My family history research began, more than a decade ago, with my father’s family: the Robbs, who moved to London from Scotland, via Yorkshire, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, having traced them back to a village in Aberdeenshire in the early eighteenth century, I hit something of a brick wall, and shifted my attention to my mother’s family, whose story has preoccupied me for the past few years, as I’ve discovered their roots in, among other places, seventeenth-century London and sixteenth-century Sussex and Worcestershire. Now, however, I’ve decided to return to the Robb family and to try to put together everything I’ve discovered about them on a new website (watch this space for details). I’ve begun by reviewing my earlier blog posts about the Robbs, and in doing so, I think I’ve already made at least one new discovery.
Charles Edward Robb
The original source for my research into my father’s family was a series of typewritten sheets extracted, apparently, from a family Bible. Most of the text was written by my great great grandfather William Robb (1813 -1888), towards the end of his life, but it is prefaced and supplemented by additional information supplied by his son, my great grandfather Charles Edward Robb (1851 – 1934). The first section of Charles’ text reads as follows:
Father: William Robb. Born at Richmond, Yorkshire 25th October 1813.
Married Fanny Sarah Seager at St. George the Martyr, Queen Street, Bloomsbury, London, 23rd May 1836, who was born 22nd November, 1814. She was the daughter of Samuel Hurst Seager and Fanny his wife formerly Fowle. Her Brothers and Sisters were:
Samuel Hurst Seager )
Henry Fowle Seager )
Elizabeth Seager ) These are all in New Zealand.
Edward William Seager )
and Julia Seager who married Charles Lambert who is one of the Clerks to the Commissioner of Lunacy, Whitehall Place.
I’ve written extensively before about William Robb, and about Fanny’s family, the Seagers, which has included exploring their lives in London and then in New Zealand. With the help of my distant relative Richard Seager it has also been possible to trace the Seagers back a number of generations, to their origins in the West Midlands, though many aspects of their history remain shrouded in mystery.
Some years ago, I came across information about a William Seager (1809 – 1874), living in London at around the same time as my ancestor William Robb and his Seager in-laws, but who did not seem to be mentioned in family records. As I wrote at the time:
My interest in William, and my suspicion that he might be a relative of my Seager ancestors, was prompted by three factors. Firstly, he worked as a law stationer, and my great-great-grandfather William Robb, who married Fanny Sarah Seager, was a law stationer’s clerk in the same part of London. Fanny was the daughter of Samuel Hurst Seager, who was a porter at the Inns of Court. Secondly, William’s mother Sarah, (who turns out to have been his stepmother) was said to have been born in Birmingham, the birthplace of Samuel Hurst Seager. Thirdly, William and Sarah lived in Little James Street, only a few streets away from addresses associated with my Seager ancestors.
William Seager was the son of Thomas Seager, described in the records variously as an ironmonger, general dealer, and gentleman. After the death of his first wife (and William’s mother) Elizabeth, Thomas married his second wife Sarah Riddell in 1822. Not only was she from Birmingham, but the couple were married at the church of St George the Martyr, Queen Square, where William Robb and Fanny Sarah Seager would marry fourteen years later.
Church of St George the Martyr, Queen Square, London (author’s photograph)
In reviewing my old posts about William Seager and his family, as well as other posts about the Seagers, two hitherto unnoticed connections leapt out at me. Firstly, I remembered that Samuel Hurst Seager, the father of Fanny Sarah and father-in-law of William Robb, had a brother named Thomas. Richard Seager’s research established that Samuel was born in Birmingham in about 1780 and that he was one of at least five children born to another Samuel Hurst Seager and his wife Elizabeth Cash. His siblings were William (1776), Mary (1777), Thomas (1779) and Elizabeth (1781).
One obstacle in the way of confirming that Thomas Seager, the London ironmonger and father of William Seager, was Samuel Hurst Seager’s brother, is that Thomas’ burial record from 1839 gives his age at the time of his death as sixty-nine. This would mean that he was born in 1770, rather than 1779. However, the discrepancy might be explained by inaccuracies in either the burial or christening records, or by the fact that (as often happened) Thomas was baptised some years after his actual birth.
However, it’s the second previously unnoticed connection that is even more intriguing. As noted in the text from the Robb family Bible reproduced above, four of my great great grandmother Fanny Sarah Seager’s siblings emigrated to New Zealand. Her brother Edward William Seager (1828 – 1922) worked as a policeman, prison warden, and was latterly a pioneer of mental health provision in his adopted country. He married fellow emigrant Esther Coster, and their daughter was the actress Rose Elizabeth Seager. Rose married Henry Marsh and their daughter was the crime writer and theatre director Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982).
Ngaio Marsh photographed c. 1935 by Henry Herbert Clifford (via Wikipedia)
In her autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, Marsh writes this 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.
Ngaio Marsh’s paternal grandfather – ‘Gramp’ – was Edward William Seager. Her great grandfather was Samuel Hurst Seager. Until now I’ve regarded Marsh’s story of the ‘affluent and unencumbered uncle’ rather as she did when growing up: as a romantic fiction, and certainly as difficult to reconcile with the known facts about my Seager ancestors.
However, looking back through my posts about William Seager and his father Thomas, I recalled that I had obtained a copy of Thomas’ death certificate, which noted that he had died on 1st September 1839 in the sub-district of Somers Town in the registration district of St Pancras. The actual location of Thomas’ death was said to be ‘New Road’ (now Euston Road) and the cause of death as follows:
‘Mortal injury to the head by an accidental fall from a chaise cart’.
This is too reminiscent of the family story reproduced by Ngaio Marsh – of a Seager uncle who ‘died intestate in the family chaise’ – to be mere coincidence. However, if Thomas Seager was related to ‘my’ Seager family, it seems likely that he was Samuel Hurst Seager’s brother rather than his uncle. He would in fact have been the uncle of Samuel’s son (and Ngaio Marsh’s grandfather) Edward William Seager. Who in fact were the uncle and the ‘impoverished nephew’ in Edward Seager’s story about a visit to view possible family estates in Scotland? If this did indeed happen in 1839, when Thomas Seager died, then the nephew could not have been Samuel Hurst Seager, who died two years earlier. Perhaps Edward muddled up different elements of the family story, conflating a visit to Scotland involving his father some years earlier, with the death of his own (possible) uncle, Thomas Seager, in 1839?
I remain convinced that there must be some connection between these separate branches of the Seager family – and between William Seager and William Robb. I wonder if my great great grandfather William Robb, a law stationer’s clerk, worked either for or alongside William Seager, a law stationer, and that was how he came to meet his wife Fanny, who (if my theory is correct) was William’s cousin? Or perhaps it happened the other way round, and William Robb found work through his wife’s family connections?