How the Governor Lost Three Mansions
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Gov House, Halifax/ Canadaian National Archives


He had the common touch, at least as a young man. But from Portsmouth to Wolfeboro to Halifax, New Hampshire’s last royal governor had ritzy tastes in real estate. Here, for the first time that we know of, is a look at all three governor’s mansions and the racy Portsmouth couple that lived there.




SEE ALSO:  Gov. John Wentworth bio and Lady France Wentworth poem 

Unlike his imperious uncle Benning, New Hampshire’s last royal governor John Wentworth was a heck of a nice guy. Born in Portsmouth in 1737 to the aristocratic Wentworth dynasty, John attended Harvard in the same class as future president John Adams. Where Gov. Benning Wentworth had grown increasingly fat and rich and aloof and haughty, Gov. John Wentworth created new highways through the wilderness, helped found Dartmouth College, built the colonial statehouse in Market Square and mixed with the locals. 

Mark Wentworth Home on Pleasanst Street in Portsmouth, NH / 

A Hut on Pleasant Street

Despite his common touch, John Wentworth inherited the family yen for ritzy real estate. His father Mark Wentworth’s home, now the Wentworth-Gardner mansion in the South End is still considered among New England’s finest examples of Georgian architecture. Uncle Benning’s rambling home overlooking Little Harbor, now the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, once boasted 45 rooms. After accepting his powerful role as provincial governor in 1767, John described his new rented home on Pleasant Street as "a small hut with little comfortable apartments". The governor was more generous in his description of the surrounding scenery. He wrote to a friend:

"On the one side, we look over the town and down the river to the boundless Atlantic Ocean; on the other side we overlook a place for a garden, bounded or rather separated from the fields by a large sea-water pond, which enlivens the rural scene."

The scenic view of the South Mill Pond (then called Pickering Pond) remains, but the "small hut" has expanded enormously toward the river with a modern brick addition. It is now the Mark Wentworth Home, a nursing facility for the elderly. It is named, confusingly, not for John Wentworth’s father Mark, but for a doctor who lived there at the turn of the 20th century.

Built in 1762, the "front house" still vibrates with scandalous Portsmouth tales. It was here that John Wentworth brought his bride Frances in 1769 after their sudden wedding. Frances married her first cousin John just 10 days after the funeral of her first husband Theodore Atkinson, Jr, another first cousin. Based on the private baptism date of their son a few months later, it appears that the governor and his lady had dallied while poor Mr. Atkinson lay dying.

It was here on the eve of the American Revolution in 1775 that a Portsmouth mob armed with a cannon carried away a Tory friend who had been hiding with the governor. Wentworth Home administrator Mary Ellen Dunham points out the "famous bullet holes" above the mantelpiece in her office, reputedly made in the plaster during the scuffle. From Pleasant Street the Wentworths fled as the American Revolution loomed. They stayed for two months in a truly tiny house at Fort William and Mary in New Castle and on the British ship SCARBOROUGH, then moved on to Boston, to England and eventually to Nova Scotia where John again became royal governor.

Artist concept of John Wentworth summer mansion in Wolfeboro / courtesy Wolfeboro Historical 

Georgian Mansion in the Woods

The real tragedy for the Wentworths was losing their "summer" home. While living in Portsmouth, John had built a stunning mansion deep in the wilds of what is now Wolfeboro, NH. A hundred feet long by 40 feet wide, the giant clapboard home sat on 4,000 acres with extensive gardens, orchards and vineyards near a small lake. The eaves of the hip-roof mansion stood nearly 30-feet high and a 25-foot kitchen addition made the structure in the wooded clearing appear even larger. It was surrounded by smaller buildings for carpenters and blacksmiths with an gatehouse nearly half a mile up the carriage road.

This was the "elegant seat" where Governor Wentworth apparently intended to move the state capital, connecting the center of the state to the sea with planned highways and canals. The interior, with its wide-paneled wainscoting, wide stairway, brocade curtains, Piscataqua furniture, pewter chandeliers and brass fixtures was equally grand. This is an educated guess. The mansion later burned to the ground and today is marked only by a stone-lined cellar hole and a brass plaque. No one is certain exactly how the mansion appeared or was appointed. It was still a work in progress, the two great chimneys still unfinished, by 1775 when the Wentworths fled. The Tory governor’s property was seized by the patriot state of New Hampshire and sold at auction. An advertisement for the mansion, considered before the Revolution to be among the finest private homes in the colonies, appeared in the New Hampshire Gazette. The sale in 1786 included, according to the newspaper notice, "all the Improvements and Additions of Stock, Furniture, Tools, Etc.".

 CONTINUE Wentworth Mansions article


Government House, Halifax / photo 

Another Mansion in the Wilderness

But there was much more construction to come. John Wentworth regained his title of Surveyor of the King’s Woods in North America again in 1792, but this time he became the royal governor of Nova Scotia. That, according to the governor and his lady, required the building of a new, much grander mansion, this time in Halifax. Across a lane in the outskirts of the city then known as Pleasant Street (now Barrington Street) Sir John Wentworth set the cornerstone to Government House on September 11, 1800. Halifax was then only 50 years old, younger than its governor, born in Portsmouth, NH in 1737.

Engraving of Gov John Wentworth after painting by John Singleton Copley done at Portsmouth, NHTwo previous provincial governors had found their official housing in Halifax very satisfactory, but Wentworth reported in 1792 that the existing structure was "in Danger of falling into the Cellar". Both Sir John and Lady Wentworth demanded the best and, according to one Canadian historian, were ready to pursue their whims up to the very brink of bankruptcy." Gentlemen did not measure the cost of accommodating and entertaining British royalty, and Prince William Henry, third son of King George III, was a frequent guest at the Wentworth’s Canadian home. The young prince, popular legend says, dallied with the middle-aged Lady Wentworth while her husband trekked the wilds of Canada as royal surveyor.

A devoted Loyalist, John Wentworth may have imagined that his new palatial home would return some of the glory lost to Britain in the American Revolution. Nova Scotians, however, did count their pennies. The local Assembly voted 10,500 pounds for the governor’s new home. As costs rose, tempers flared and John Wentworth found himself again at odds with his subjects. By his retirement in 1808 the cost to build and equip Government House was nearly three times the original sum. Wentworth moved in before the house was officially completed in 1805, and as in his Wolfeboro mansion, enjoyed only a few short years in residence. He was officially retired as governor when his successor Gen. George Prevost arrived from England accompanied by 3,000 soldiers. Another war with America was brewing and the elderly and expensive Wentworth was no longer needed.

Guarded by "beefeater" style re-enactors, Government House is now the grand residence of the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia. The high-priced house costs Canadians over $300,000 a year including maintenance, plus three office staff, a chauffeur, chef, custodian and three housekeepers, in addition to the lieutenant governor’s salary. Other than the White House, according to one source, no government home in North America has been continuously occupied longer.

Three stories of stone with rounded two-story wings at each side, the mansion is designed to entertain visiting royalty – as was the Wolfeboro house – with a grand ballroom, drawing room and marble fireplaces. It is the grandest of the Wentworth homes and the most admired Georgian structure in Nova Scotia. Likely drawn from the same European design book as familiar New England structures, the building materials include a wide variety of native stone from surrounding towns. As with the empty cellar hole in Wolfeboro, a brass plaque identifies this as the former home of Sir John Wentworth. The plaque, in French and English, notes apologetically that Government House "was built to satisfy his own sense of propriety and that of his glamorous wife."

Things did not end well for the Wentworths. Bored with life in Canada, Frances initiated their return to London where the governor’s pension, small by their standards, offered little in the way of luxury. As their debts rose, to avoid prison, John fled first to Liverpool, then to Halifax under the assumed name of John Wallace. Frances, by now very ill and medicated with opium, was not told of his departure. John was able to sell off some Halifax properties to pay their debts, but Frances died during his absence in 1813. Aging and ill, with nowhere left to go, John Wentworth lived out his days in Halifax where he is buried not far from his former mansion. He died at age 84 on April 8th, 1820.

Four months later, on September 12 of that same year, the new owner of John Wentworth’s mansion in the wilds of Wolfeboro filled the fireplace. It was a frigid fall morning and the large fireplace was stacked with dry unused shingles. According to a nine-year old eyewitness, angry flames instantly roared up the chimney and flaming shingles landed on the roof. In three hours the mansion where John Wentworth had planned to rule the British province of New Hampshire – like its original owner -- was gone forever.

Copyright © J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Author Sources: "The Romance of Government House" by James Stuart Martell, Nova Scotia Communications, 1939; "The Saga of a Palace" by Robert F.W. Meader, Wolfeboro Historical Society, 1962; An unpublished manuscript history of the Mark H. Wentworth Home by Gerald D. Foss, 1984.