James William Seamark 1865-1951

James William Seamark 1865-1951

James William Seamark was born and raised in poverty and denied a higher education. He spent a great part of his life in the service of the public; having served as a Justice of the Peace, he became the first working class Liberal member of Bedford Town Council and was also a founder member of the Bedford Labour Party and its first Secretary.

James was born on the 5th August 1864 at Stagsden in Bedfordshire. His christening took place on the 23rd September 1864 at the Church of St. Leonard, Stagsden. James was one of  five children of John Seamark, an agricultural labourer, and his wife Priscilla, nee Cirkett, a lace maker. Their other children were Harry who was born in 1862, Louisa born 1868, Josiah born 1870, and Harriet born 1871.

The Seamark family enters the Workhouse
John Seamark suffered from ill health which forced him to give up his job as an agricultural labourer. He had no other means to support his family. In early 1871 John’s only option was for him and Priscilla and their five children to enter Bedford Union Workhouse in Kimbolton Road. Upon arrival at the workhouse the Medical Health officer examined the family to check that they had no infectious diseases. The family had to bathe and have their hair cut short. Their clothes were taken away to be disinfected and replaced with a clean workhouse uniform. These procedures were carried out to stop the spread of diseases in the workhouse.

The workhouse had no regard for the importance of family life. Harry and James, as with the other children in the workhouse, were separated from their parents. This was thought to help them to grow up into hard-working adults, unlike their parents who were not, otherwise they would not have entered the workhouse in the first place. Keeping John and Priscilla separated meant that while they were in the workhouse, no babies would be born to become a burden on the rates. The family slept in separate dormitories, occupied different rooms in the day, and ate at different tables. During the day, the older women looked after Louisa, Josiah, and Harriet in the dull and cheerless nursery. As they were under 3 years old, they could sleep with their mother at night. The Guardians allowed Harry and James to meet their parents for an hour on Sunday mornings.

Religion played an important part in the workhouse. Prayers were read to the inmates every morning before breakfast and in the evening after supper. The family attended the Workhouse Chapel at 9.30 a.m. each Sunday and at 3.00 p.m. on Thursdays. They were forbidden to sit together or talk to each other and they could be punished if they did. Priscilla sat in the east side of the chapel, John sat on the west side, and Harry and James sat in the gallery at the south end.

The workhouse diet was basic – bread and butter and tea for breakfast and supper, and bread, potatoes, cabbage and perhaps a small portion of boiled beef for lunch. The food would have been the same every week. All the able-bodied inmates had to work to earn their keep. If the inmates refused to work, they could be sent to prison for 14 days. Depending on the severity of John’s ill health he might have done light work in the garden. Priscilla worked either in the laundry, or cooking and sewing.

Boys and girls were taught in separate classrooms. The Workhouse School hours were from 9.00 a.m. to 12 noon and 2.00 p.m. to 4.45 p.m. The subjects taught were reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and religion. As well as their schoolwork, the children had to learn skills to prepare them for future employment. The workhouse had its own workshops where James and Josiah were taught tailoring. Louisa and Harriet learnt to sew, knit, and train for domestic service.

Christmas at the Bedford Workhouse
The Seamark family celebrated several Christmases in the workhouse. The Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Saturday, 27 December 1873, reported: “The inmates of the Workhouse enjoyed a hearty Christmas dinner. The Guardians of the Union contributed money to provide numerous luxuries. Soon after mid-day the men, women, and children, took their places in the dining hall, which was decorated throughout with evergreen. At one end of the dining hall stood two large Christmas trees, the children’s eyes sparkled with delight at the sight of the toys placed under the trees. The officers cut up and weighed the huge joints of roast beef, and they handed it out to 181 inmates, including 63 children and those from the sick wards. The adults enjoyed roast beef, potatoes, and beer, while the younger children ate meat and vegetables. Dinner was followed with a serving of plum pudding. The afternoon and evening passed pleasantly with the inmates, who were given tea in their wards, the children had oranges and nuts”.

New Year’s Day in 1879 was a special day when prizes were handed out to the children. Louisa Seamark, aged 11, won first prize for the best girl in the workhouse.

John and Priscilla’s Final Days
On the 22nd October 1876 John died aged 41, at the Three Counties Asylum (later known as Fairfield Hospital), at Stotfold near Biggleswade. A post-mortem examination determined that John had died from emphysema.

On the 23rd July 1883 Priscilla died aged 42, in the workhouse. Her funeral took place 3 days later at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: E8.209.

James Leaves the Workhouse
On the 5th October 1878 James, aged 13 years, left the workhouse. The Board of Guardians apprenticed him for 5 years to John Wilson, a tailor, at Hockliffe, Bedfordshire. His wage consisted of board and lodgings. In November 1882 he finished his apprenticeship with five shillings to make a start in the world. He moved to Bedford and worked for Joseph Noble, a tailor, at 70 St. Loyes Street. The following year James moved to the market town of Uppingham in the county of Rutland. He was unhappy at his job there and left after a couple of months. He decided to join the army, but instead, was given the sum of £2 by an unknown lady in order to give him a chance of looking for work elsewhere. In late 1884 he returned to Bedford and worked for an insurance agent, Mr. T. C. May, at 8 Silver Street. In 1888 he went to work for James Beagley in the tailoring department at 5 High Street; he worked there for seven years. He then set up his own tailoring business from his home at 27 Princess Street, and took in work for local firms.

James’s marriage to Ellen Appleby
On the 15th June 1886 James married Ellen Appleby (1863-1947) at the Howard Congregational Church in Mill Street, Bedford. Ellen was one of the four children of Mary and Richard Appleby. Her father was a plough maker and was employed by E. Page & Co., Mill Street, Bedford. At the time of her marriage, Ellen lived at the Manse, 16 Dame Alice Street, Bedford, where she was a nurse to the 6 children of Dr. John Brown and his wife Ada. Dr. John Brown was the Minister of the Bunyan Meeting and Ada was the Principal of a Ladies Boarding School at the Manse.

Ellen and James Seamark

Church and Temperance Work
James was a Sunday School teacher, Deacon, secretary, and a lay preacher of the Howard Congregational Church in Mill Street. He was the secretary of the Band of Hope and in 1883 he was one of the Blue-Ribbon men. The blue-ribbon badge was a symbol worn by those who made a pledge of abstinence from alcohol. He joined the Independent Order of Good Templars and for many years he was the Chief District Templar. The Independent Order of Good Templars started in America in 1851 and came to England in 1868. Its aim was to bring together all the temperance organisations. The members saw themselves as Knights crusading against the evils of alcohol.

James was a Freemason of the Sir William Harpur Lodge. In 1888 he gave a speech at a Lodge meeting in which he said that all museums and art galleries should be open on Sundays. This would benefit the intellect of the people, as opposed to the effect of attending the public houses

The Representation of the People Act 1884 also known as the Third Reform Act
In 1867, the Conservative Government introduced the Parliamentary Reform Act, which gave the vote to working class men in the boroughs but not in the county. This increased the electorate to almost 2.5 million. In 1884 the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, argued that people living in the boroughs and in the county should have equal rights. On 9th July 1884, the House of Lords rejected the Third Reform Act on the grounds that it was not accompanied by a redistribution Act. The Third Reform Act would be a large increase imbalance between the several large counties, and the several small borough constituencies. The counties were the last stronghold of the Tory landholders. The leader of the Conservative Party, Robert Cecil, the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, was concerned that this reform would reduce the power of the Tories because the rural workers would all vote Liberal.

Mass demonstrations took place up and down the country as a protest against the House of Lords holding up the Extension of the Parliamentary Reform Act. On the 2nd August 1884, a demonstration took place in Bedford. James marched in the procession from St. John’s Station to St. Peter’s Green. In the procession there were no less than seven bands of music.
Flags and banners hung from the buildings along the streets and several people in the procession carried flags. At St. Peter’s Green 3,000 people had gathered. Those who organised the demonstration had invited Liberal Party members from the neighbouring towns and villages. The speakers on the Green were the Marquis of Tavistock, Liberal Member of Parliament for Bedfordshire, Samuel Whitbread, Brewer and Liberal Member of Parliament for Bedford, and James Howard, Agriculturist and Liberal Politician. They regarded it as a physical impossibility to carry out both the Third Reform Act and a Redistribution Bill at the same time.

At the opening of Parliament in October 1884 Queen Victoria delivered the following speech, “My Lords and Gentlemen. The Bill for the Extension of the Parliamentary Franchise will at once be introduced. In conclusion, I humbly and most anxiously pray that the blessing of Almighty God may attend upon your labours.”

In November 1884 William Gladstone announced the readiness of the Government to introduce the Redistribution Bill on the understanding that the Third Reform Act should be passed without delay. When the Third Reform Act was passed all male house owners over 21 in both the boroughs and the counties had the same voting rights. This added 6 million men to the voting registers. In 1885, the Redistribution of Seats Act redrew boundaries to make electoral districts equal. As a result of this Act, most areas returned only one Member to Parliament, although the Cities of London and Bath continued to return two members. On the 23rd June 1885 Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, became the Prime Minister for the Conservative Party.

Trades Union Movements
In 1888 James joined the Trades Union movement and held weekly open-air meetings in Bedford Market square to stir up an interest in the movement. 1892 he assisted in the formation of the first Trades Council in Bedford.

James Joins the Fabian Society
In 1896 James left the Liberal party. He subsequently joined a study circle led by the Editor of the Bedfordshire Times, Arthur Ransom.  As a result of the debates and his study, James joined the Fabian Society. The Fabian Society was a discussion forum for socialists. The society wanted to establish socialism by persuasion rather than revolution. Early members included the novelist H. G. Wells, playwright George Bernard Shaw, politician Ramsay Macdonald, and feminist Emmeline Pankhurst.

Keir Hardie and Ramsay Macdonald
James took part in propaganda work for the women’s suffrage, and he was a tireless campaigner in national and municipal politics. James organized the big meeting at Bedford Corn Exchange on the 14th May 1909 for Keir Hardie M. P. for Merthyr Tydfil and founder of the Labour Party. Keir Hardie was met with hostility from a group of youths booing and jeering, and not a particularly melodious rendering of “Rule Britannia.” Keir said he was glad to find a number of young men who did not agree with his opinions. He discussed many topics including Women Suffrage. He was an active supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and worked closely with Sylvia Pankhurst and other members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). He was met with applause and hooting when he mentioned the removal of the sex bar preventing women being enfranchised the same as men. He had never been able to understand why a man who respected his mother should object to a claim of that kind. And if it were said, as it was, that the women did not know how to use the vote, his reply would be that they could not possibly make worse use of it than the men had done before. The meeting finished abruptly and large crowds gathered outside Bedford Corn Exchange to await Keir Hardie’s departure. He slipped out by the side exit, through a shop, into Silver Street, and he was at James’s home when the crowd were still howling for him.

James arranged a meeting at the Corn Exchange on the 1st July 1911 at which he presided for Ramsay Macdonald, M.P. the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Ramsay Macdonald did not think there could be a better town than Bedford for the opening of a campaign for a 30 shillings minimum wage and an eight-hour day. In 1918 James was elected the first Secretary of the Bedford Labour Party.

Public Service
James was Town Councillor (1906-1922). In October 1908 he handed out the prizes at Goldington Road Mixed School. He addressed the scholars, urging them to make the most of their opportunities. In 1918 he was appointed a Justice of the Peace for the Borough of Bedford, as well as a member of the Bedford Board of Guardians, and for several years represented Roxton on the Bedford Rural District Council.

Looking back on his full and busy life, James said that changes made were for the better. People he says, have only to throw their minds back to the beginning of the century to realise the revolution which had taken place in public opinion and social and industrial life. The changes had taken place so steadily that they were apt not to recognise what wonderful development had taken place. There had been a change in the people; the life of one was the concern of the other, and they were more of a family. His early struggles and busy life had been well worthwhile and he had no regrets. He was glad he had had the opportunity to do public work and to share responsibility.

Ellen and James’s final years
Ellen was a lifelong member of Howard Congregational Church and took an active part in its organizations. She was a member of the Women’s Meeting, she assisted James when he was Church Secretary, and was a visitor for the Church. They had no children.

On the 9th June 1947, Ellen died aged 84 years, in a nursing home at 62 Chaucer Road, Bedford. Ellen’s funeral service took place at Foster Hill Road Cemetery Chapel.

James survived Ellen by 4 years, he died on the 8th July 1951, aged 86, at Clapham Hospital. His funeral service took place at Howard Congregational Church, Mill Street, Bedford. His burial took place in the grave with Ellen, at Foster Hill Road Cemetery.  Grave Ref: D5.153.

Life after the Workhouse for James’s Brothers and Sisters.
Harry was 13 years old when he left the workhouse. He worked as a labourer and lived with William Bygraves and his family at 16 Allhallows Lane, Bedford. When he was 16 years and 11 months old, he signed up for the Army for six years. He was a driver in the Royal Artillery. The 1881 Census shows Harry is stationed at Devonport Stoke-Damerel Devon. It is not known what happened to Harry after he left the army.

The 1881 Census records show that Harriet had left the workhouse. The Board of Guardians may have placed her in the long-term care of foster parents. Harriet may not have had contact with her siblings or not known them since their separation from a young age. The 1901 census shows Harriet, aged 30, living on her own at Church Road, Urmston in Lancashire. She worked as a domestic servant.

In 1901 the British Women’s Emigration Association was founded. At that time Canada was the land of hope to an increasing number of emigrants. On the 5th August 1903 Harriet sailed from England to Ontario aboard the S.S. Canada. Ontario welcomed strong young women who were not afraid of hard work. In return they would be highly paid and they would find homes of their own. She travelled to her destination under the care of an officer of the British Women’s Emigration Association.  It is not known if Harriet married, or if she did indeed find a home of her own.

Josiah spent 13 years in the workhouse which had a profound effect on his behaviour. He left the workhouse on the 7th June 1884. The Board of Guardians apprenticed him for five years to Abel Walker, a tailor of Brook End, Keysoe, Bedfordshire. Once he had served his apprenticeship, he worked for Thomas Stock, a tailor of 36 Pilcroft Street, Bedford. In 1893 Thomas Stock dismissed Josiah for gross misconduct. He then found work as a labourer. On the 28th October 1894 Josiah married Annice Martin, aged 23, at St. Peter’s Church, Bedford. Their son John James was born the following year. Josiah could not hold down a job for long and Annice received no money from him to support herself and the baby. In 1895 Josiah left Annice and his son. The 1901 Census shows that Josiah is working as a farm labourer and living in lodgings at 17 Tavistock Place, Bedford. On the 4th June 1912 Josiah died, aged 41, of tuberculosis, he had also suffered from asthma. Josiah died at the Three Counties Asylum at Stotfold. A few weeks after Josiah died Annice married her second husband, Josiah Knight.

The 1891 Census records Louisa, aged 23, working as a domestic servant, living with James and Ellen at 27 Princess Street, Bedford. There are no records to show what become of Louisa.


Bedfordshire Times and Independent, July 1, 1873 and February 25, 1888.
Bedfordshire Times and Independent, September 5, 1891
The Manchester Courier, April 4, 1903
Bedfordshire Times and Independent, May 21, 1909
The Luton reporter, July 30, 1918
The Bedfordshire Times and Independent, April 27, 1923. and August 14, 1936
Bedfordshire Times and Standard, March 23, 1945
Census 1841-1911