Page 1: Biography
Prison matron, asylum matron
This biography, written by Margaret Long, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Esther Coster was the fifth child in a family of eight daughters and one son of Miriam Curtis and her husband, Thomas Coster, a farmer near Charfield in Gloucestershire, England. She was baptised at Charfield on 6 December 1835. Esther came to New Zealand with her family, arriving at Lyttelton on the Bangalore on 21 August 1851. Thomas Coster took up 100 acres at Harewood, near Christchurch, where he built a cob house for the family. On 7 June 1854 at Christchurch, Esther Coster married Edward William Seager, sergeant of the Canterbury Province Armed Police Force. They were to have twelve children, two of whom died in infancy.
In 1862 Esther Seager, now with four children, was appointed matron at Lyttelton gaol, on a salary of £15 a year. Edward Seager was appointed gaoler, with a salary of £200. The gaol housed not only convicted criminals, but also the mentally ill. Esther had entire control of the female prisoners. Her duties included searching them, supervising their work and being generally responsible for their behaviour. Despite fairly primitive conditions, Edward with Esther's support made some improvements, such as providing separate accommodation for the mentally ill prisoners and giving the prisoners productive work. The Seagers' youngest child died in April 1862, only 2½ months after Esther had taken up her position.
In 1863 Esther Seager was appointed matron of the newly built Canterbury Asylum, soon renamed the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, at Sunnyside, Christchurch. She held this position until 1887. Edward Seager was appointed 'keeper'. In these years they had eight more children. When the family first moved into the asylum in November 1863 they shared the visitors' room during the day and slept in the attendants' day-room at night. A separate room for visitors was not provided until 1871, and it was not until the late 1870s that adequate separate accommodation was made available for the keeper's family.
Esther Seager, as well as taking charge of the women patients, was responsible for the smooth running of all domestic arrangements. Despite progressive overcrowding, poor maintenance and increasingly outmoded and dilapidated equipment, reports from inspectors and official visitors always applauded Esther's regime: the patients were clean and neat, the food of excellent quality, and the premises 'kept in their usually remarkably cleanly and orderly condition, all sweet and well ventilated.'
The Seagers carried out innovative, humane, and imaginative policies in their treatment of the patients at Sunnyside. Great emphasis was placed on musical and theatrical activities, in which the whole Seager family participated; outdoor activities such as walking, excursions to the beach and the countryside, croquet and cricket; and work such as gardening and sewing. When Edward was away from Sunnyside on holiday or leave, Esther and the chief attendant would take joint charge of the asylum.
In April 1887 Esther and Edward Seager were required to retire from the asylum. No further jobs were found for them, and their service under the provincial government disqualified them from receiving a pension, although they were awarded a small sum in compensation. Four of their children were still living with them. The Seagers rented a house in Sydenham, and Esther took in boarders until Edward secured a job as usher to the Christchurch Supreme Court. Esther Seager now busied herself with her own household and with her family and friends. In these years she nursed her dying son, Henry Edward, and took in a young unmarried woman during her pregnancy.
Esther Seager died in Christchurch on 16 March 1911. She received no public honours during her life or after her death. Yet she had given 25 years' service as a public servant, and many more as a wife and mother, in a particularly difficult and stressful environment. In the successful and innovative work of the Seagers at Sunnyside, Esther Seager's role was essential.