and disenfranchised – and recalling from his obituary that Dr. Sidney was a keen student of Burgher family history, hence the naming of his home after the part of 18th century Franco-German Europe that his great-grandfather Abraham had sprung from…even before making contact with Shelagh Goonewardene in late August 2001 it seemed safe to assume that this 1909 photograph was of Dr. Sidney Percival Joseph and his wife Anne Noble Joseph, and their first-born child, Noble Georgiana Frances Ohlmus Joseph, born June 25, 1906, therefore aged 3 in the photograph. Thanks to Shelagh, we now know this is definitely the case. It will be most interesting to see what other information the now-reconnected branches of the Joseph/Lawrence families in Australia and Canada will be able to exchange in the future. Sidney and Lawrence Joseph, childhood companion and close contemporaries, would have thoroughly approved!

Cousins” at Maskeliya, Ceylon, 1909.

Dr. Sidney Percival Joseph in his later years…. Note the three medals referred to above

 Special thanks are due to Charles Ameresekera of Ontario, Canada for his valuable information about Dr. Sidney Joseph’s medals and volunteer militia career, taken from his forthcoming book, and to Douglas Ranmuthugala of Canberra, Australia for his help and advice in tracking down more information about Sidney, and for referring our queries to Charles. Thanks to Sidney’s grand-daughter, Shelagh Goonewardene, for the copy of the photograph of him in his later years, taken at her mother’s wedding (the little girl in the “Maskeliya” photograph)!

Above article submitted by Joe Simpson of BC, Canada & Richmond College, Galle, teacher 1973-74 …………….


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2 responses to “The Joseph Family of British Ceylon: Service to Mankind across the Oceans

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