By Caroline Kesseler
Research in the Huntingdon Archives has revealed that in the late 19th Century a Godmanchester family became closely acquainted with one from Japan - an unusual occurrence in the town at this time.
On the 29th of November 1886, Sarah Elizabeth Halstead of Cambridge Street Godmanchester married John Seyama of High Street Huntingdon. She was 21 and he was 24. Their marriage certificate shows that the marriage took place in the Huntingdon Register Office and that both partners were single at the time. John’s occupation was given as butler, and his father was recorded as Mioriga Seyama a gentleman. Sarah’s father was recorded as John Halstead a gardener who had died at some time prior to the wedding.
John Seyama appears to have arrived in Britain from Japan at some time between 1871 and 1881. The population census of 1881 shows that he was living in the household of Mr Isaac Bernard in the High Street in Huntingdon and was recorded as Shisastic Seyama, a 21 year old domestic servant born in Japan. It is quite likely that he took the name of John at the behest of his employer. It appears that Mr Bernard was probably fairly wealthy, as the house he lived in is that known as Cromwell House in Huntingdon High Street. He had been a Captain for the ‘Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company’ before his retirement, which is possibly how he met John. It is thought by John’s descendants that he had been a journalist in Japan and was permanently exiled after having written something deemed politically incorrect by the authorities there.
The 1881 census also shows that Sarah Elizabeth was living in Cambridge Road Godmanchester. She was recorded as being the daughter of George and Mary Thackray. George was a dairyman who had been born in the town, whilst his wife Mary had been born in Upton. Sarah was recorded as having been born in Godmanchester c.1866 and was a general domestic servant. John and Sarah’s marriage certificate however stated her maiden name was Halstead, and indeed the 1871 census reveals at that time she had been recorded as Sarah E.Halstead living with George and Mary Thackray in Cambridge Street as George’s daughter in law. At this period of time a ‘daughter in law’ was often the term used for step-daughter.
Further research revealed that Sarah’s mother married George Thackray 22nd February 1871 in Huntingdon Register Office. George was a bachelor and Mary was a widow. Her surname at the time was recorded as Halstead but her father, a Chelsea Pensioner, was recorded as George Mackness, revealing that Mackness was her maiden name. George’s father was recorded as Richard Thackray a farmer. Both fathers were deceased at the time of George and Mary’s marriage. It would seem that Sarah was a daughter from Mary’s previous marriage to a Mr Halstead.
There still remains some uncertainty over the exact parentage for Sarah however. Her birth was registered in Huntingdon 17th May 1865 giving her birth date as 10th May the same year. However she was baptised over three years later in St Mary’s Church Godmanchester on 21st June 1868. Her birth registration states her mother was Mary Halstead nee Mackness of Godmanchester, but there is no father recorded, which does suggest illegitimacy. The baptism record in the parish register however records her father as John Holstad who’s occupation was recorded as gardener and then crossed out and replaced with Dragoon Guard. Extensive research has so far revealed no record of marriage for Sarah’s mother to John Halstead, or any record of his death.
It appears that John and Sarah Seyama’s domestic arrangements were greatly influenced by John’s work. Various records show them as living either in Huntingdon or Godmanchester. The 1891 census shows that John is living at Cromwell House Huntingdon as the butler, whilst Sarah and a son were living with George and Mary Thackray in Cambridge Street Godmanchester. By this time Sarah had actually given birth to two children – Ethel Mary had been born in January 1887 and William Moregie in August 1888. Both were baptized in St.Mary’s Godmanchester, but unfortunately Ethel Mary had died aged just 5 months and is buried in the churchyard. Also in the house were George and Mary’s children – Mary and Richard Thackray aged 19 and 16 respectively.
In 1892 John Seyama became a Naturalised British Citizen and the couple went on to have 3 further children – Cyrilla O’Tsura born March 1893, baptised in Godmanchester and Isaac Olive Yokichi and Cara Mayo, both baptised at All Saints in Huntingdon in 1895 and 1899 respectively. Cara Mayo died aged 2 in 1901 and is buried in Godmanchester. There do not appear to be any monuments to mark the resting place of Ethel and Cara.
This photograph (Click to Enlarge) taken by local photographers Maddison & Hinde, shows John and Sarah with their three surviving children – William holding the Japanese sword, Isaac on his mother’s lap and Cyrilla holding a Japanese doll. The sword is understood by the family’s descendants to have been sent to John by his family in Japan, and it is thought that the doll was probably also a gift. This photograph was most likely taken between 1896 when the sword was photographed in Japan prior to it being sent, and 1899 when Cara Mayo was born as she is not in the picture.
Sarah is known to have died in January 1900 and is buried in Priory Road Cemetery in Huntingdon. Her unusual headstone is formed from rough hewn stone with a flat panel at the front bearing an inscription. Above the inscription is a symbol known as a ‘Right Handed Triple Tomoe’ or ‘Mitsu’ which is associated with Shinto mythology.
The 1901 census shows John Seyama, now a widower, living at Cromwell House, Huntingdon whilst the children are living nearby at 64 Great Northern Street in the care of a housekeeper.
Unfortunately John was to lose another of his children, for on 27th August 1905, William died at the age of seventeen. He was buried with his mother and commemorated on the same headstone.
So John was left with the two remaining children Cyrilla O’Tsura and Isaac Oliver. The 1911 census shows John still living at Cromwell house whilst Cyrilla being eighteen and a student teacher was caring for Isaac (aged fifteen and still at school) and living close by at 13 Great Northern Street.
Cyrilla went on to marry into the Cressey family in 1918 and eventually emigrated to America.
Isaac Oliver trained as a gardener working briefly at Workson Park in Slough and Tilney Hall near Basingstoke, before moving to Tredegar Park in Monmouthshire South Wales in September 1913. He began work in the hothouses, and surviving WW1 when he fought with the South Wales Borderers and was awarded the Romanian Medal for Valour, he was to remain a gardener at the house until three weeks before his death in 1973. He had married an estate carpenter’s sister Beatrice Ann Buchanan in 1922 and had a daughter Mary Janet who appears to have died a spinster in Monmouthshire in 2000.
Sarah Elizabeth’s mother and stepfather remained residents of Godmanchester. George Thackray died in 1897 and the 1901 shows Mary, a widow, still living in Cambridge Street Godmanchester with her unmarried children Richard and Mary. She remained a widow and died in1922. Both George and Mary are buried in St Mary’s churchyard and have a memorial stone marking their plot.
John Seyama died in Huntingdon on the 8th of May 1918 aged 61 years, and he is buried in Priory Road Cemetery. His headstone also bears a Shinto symbol.