My grandad always had a sarcastic sense of humour. When joining the Royal Navy as a young man, he was asked a series of questions regarding the medical history of his family. “What did your grandmother die of?” he was asked. His response? “She died on the Wall of Death in New Brighton!”
When I started researching my family history, I recalled this tale and began to wonder who this woman was and why my grandad had been so sarcastic with his answer. I soon discovered that the grandmother in question was Mary Ann Irwin (nee Seager) and that she had died in Wallasey in 1916 at the age of 74. Presumably, as she had survived into her 70s (an achievement for a working class woman in the Victorian era), my grandad saw this as a stupid question so responded with an equally stupid answer.
I had never been able to find out much about her upbringing until recently when I chanced upon a newspaper article referring to her parents. Since reading this, I have been able to piece together details of a traumatic life which, thankfully, for her, ended in more pleasant surroundings.
Mary Ann Seager was born on August 16th 1841, at Thomas Place, Bayhorse Lane, Liverpool, the eldest child of William Seager and Elizabeth Davis. William and Elizabeth were unmarried when their first child was born, not marrying until October 10th 1842 at St. Nicholas Church, Liverpool. William’s profession was that of a patten maker, under-shoes made from wood and metal which were strapped underneath shoes to protect them from mud and other dirt on the streets. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the advent of paved streets and improved sewerage meant that pattens were becoming obsolete; William had to look for a new job.
By 1851, William had become a cotton porter, a less skilled job which probably paid less. The family now consisted of three children as, in addition to Mary, they now had Elizabeth, born in 1846, and Emma, born in 1849. They were soon followed by the family’s first son, William, on March 21st 1852.
Money was in short supply and the birth of another child, Alfred, on June 29th 1858, only exacerbated the problem. By this time, Elizabeth had started drinking heavily and, to raise enough funds to feed her habit, had begun to pawn her belongings. This was to lead to a tragedy that would tear the family apart.
On Thursday November 26th, at about 6.45am, Elizabeth Seager left the family home at 81 Gordon Street, Everton after an argument with her husband. He had accused her of pawning a sheet in order to fund her drinking habit and had ordered her out of the house, telling her that she would not steal from him any more. Taking her young son, Alfred, with her, she wandered the streets for a while, drinking, before going to the house of a friend, Ellen Brown, at 3 Back Mansfield Street. An hour later, Elizabeth was asleep, still clutching her baby.
At about 5am the next morning, Elizabeth awoke and looked at her child. To her alarm, Alfred was not breathing. Later that morning, she returned home with the dead child still in her arms to inform her husband about what had happened. The jury at the following inquest found that Alfred had been accidentally suffocated in bed by his mother whilst in a state of intoxication. They expressed their disapprobation of the conduct of Elizabeth and attributed the death to her negligence. Alfred was buried at St. Mary’s Church, Walton.
The Seager family seemingly never got over the tragedy and it sparked a series of unfortunate events. A year later, on 16th November 1859, William Seager (senior) died at the family home in Gordon Street with his daughter, Mary Ann, in attendance. Cause of death was given as ‘apoplexy, 11 hours.’ Like his son, he was also buried at St. Mary’s, Walton.
The death of their father meant that the daughters needed to find a source of income to prevent them from being sent to the workhouse. The only option available to them was to enter domestic service so this is what they did. Mary Ann, the eldest, found work with the Wood family at 37 Clare Street; Elizabeth became a house servant for the Okill family at 29 Brunel Street and Emma, still only a child herself, went into service with the Briscoes at 6 Crown Place.
But what of Elizabeth, the mother? Things went from bad to worse for her as her drinking began to take its toll. On 11th February 1861, she was admitted to Liverpool Workhouse for the first time, spending two and a half months in the surgical ward. Her son, William, then aged 8, entered the workhouse with her but was discharged a month later and sent to Kirkdale Industrial School. He remained there until his mother left the workhouse when he was sent back to live with her.
This happened several times as Elizabeth’s illness obviously took hold. Eventually, on 10th March 1865, according to the records of Liverpool Workhouse, William was deserted by his mother and, at the age of twelve, he too entered into service, working for Richard Reid, a surgeon from Merton Road, Bootle.
Elizabeth continued to be admitted to and discharged from Liverpool Workhouse and, between 1861 and 1867, she was resident there on twenty separate occasions, often for months at a time. By 1874, it seemed as though she had managed to turn her life around as on 1st June, she married for a second time, to Henry Stott, a widower, at the same church she had married her first husband. This was not the happy ending she envisaged, however, as three years later, on 22nd February 1877, she died of pneumonia at 18 Sheridan Street, Liverpool.
For two of William and Elizabeth’s daughters, life became greatly improved after they married. Mary Ann Seager, my great-great grandmother, married George Washington Irwin, a pilot on the River Mersey, in 1867 and Elizabeth Seager married Samuel Nuttall, a plasterer, in 1871. For Emma, though, things did not improve.
Emma Seager never married and continued to work as a domestic servant in the Everton area of Liverpool. Times were apparently hard, however, and she fell foul of the law on several occasions. In 1892, she was found guilty by Liscard Petty Sessions of drunkenness and was sentenced to seven days imprisonment. The following year, she was found guilty of being riotous and was sentenced to seven days hard labour by the Liverpool Petty Sessions.
Things got worse, however, in 1894 when Emma and another woman, Ann Sweetman, were charged jointly with breaking and entering at the home of Margaret Jane Purcell, her employer. On 19th April of that year, Emma was accused of taking two toilet covers, two towels, one sheet and two aprons. Four days later she was accused of stealing one chemise and one toilet cover and the following day of taking one sheet and one pillow. They were tried on 8th June but the outcomes were to be very different for the two women. Ann Sweetman, Emma’s co-defendent, pleaded not guilty and was acquitted. Emma, on the other hand, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two months hard labour at H.M. Prison, Liverpool. Emma could be forgiven for feeling hard-done-to as she had no previous record for theft whereas Ann Sweetman had seemingly made a career out of larceny.
Things obviously never improved for Emma Seager as, when she died in 1917, she was living at the Salvation Army House in Everton. She is buried at West Derby Cemetery in a public grave.
Thankfully for Mary Ann Seager, my great great grandmother, she ended her life in much more pleasant surroundings, at the home of her son, Harry Irwin, in Seacombe. She was buried alongside her husband at Anfield Cemetery.
There are still so many aspects of this family’s history that remains unknown, especially with regards to what became of William Seager the younger after he left the employment of the Bootle surgeon. Hopefully, as more records become available, I will be able to lay the Seager family to rest.