William Edward Cheesman (1840-1916)

(last updated 23 July 2021)

Born at Dover in Kent on 16 April 1840, William Edward Cheesman was baptised at the Church of St Mary the Virgin there on 7 June the same year. His parents were William Cheesman/Cheeseman (1809-84) and Mary Williams who were married at Charlton by Dover in 1838. They had two children there - George (1838-9) and William Edward - before Mary died in around 1845. William re-married, to a Sarah Hodge (1816-95) at Cranbrook in Kent, in 1854. The UK census records show Sarah was born at Tilmanstone in Kent and she and William lived all their married lives at Dover where William worked as a labourer. We don't think they had any children. In a letter to his friend Colin McVean, written in June 1885 (see below), William Edward said his father had 'died in August last aged 76 and I felt it very much though I had not seen much of him (only occasional visits) for a good many years. He was incapacitated from work of any kind for some years previous to his death. Yet knowing this I felt it none the less'. The 'Watson Family Tree' on Ancestry tells us William snr's parents were William Cheeseman (1778-1839), who was born at Stelling in Kent and died at River, and Ann Ruck (1781-1860), who was born and died at Elham. William and Ann were married in 1803 at Stelling where William's father, Edward Cheesman (1738-1817) had lived all his life.

william edward chessmanThe UK censuses show a William Cheesman, born in Kent in 1840, was living with his parents, William and Mary Cheesman, in the Parish of Charlton by Dover in 1841. The 1851 census has the 10 year-old William, who was described as a scholar, living with his grandmother, Ann Cheesman, on Buckland Street in Dover. Also present were Ann's son William (a 41 year-old labourer) and two daughters, Sophia and Jane, The Royal Navy continuous service engagement books contained in the UK National Archives show that 17340 William Edward Cheesman, born at Dover on 16 April 1840, volunteered for service in the Royal Navy on 28 November 1854. His later work experience, described below, suggests he served in the Royal Navy Surveying Service, where he trained as a draftsman and hydrographic surveyor and, according to his obituary, took part in the Admiralty's maritime survey of Great Britain and the laying of the first underwater communications cable between Great Britain and the United States. Between 1861 and 1865, William worked in the Admiralty's Hydrographic Office. His colleagues there included Colin Alexander McVean (1838-1912), who would later arrange for William to work with him in Japan. The son of Reverend Donald McVean, a minister of the Free Church of Iona and Mull, Colin was educated at Edinburgh in Scotland and trained there to be a civil engineer. In addition to his time in the Hydrographic Office he worked in Turkey and Wallachia before, in 1870, being appointed as Surveyor-in-Chief of Japan. In that capacity he organised and ran the country's Government Survey Department, oversaw the detailed survey of Kioto and Tokio, the ancient and modern capitals, and established and kitted out the Government Meteorological Office. After leaving Japan Colin returned to Scotland where he continued to work as an engineer until around 1885 when he retired to the Isle of Mull. Over this time he remained in contact with his British and Japanese colleagues as well as contributing to the activities of such societies as the Royal Physical Society in Edinburgh and the Scottish Meteorological Society. The photo on the left shows Colin McVean, seated in the front on the left, and William Edward Cheesman, opposite him on the right and other colleagues outside the Admiralty's Hydrographic Office in London.

William Cheesman's obituary tells us that, after finishing up at the Hydrographic Office, he 'was engaged by the firm of Peto, Belts, &, Crampton, engineers, of Great George street London to go to Turkey as one of a party of engineers [which included Colin McVean] to construct a railway from Varna to Rustchuk, in Bulgaria, and to build a pier at Varna'. In his letter written to McVean from Adelaide in June 1885, William recalled their time there with great fondness especially when 'we rode through Bulgaria - promenaded a cheval and were photographed in costume . . . the morning after arrival in Rustchuck. Pistols and spurs being the prominent features. And what a long way off are Alladin, Pravado, Schumla, Raasgrad &c . . . Bulgaria seemed to us on looking back an Elysium. At least I remember so thinking'. On his return to England William lived and worked in London where he and McVean frequented the city's music halls and William married a local girl, Henrietta Merry (1846-1918) at St Peter's Parish Church in Pimlico on 7 July 1869. A copy of their wedding certificate, contained on Ancestry's 'Westminster London Marriages and Banns, 1754-1935' database, informs us that William was a bachelor surveyor who was living at St Giles Camberwell and Henrietta was a spinster living on Allington Street. Their respective fathers were William Cheesman, a bricklayer, and Edward Merry a clerk working in the bankruptcy court. The 1871 UK census shows William and Henrietta living at Peckham in Surrey and William working as a land and marine surveyor. Later that year they journeyed to Japan where Colin McVean had earlier gone and arranged for William to work as an assistant surveyor in Japan's newly established Survey Office. In his letter to McVean, William also recalled their days in Japan with a fond if at times melancholic yearning:

A married man on his honeymoon at a first class hotel with a first class appointment (and appointments) and heaps of luggage and a first class ticket to fairy land. Then afterwards a dark and miserable drive into Choogi Shinagawa a cloud that afterwards dispersed with a transformative brilliancy which lasted 3 years and the dear old Yamato Yashiki in Tokio of which place we have so many pleasant reminiscences with its gates, moats and pleasant drives, quaint history language and people with their funny tea-houses manners and games all come so fresh on one. With yourself curio hunting and evenings spent in what might now be called banquet or carousel, or in a pleasantly lighted [jiurikisha] the colored lantern being in the hands of the propeller yourself in darkness while enjoying glimpses into [basts] and dwellings. How real it all seems yet having been back in the workaday world for so long one feels inclined to ask, is it real, or only a dream? I sometimes doubt if it's the former. We now get no word from Japan. A year ago both my wife and self wrote long letters to Browne in Yoko to which we have received no reply and [Nikoy] seems as much dead to us as if we had never known it. Yet how much we would and could appreciate a jin riki up the Ginza or through the [Pora] in [mon] etc.

After three years in Japan Willian and Henrietta returned to England where their only child, Henrietta Florence Mary ('Florrie') Cheesman, was born in the Greenwich registration district of London in 1877. Not long after this William and Henrietta and their baby daughter emigrated to Australia on the S S GARONNE which sailed from Plymouth on 31 December 1878 and arrived at Adelaide on 16 February the following year (the ship's passenger list published in the South Australian Register tells us the family were among the 'passengers in the first and second saloons'). Along with another work colleague from Japan, Albert Joseph Klasen (1855-78), William began work as a draftsman in the South Australian Survey Department, which was then headed by George Woodroffe Goyder (1826-98). Born in London, Goyder grew up in Scotland where he worked for an engineering firm and studied surveying. His sister emigrated to Sydney and George followed her in 1848 but later settled in South Australia. He joined the South Australian civil service as a draftsman and served as the colony's Surveyor-General from 1861 to 1893. It is likely that Goyder knew, or knew of, Colin McVean who had provided both William and Albert with letters of introduction. Albert Klasen died at Adelaide in 1878. William continued at the Survey Office where, as detailed in his letter to McVean, his work environment in 1885 was both uninteresting and potentially fraught: '. . . I am in the Civil Service and the constant cry here is 'cut down the civil service' [and] a great reduction is at the present time being made in answer to the popular cry. A considerable number having to seek fresh fields at the end of this month. I am not one of them but it is a constant state of turmoil and insecurity'. William's fears of early redundancy proved to be unfounded and he remained in the Department until he reached retirement age in 1913. As reported in The Advertiser on 1 July of that year, moreover, over the time of his employment he had been a well-liked and much respected worker:

The goodwill and esteem of the staff of the Government Survey Office towards Mr W. E. Cheesman, draftsman, who retired from the service yesterday, was expressed in concrete form by the presentation to Mr Cheesman of a silver afternoon tea service, an oak tray, a silver-mounted walking stick, a leather handbag, and a silver cigarette case. At the request of the recipient there was no gathering of the officers, and the presentation was made formally accompanied by a letter signed by the Surveyor-General (Mr E. M. Smith) and the Deputy Surveyor-General (Mr T. D. Porter). The letter expressed appreciation of the work Mr Cheesman had done, and conveyed to him the good wishes of the whole staff.

Various newspaper reports indicate William was also a member and, from its inception in 1892 until 1908, secretary of the Adelaide Astronomical Society. After relinquishing his position as secretary in 1908, William 'was presented by the President, on behalf of the members, with a small token of esteem and appreciation of his valuable and enthusiastic services during his long term of office (The Register, 15 October 1908). Three years later he was unanimously elected as an honorary life member of the society (The Register, 11 October 1911).

william edward chessman family

Sent to us by Hideo Izumida, this photo which was sent to Colin VcVean by William Edward Cheesman is of William and Henrietta and their daughter Florence.

During this time William and Henrietta lived in the inner Adelaide suburbs of College Park and Parkside. As he informed his friend in 1885, he and Henrietta have 'no addition to dear little Florrie who by the way is no longer little really, she is a fine child: physically I suppose not extraordinary, I mean that children older than herself are not as big in many cases, but she seems to be growing fast. By the time you receive this she should be 8½ years. Our great bother here', William continued, is finding 'a good school for her. She goes to school (ladies schools in our neighbourhood are behind the age) but I think her mother is her best teacher at the present time but that has its drawbacks . . . you will scarcely have been troubled in this way', he added, 'your young ones having had the advantage of an English or Scottish training'. William ended his letter with the further observation that 'as an outlying dependency of G. Britain and entirely unprotected on our seaboard we have received a great scare by the strained relations to Russia and have been setting our house in order (on a small scale) for any [future] contingency'. While the present scare had abated, William continued, the colony remained vulnerable to such predations because 'on shore we have [only] some 1000 volunteers and I am not sure if they have ammunition [and] there is none manufactured here'.

Throughout the 1890s, William and Henrietta's daughter, Florrie, attended Southfield School in Parkside while also receiving private tuition in music and art. In 1902 she became engaged to James Peter MacArthur (1875-1947), the eldest son of James MacArthur (1849-1903) of Mount Gambier. James snr's obituary, published in the Mount Gambier Border Watch on 31 October 1903, tells us he was born at Mull in Argyleshire in Scotland and sailed to Portland in Victoria with his parents and siblings three years later. The family travelled from Portland to Mount Gambier where James spent the rest of his life working initially with his father at Greenvale farm and later on his own land. After retiring from farming he worked as a produce dealer and agent until illness forced him to retire. He served for a time as a member of the Mount Gambier West Council, and was for many years a member of the local Caledonian and Agricultural and Horticultural Societies. He died at Mount Gambier in 1903, leaving a wife and six children to mourn his passing. Florence Cheesman and James Peter MacArthur were married at Chalmers Free Church of Scotland at Adelaide's West Terrace on 7 October 1905. A report of the wedding published in the Adelaide Critic tells us:

The church was beautifully decorated by friends of the bride. A lovely bell of ivy and asparagus fern hung above the bride and bridegroom, and arches of roses and variegated grass were hung across the aisle. The ceremony was performed by the Reverend Dr Paton. The service was fully choral, and Mr Yemm [who had been one of Florence's music teachers] officiated at the organ. The bride, who was given away by her father, was becomingly attired in cream silk voile, and wore a handsome tulio veal over a coronet of orange blossom. She carried a shower bouquet, and wore a massive gold curb bracelet, the gift of the bridegroom. The bridesmaid, Miss MacArthur, sister of the bridegroom, was prettily frocked in cream deliaitne, and carried a bouquet of daffodils. After the ceremony a reception was held at Bricknell's Cafe in Rundle-street. Mrs Cheesman wore a handsome gown of black and white voile and a smart bonnet of heliotrope. Among the guests were Mrs MacArthur, mother of the bridegroom, Lady Brown, Dr and Mrs Paton, Mr and Mrs Bindley Webb, Mrs Long (bridegroom's aunt), Mr and Mrs F. Dunn, and many others. The presents were handsome, numerous, and valuable. The newly-married couple left by the express for Melbourne amid showers of confetti (11 October 1905).

The Australian electoral rolls show that James Peter and Florence lived in Melbourne, where James worked as a traveller and broker, from at least 1919 until their deaths there in 1947 and 1956. They are buried together in the Brighton General Cemetery (Presbyterian Section Plot M21). The electoral rolls also indicate they had at least two children: Colin James Cheesman and Florence Shirley MacArthur both of whom worked in 'sales'. According to the 'James Macarthur Family Tree' on Ancestry, Colin James Cheeseman Macarthur (1909-1992) married Helen Alma (Nell) Heard (1912-80), daughter of William Edward Heard (1875-1963) and Elizabeth Fairbank (1877-1950), in Melbourne in 1932 and had at least three children: Annette Joyce, Colin Lance and Lancelot James Macarthur (1933-86).

His obituary in The Mount Gambier Border Watch tells us that after retiring from the South Australian Government Survey Office in 1913, William Edward Cheesman 'came to Mount Gambier, on what was not intended to be more than a short sojourn. He was staying at a private boarding house, and a few months after he went there was afflicted with what is believed to have been a paralytic stroke, which resulted in his becoming totally blind. His health broke down, and he and his wife took a house in the town, and continued to reside there till his death' in 1916. The obituary added 'Mr Cheesman was of a genial and kindly disposition, and was very popular with all who came into contact with him in business or socially, and there are many of his comrades and acquaintances in Adelaide who will regret to learn of his decease. He leaves, besides a widow, one daughter, Mrs J. P. MacArthur, and two little grand-children. It may be mentioned that Mr Cheesman was able to speak French and Turkish, us well as his native tongue'. William was buried at Mount Gambier and Henrietta went to live with their daughter in Melbourne where she died on 27 September 1918. She is buried in the Brighton General Cemetery (Presbyterian Section Plot M 21) where, as noted earlier, her only daughter and son-in-law are also buried.

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