What Edward William Seager lacked in wealth and breeding, he made up with his humanity and love of a good joke!
As the young Seager was making his way into his working life as a porter in a London law firm, he learned of the Canterbury Association and their plans from an old school chum, James Edward Fitzgerald (Canterbury’s first Superintendent). Although encouraged to seize this new adventure, the thought of leaving his widowed mother behind was out of the question. But as Fitzgerald made his way in Lyttelton as the editor of the ‘Lyttelton Times’ and strolled the dusty streets as the sub-inspector of Canterbury’s first police force, Seager ended up not being too far behind – arriving on the Canterbury Association’s 18th ship, the ‘Cornwall’ on 10th December 1851, the sudden death of his mother freeing him to do so.
Taken under the wing of Fitzgerald, Seager found work as a policeman and was the assistant immigration officer, becoming the welcoming and reassuring face to those settlers who arrived after him. But it was soon obvious that life wasn’t going to be an easy road for Seager who lacked in both good education and status. As he served to keep Lyttelton’s streets safe, he watched others in the police force progress passed him time and time again. Even making the arrest of the infamous sheep stealer, James MacKenzie, on his own did little to push him up the ranks. It wasn’t until 1857 that he was made sub-inspector of the police.
Known for his great sense of humour and love of practical jokes, he pulled a good one on a handful of prisoners that were under his care one night. Not sure whether he had overheard some ‘talk’ or just had a feeling, but after he locked up the inmates in a simple V-hut that served as Lyttelton’s first jail, he staked up ropes, from behind the hut down to the police station which was some distance away.
That night, the prisoners kicked out the floorboards and lifted the V-hut up, carrying it with them as they made a run for it on foot – Flintstone style! Upon encountering and being guided by Seager’s ropes, the convicts were lead blindly down to the police station and into the surprised arms of the those officers on duty!
As a newlywed and father, he took on the huge role of warden of the Lyttelton Gaol in 1862. A man who always had great compassion for others, he tenderly watched over the 250 inmates that also included 17 ‘lunatics’. As there was nowhere else to house ‘the mad’, the unsuitable prison was the only place. Just a year later, much to do with the pushing of Seager, the Canterbury Provincial Council opened the ‘Canterbury Asylum’ on land gifted by the Twigger family at Lincoln Road. A year later, the facility was renamed to ‘Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum’. With his 17 patients and his ever growing family, Seager made the move to Christchurch and became Sunnyside’s first warden.
A man years ahead of his time, he treated those in his care as friends, calling them ‘…his children…’
He introduced occupational therapy and therapeutic healing. He encouraged gardening, crafts and responsibilities such as laundry duty. He also entertained – bringing his love of singing, music and acting into his role. In 1869, the ‘Sunnyside Press’ was launched after a printing press was sourced and set up.
Sadly, Seager was again passed over as New Zealand’s mental health reform developed and progressed. As he had no formal qualifications, he was removed from his role. Seager took this chance to travel back to England where he visited the English asylums for further ideas of treatment. He returned to Sunnyside as a steward in 1881 – quite a demotion.
In 1887, he and his wife Esther (who had worked beside him from the beginning) were asked to retire; their roles at Sunnyside were being disestablished. The pair proceeded to open a boardinghouse – I’m sure taking in those down on their luck and struggling. In spite of the disappointments in his career, Seager’s love for law remained strong, taking work as an usher for the Christchurch Supreme Court and librarian for the Canterbury Law Society. He also kept up the fun in his life, co-founding the Lyttelton Choral Society and the Christchurch Musical Union.
Seager died in Christchurch in 1922, in his 94th year. He would have had plenty of time to see the budding talent in his now famous granddaughter, Ngaio Marsh.
*image of Edward William Seager courtesy of the Canterbury Museum – http://www.canterburymuseum.com/– 19XX.2.4350 *
* image of the Sunnyside Asylum courtesy of the Canterbury Public Library – http://christchurchcitylibraries.com – File Reference CCL Photo CD 9, IMG0095