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Seeking the Frances in Francestown


Every town name tells a story. In New Hampshire there was a burst of naming in the heady days just before the American Revolution. Francestown and Deering were gifts of love from the Portsmouth-based governor, the origins of which reveal a most intriguing woman. Reporter Deb McGrath tracks the tale.





A woman with four names, all of which became NH towns:
Frances Deering (Wentworth) Atkinson Wentworth.

MORE on Lady Wentworth  

Living in the Monadnock region I see the signs that say Francestown, NH was incorporated in 1772. But who was Frances? I set out to discover her.

I first checked the book Frances’ Town (1975) by John R. Schott’s, but despite the title, there were only two pages on Frances Wentworth. In 1769 she married royal governor John Wentworth of Portsmouth, a member of the richest and most powerful family in pre-Revolutionary New Hampshire.

John was a dashing figure and Frances was considered by some the most beautiful woman in the Colony.

Frances was the daughter of Samuel Wentworth, a prominent Boston merchant and the governor’s uncle. At the age of 16, she married her first cousin, Theodore Atkinson, who died young of consumption. Possibly she was involved in some hanky-panky with "his gracious lord" while her first husband lay dying. A widow at 24, Frances married her second husband only two weeks after their mutual cousin’s death.



The Governor’s Lady

I then studied the history of Francestown published in 1895, reviewed several Web sites and read Thomas Raddall’s novel, The Governor’s Lady. All cite the alleged hanky-panky between Frances and John prior to Atkinson’s death. This speculation also inspired a poem written by Nora Perry in 1875. Perry wonders in verse why the two didn’t wait the traditional year and a day for mourning. Their hasty marriage and the birth of their son John seven months later cinches Frances’ infidelity in the minds of many. No one in that era appears to have questioned the equally inappropriate actions of the royal governor. John blamed the brief timing of the marriage on his parents and explained away the birth as premature, the result of Frances being frightened by a dog.

govlady.jpgFrances Deering Wentworth, of the Boston Wentworth’s, first met John when he was attending Harvard. She was a young girl and their early friendship may have culminated in marriage sooner had John not gone back to Portsmouth after graduation to learn the family business. He then sailed off to England to make his way into formal society and to protect Wentworth financial interests. Family obligations required him to stay in England for several years.

According to Historical Biographies of Nova Scotia: "Frances, probably to force the issue of marriage to John, engaged herself to their mutual cousin, Theodore Atkinson, and when John sailed off to England, Frances married Theodore."

After several years of building friendships withthe British aristocracy, John returned to New Hampshire to become the royal governor, replacing his Uncle Benning Wentworth, who had lost favor. John married Frances soon after his return. She became the First Lady of the colony of New Hampshire and soon afterwards Francestown was named in her honor on June 8, 1772. Also the town of Deering was incorporated on January 17, 1774 and named after the Governor’s Lady. Towns named Wentworth and Atkinson were already incorporated by former governor Benning Wentworth. (As a footnote, the town of Bennington that borders Francestown and Deering is named for the Battle of Bennington in the American Revolution, not the provincial governor.)

In 1891, historian Reverend Cochrane wrote: "It was said that the Governor had long been ‘flirting with her, and that when Atkinson died, she came to the door and waved her handkerchief to let him know of the sad event!’ Of course he would wish to perpetuate her beautiful name! … But though she never saw the towns that bear her name, it will be preserved by them till the mountains fall asunder."



Exiled from New Hampshire

Had the Revolutionary War not intervened, Reverend Cochrane suggests, John and Fanny Wentworth might have fared well, but there was no happily ever after in New Hampshire for them. John Wentworth, a Loyalist, became the last Royal Governor of NH. He and his lady lived the rest of their lives in exile from the colonies in which they were born.

The dust jacket of The Governor’s Lady , describes the book like this: "A biographical novel of Frances Wentworth, whose husband governed Nova Scotia, but could not govern her…Set in the turbulent years around the American Revolution, this novel tells of an ambitious and ruthless woman who yearned for power and money and the prestige a title could bring her!"

Raddall sets the tone for the main character as greedy, manipulative and power hungry, but the facts paint a very different picture. Indeed, it was John who borrowed funds and went into debt to build a grand mansion in the wilderness of New Hampshire even before his involvement with Frances. She apparently did not approve of a home, no matter how grand, in such a remote location. Frances was a social butterfly who loved the city and all that cities have to offer. John loved the woods and surveying the forests for the timber needed for the masts of her majesty’s fleet.

It was John’s loyalty to Britain and his fascination with the Crown and the aristocracy that spelled his demise and led to his exile from his beloved birthplace. Driven out of Portsmouth, John fled to Boston, then to Halifax.

He sent Frances and their surviving infant son to England during the Revolution. They later joined him in Nova Scotia.

According to both Raddall’s novel and history texts, Fanny was supported by John’s kinsman, Paul Wentworth in London. She also stayed with Lord and Lady Rockingham on their country estate while John was still in the Colonies, hoping to defeat the rebels so he could resume his post as governor of New Hampshire. It is during this period that Fanny developed a taste for the British aristocracy, as her husband had during his formative years in England. Here she also developed relationships with other men, as was the custom of the London crowd.

John later joined his wife in England after the Battle of Yorktown when it became apparent that returning to New Hampshire was not an option.

Through Lord Rockingham he was able to obtain the post of surveyor general of the King’s woods in 1783, the position he had previously held in New Hampshire. Living beyond their means, the aristocratic couple accepted the lucrative position in Nova Scotia and were forced to leave England behind. Reluctantly Fanny joined her husband within the year.



More Scandal, More Spending

In Nova Scotia, old patterns continued. John spent much of his time surveying in the wilderness and Fanny spent her time alone. With their son Charles-Mary attending school in England, Frances was stuck in a city she believed lacked culture. She amused herself by entertaining the officers of the British Royal Navy stationed in Halifax. She even convinced John to build a magnificent home in the fashionable section of Halifax, furnishing and staffing it in a style that made her contemporaries envious.

During this period Frances met Prince William Henry, the third son of King George III. The prince was stationed with the Royal Navy in Nova Scotia for weeks at a time from 1786-1789. Frances became his mistress at age 41, although Prince William was still in his twenties. According to one source: "Although the couple never appeared together in public, their liaison was well known, even John Wentworth was to become aware of what went on during his many absences as the Surveyor General. He made nothing of it."

Apparently John and Frances Wentworth had what might today be called an ‘open marriage". John too had his ladies, including a black servant who reputedly bore his illegitimate child. John may have had other mistresses and other children. Novelist Thomas Raddall never alludes to any of these, focusing instead only on the character of Frances in his "historical biography". Raddall also suggests that it was Fanny’s relationship with Prince William that enabled John to become royal governor of Nova Scotia in 1792 and this is where The Governor’s Lady concludes.

John Wentworth had problems in Nova Scotia too. In an effort to make his new colonial outpost profitable and cultural, he spent more than he earned. HIs debts accrued in New Hampshire were eventually absorbed by the British government because Wentworth remained a loyalist. He might also have been removed from his second royal post, had it not been for British patrons.

In his biography of John Wentworth, historian Paul Wilderson paints a final sad picture:

"When Wentworth retired in 1808 at the age of seventy-one, he and his wife returned to England to live out their days on a meager pension. Yet one last tragedy awaited him. In 1812 creditors hounded him for payment of debts incurred in his official capacity in Nova Scotia. To avoid prison, Wentworth, at the age of seventy-five and with his wife ill, was forced to flee under an assumed name. From Liverpool he embarked for Halifax where he could sell some property to meet his debts. Sadly, Frances Wentworth died during his absence. With no reason to go back, John Wentworth remained in Halifax until he died in 1820."

Separated by an ocean, the two royal lovers from New England ended their lives as exiles. John Wentworth was buried beneath St. Paul’s Church in Halifax. Fanny’s other lover, Prince William, became king of England at 62, sixteen years after her death.

Deborah Lee McGrathtaught World History and US History for 20 years. She is currently working to reinstate an adult education and enrichment program in the ConVal School District in NH. She is also a freelance newspaper writer and photographer.


NIllustration: The picture at the top of this article is a detail from the cover of yet another novel about John and Frances Wentworth. The novel "The Last Gentleman" was published by Random House in 1960 by NH author Barker.


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