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NH Governor Driven Out of Three Mansions

Guards at Government House, HalifaxHISTORY MATTERS  

New Hampshire's last royal governor and his wife had a taste for ritzy real estate. I know because I've visited all three of John Wentworth's North American mansions -- in Portsmouth, in Wolfeboro, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And at every mansion there is a sad story to tell.   (Continued below) 

John Wentworth had the common touch and was beloved in Portsmouth, at least in his early days. Unlike his imperious uncle, Benning Wentworth, John was a heck of a nice guy, legends say.  Born in Portsmouth in 1737 to the wealthy and aristocratic Wentworth dynasty, John attended Harvard in the same class as future president John Adams. Where Uncle Benning had grown increasingly fat and rich and aloof,  John Wentworth created new highways through the provincial wilderness, helped found Dartmouth College, built the colonial statehouse in Market Square, and mixed with the locals.    

A Hut on Pleasant Street

Despite his public appeal, John Wentworth inherited the family desire for classy living. 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 42 rooms. After accepting his powerful role as provincial governor in 1767, John described his new rented home on what is now 346 Pleasant Street in Portsmouth as “a small hut with little comfortable apartments.”  He wanted something bigger and grander.

Mark Wentworth House, Portsmouth / J. dennis Robinson photo

 

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 modern additions. It is now the Mark Wentworth Home, a retirement facility. 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 confronted the governor at his front door. There was reportedly a scuffle and a bit of gunfire. A series of bullet holes in the plaster above the mantel in the main office of the Mark Wentworth Home, according to legend, were made on that fateful day.

Frances and John and their son eventually fled to the crude safety of the British ship Scarborough, moored at Fort William and Mary off New Castle island. John Wentworth was banned from returning to his beloved New Hampshire under penalty of death.

CONTINUE Lost Mansions of Gov Wentworth next page

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