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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


 

 

Georgian Mansion in the Woods

The real tragedy was the loss of their new 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 now named in his honor. The eaves of the hip-roof mansion stood nearly 30-feet high and a 25-foot kitchen addition made the structure in the forested clearing appear even larger. It was surrounded by smaller buildings for carpenters and blacksmiths with a gatehouse nearly half a mile up the carriage road.

This was the “elegant seat” where Gov. Wentworth apparently intended to move the state capital, connecting the center of the state to the sea with planned highways and canals. The building interior, with its wide-paneled wainscoting, wide stairway, brocade curtains, Piscataqua furniture, pewter chandeliers, and brass fixtures would have been equally grand.

This is all 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. Two great chimneys were still unfinished by 1775 when the Wentworths fled the country. The Tory governor’s property was seized after the American Revolution by the state of New Hampshire and sold at auction. An advertisement for the mansion, once considered 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.”

 Imagined view of Go Wentworth's Wolfeboro, NH Mansion  1775

Costly in Canada

But there was much more construction to come. After years in England, John Wentworth regained his royal title of Surveyor of the King’s Woods in North America in 1792. He also became the royal governor of Nova Scotia, home to many uprooted New Englanders still loyal to the British king. That prestigious position, according to the governor and his lady, required a newer bigger mansion, this time in Halifax.

Two previous Nova Scotia governors had found their official housing in Halifax satisfactory, but the Wentworths reported in 1792 that the home provided was “in Danger of falling into the Cellar.”  Nothing was too good for Sir John and Lady Wentworth. According to one Canadian historian, the couple was willing "to pursue their whims up to the very brink of bankruptcy.”

The governor laid the cornerstone to Government House on September 11, 1800. Halifax was then only 50 years old, younger than its aging Tory governor.  As in Portsmouth, the couple found themselves on Pleasant Street, the name now changed in Halifax to Barrington Street.

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, were more budget minded. 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. 

Gentlemen did not measure the cost of accommodating and entertaining British royalty, the Wentworth believed. Prince William Henry, third son of King George III of England, was a frequent guest at the Wentworth’s Halifax home. The young prince, popular legend says, spent intimate moments with the middle-aged Lady Wentworth while her husband trekked the wilds of Canada as royal surveyor.

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 a quarter million dollars per year -- including maintenance, 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.

The three-story Halifax structure is built of stone with rounded two-story wings at each side. it was designed to entertain visiting royalty – as was the Wentworth's Wolfeboro house – with a grand ballroom, drawing room and marble fireplaces. Government House is the grandest of the Wentworth homes and the most admired Georgian structure in Nova Scotia, some say. The  building materials include a wide variety of native stone from surrounding towns. All three historic sites are marked with brass plaques to the governor. The Halifax plaque, in both French and English, notes apologetically that Government House “was built to satisfy his own sense of propriety and that of his glamorous wife.”

 Government House in Halifax, NS

Three time loser

By his retirement in 1808, the cost to build and equip Government House was nearly three times the originally proposed sum. Wentworth moved in before the house was completed in 1805. Again, he enjoyed only a few short years in residence. He was retired as governor of Nova Scotia when his successor Gen. George Prevost arrived from England accompanied by 3,000 soldiers. Another war with America was brewing and the elderly and costly Wentworth was no longer needed.

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 elite standards, offered little in the way of luxury. As their debts rose, to avoid prison, John fled first to Liverpool, then back 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. He is buried not far from his former mansion. He died at age 84 on April 8, 1820. 

Four months later, on September 12 of that same year, the new owner of John Wentworth’s mansion in the wilds of Wolfeboro stoked 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 suddenly roared up the chimney. Flaming shingles exploded out the chimney and  landed on the roof that instantly caught fire. Three hours later the mansion where John Wentworth had planned to rule the British province of New Hampshire was gone. 

 

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. 

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on Amazon.com and in local

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