Ngiao Marsh on the Seagers

The New Zealand-born crime writer Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982) was the grand-daughter of Edward William Seager (1828 – 1922), brother to my great great grandmother Fanny Sarah Seager – and thus (if Family Tree Maker is to be believed) my second cousin twice removed.

Ngaio Marsh in 1936

Ngaio Marsh in 1936

Rose Elizabeth Seager

Rose Elizabeth Seager (mother of Ngaio Marsh)

Edward William Seager

Edward William Seager (‘Gramp’)

In her autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, Marsh writes about her Seager forebears:

My mother’s maiden name was Rose Elizabeth Seager. Her paternal grandfather was completely ruined by the economic disturbances that followed the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies. [...] Among the Seagers [...] there appears briefly an affluent and unencumbered uncle to whom my great-grandfather was heir. The story was that this uncle took his now impoverished nephew to Scotland to see the estates he would inherit and on the return journey died intestate in the family chaise. His fortune was thrown into Chancery and my great-grandfather upon the world. He got some extremely humble job in the Middle Temple and my grandfather went to the choir school of the Temple Church. None of the family fortunes was ever recovered.

These misadventures sound like the routine opening of a dated and unconvincing romance and I think they were so regarded by my mother and her brothers and sisters. Perhaps they grew tired of hearing their father talk about the fortune lost in Chancery and more than a little sceptical of its existence. Indeed stories of ‘riches held in Chancery’ have a suspect glint over them, as if the narrator had looked once too often into Bleak House. Moreover, my grandfather – Gramp – had a reputation for embroidery. He was of a romantic turn, and extremely inventive and he had a robust taste in dramatic narrative. The story of the lost fortune was held to be one of Gramp’s less successful excursions into fantasy and his virtuoso performance of running back at speed through his high-sounding ancestry to the Conquest was tolerated rather than revered.

He died when I was about eighteen. My mother and aunts went through his few possessions and discovered a trunkful of letters which turned out to be a correspondence between his own father and a firm of London solicitors. They were chronologically assembled. The earlier ones began with references to ancient lineage and ended with elaborate compliments. The tone grew progressively colder and the last letter was short.

‘Dear Sir: We are in receipt of your latest communication which we find impertinent and hostile. We have the honour to be your obedient servants…’

They were all about estates in Scotland, a death in a family chaise and monies in Chancery. The sums mentioned were shatteringly large.

Even then my mother was incredulous and I think would have remained so had not she and I, sometime afterwards, gone to stay with friends in Dunedin. Our host was another victim of the courts of Chancery and, like my great-grandfather, had written to his family solicitors in England to know if there was the smallest chance of recovery. They had replied extremely firmly that there was none but, for his information, had enclosed a list of the principal – is the word heirs? – to monies in Chancery. There, almost at the top of the list, which was a little out of date, was Gramp. For once, he had not exaggerated.

Dame Ngaio Marsh

Dame Ngaio Marsh in later years

Ngaio Marsh’s great grandfather was my own 3 x great grandfather, Samuel Hurst Seager (1778 – 1837). Records of Samuel’s life are scarce and I haven’t been able to find independent confirmation of this story, or anything linking the Seager family to Scotland.

(I am indebted to Richard Seager’s family tree at Ancestry for the photographs reproduced in this post.)

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