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Story: Ryan, Thomas Jervis

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Ryan, Thomas Jervis



This biography, written by David Green, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Thomas Jervis Ryan was born in Ireland, probably some time between 1834 and 1837, the son of Thomas Ryan. His mother's name is not known. In November 1861 he joined the police force in Otago, New Zealand, as a mounted constable. He 'ran the gold Escort' from the Tuapeka goldfield to Dunedin until transferred in June 1862 to the new Mt Highlay diggings, inland from modern Palmerston. Here he took up residence at the local sheep station, from which he patrolled a district 150 miles in diameter.

In August Ryan was ordered 'to proceed to the Rush at the Dunstan with discretionary powers'. Here he claimed to have found '4000 Men starving'. Drays carrying provisions had to be guarded, and their contents distributed under police supervision. In September he was again sent to the Dunstan diggings, to 'Report on the best line of Road', and was promoted to sergeant.

In January 1863 Ryan was given charge of the Lake End (Kingston) to Tokomairiro section of a new gold escort from the Arrow to Dunedin. The route entailed many river crossings and sleeping out in all weathers. In February he was suspended for a month while under investigation on charges which included drinking with his men. His real crime, he later thought, was to have bet on the 'wrong' candidate in the elections for provincial superintendent. Although reinstated, the 'too mercurial' Ryan was never again considered for promotion.

On 3 August 1863 he was transferred to the Mt Ida district to control a new goldrush at the Hog Burn, on the site of present day Naseby. This was no easy task for 'the police camp only consists of one tent. Petty robberies are very numerous. A regular gang of scoundrels infest the place.' Ryan 'put in a very severe winter', during which one of his men died in a blizzard, and he was accused of being slow to organise a search. While in many ways temperamentally suited to the policing of turbulent diggings communities, Ryan was prone to excess. On one occasion he rode into a settlement with his revolver drawn, but adjourned to a tent brothel. An angry crowd cut open the canvas and 'made exposure of what I may here not describe', whereupon Ryan came out firing, only to be seized and beaten up. After using his gun recklessly in a mêlée at a new rush at Saxtons, he was reprimanded and transferred to escort service.

After four months of escort duty on the bleak Dunstan trail, on 30 June 1864, he left the force. In August he became Canterbury province's first detective. Christchurch's Inspector Peter Pender soon regretted his recommendation of Ryan, who spent a good deal of his time drinking, gambling and womanising rather than keeping unionists and other political radicals under surveillance. On Christmas Day 1864 Ryan drank a mixture of brandy and champagne which 'had the effect of exciting me for I nearly drove the Dog Cart over Pender'. After a reprimand and further breaches of regulations, he was transferred in February 1865, as a mounted constable, to the Mackenzie Country. In this sparsely populated district his main occupation was to visit sheep stations and enjoy the hospitality of their owners; little crime was evident. As winter drew in he complained of the monotonous existence, relieved only by occasional visits to Timaru which left him 'infernally seedy from…Continuous and Systematic imbibing.'

In September 1865 Ryan was transferred to Waitangi (Glenavy) on the Otago border, where his principal duty was to scrutinise travellers entering Canterbury. In April 1866 he was posted back to the Mackenzie Country. Ryan was promoted to first class constable in September 1867, but resigned from the Canterbury police in the same month. In 1868 he rejoined the Otago force as a constable, serving again at Tokomairiro and, after the Tuapeka gold escort was privatised, at Oamaru and the remote diggings settlement of Cardrona. On 30 March 1869 Ryan married Ellen Johnston at Knox Church in Dunedin. He resigned from the force in August 1870. Little is known of his later life. By 1882 he owned a property in Linwood and worked as a commercial traveller. In 1872 and 1890 he was convicted of assault. Imprisoned for theft in April 1901, he was in June admitted to Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, 'more or less broken down…from chronic lung disease' and 'excessive drinking'. Ryan died here on 14 October. He was survived by seven children.

How to cite this page:

David Green. 'Ryan, Thomas Jervis', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1r21/ryan-thomas-jervis (accessed 8 August 2022)