The Lost Jaffreys Come Home at Last
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


They were welcomed back as royalty. Dozens of Portsmouth Athenaeum proprietors raised a wine glass last month to toast the return of George and Clementina Jaffrey, a hip young Portsmouth couple of the early 1800s. (Continued below)


The Jaffreys have returned in spirit, not in the flesh. Their handsome portraits now hang among historic artifacts in the old Reading Room of the Athenaeum in market Square, just inside the magnificent arched doorway and between the two upturned cannon.

George Jaffrey IV was a founder and early librarian of the Athenaeum and the last of his name in what had been a prominent Portsmouth family. In a rare move, the ancient membership library obtained the Jaffrey portraits for $15,000 with contributions from members. The Jaffrey story, all but forgotten, still rumbles just beneath the surface of the city we know today.



The Jaffrey lineage

There were four George Jaffreys in all, spanning over two centuries of Portsmouth history from 1667 to 1856. George I (b. 1638) moved from Newbury, MA via Boston to Great Island, where he and others successfully agitated to separate the parish from Portsmouth and create the town of New Castle in 1693. George II (b. 1682) attended Harvard, became a Portsmouth merchant, and also served in the Provincial government. He built the family mansion on Daniel Street behind where the post office now stands. His wife Sarah Jeffries Jaffrey gave birth to George III (b. 1716). When Sarah died, George II married Sarah Wentworth MacPhaedris, sister to the New Hampshire royal governor Benning Wentworth. George’s daughters also married in to the wealthy Wentworth oligarchy cementing a powerful bond.

The third George Jaffrey was also a merchant, a member of the Governor’s Executive Council, and a wealthy land speculator in the growing NH province. The town of Jaffrey is named for him. George lived a swinging bachelor’s life into his 40s. He was briefly and unhappily married, and left no heirs. George III was among the effete upper crust of Portsmouth as the American Revolution loomed. After Independence, according to historian Bruce Ingmire, George III still dressed in his flowing burgundy cape, red velvet cap, and high-heeled buckled pumps -- a walking symbol of the corrupt British regime recently ousted. The aging royalist considered leaving his fortune to a number of Portsmouth men, including Joshua Wentworth (whose privy was recently discovered under the new luxury apartments at Portwalk on Hanover Street.) But George did not like the young man’s fervent patriotic politics. Ignoring locals who named their children “George Jaffrey” in hopes of currying his favor, he gave his estate to a grand-nephew from Boston.



Rich at an early age

George Jaffrey Jeffries was just 13 when he learned in 1802 that he was rich. His eccentric New Hampshire relative had bequeathed him mansions, money, and land – but with a catch. The boy had to drop his last name and become George Jaffrey IV. If George died before age 21, the will stipulated, his younger brothers Edward or Eyre stood in line to inherit the name and the fortune.

The boys’ father, Dr. John Jeffries, was a prominent physician, known to history for being among the first men to cross the English Channel in a hot-air balloon. Like his Portsmouth uncle (who was also his cousin), Dr Jeffries was a Loyalist, and sat out the Revolution in London, but returned in 1787 to a lucrative Boston practice. At age 21 his son George was required by the bequest to move permanently to the Jaffrey mansion in Portsmouth.

Portsmouth historians have long touted a third requirement of the Jaffrey will. Legend says that George IV was required to follow “no other occupation than that of being a gentleman.” In other words, he must not dirty his hands with work, but live as a pampered sophisticated member of the old family gentry. Athenaeum curator Elizabeth Aykroyd, who rediscovered the Jaffreys through months of research, says the facts do not support the story.

“There is, in fact, no such statement in the will,” Aykroyd says. “and it is clear that George Jaffrey III expected the fortunes of the family to increase for several more generations.”


Arriving in Portsmouth

According to Aykroyd, George IV chose to live off his inheritance, which rapidly dwindled due to hard times and bad management. Although he qualified as a lawyer in Boston, there’s no evidence he ever practiced law. Instead, George lived a life of leisure and intellectual pursuits. His love of books and history helped launch one of the nation’s oldest surviving private libraries where his collection can still be seen.

In 1814, while America was again at war with England, George married Clementina Matilda Wethered (b. 1790) of Maryland. It was around this time that the couple had their portraits painted. Athenaeum keeper Tom Hardiman, a scholar of regional American painters, has identified them as most likely the work of Boston painter Henry Williams, who clearly had a connection to the Jaffrey family. The year after the portraits were created, Clementina gave birth to the first of the couple’s two daughters.

Unlike the current wave of hip, young couples drawn to “the old town by the sea,” the Jaffreys arrived when the Portsmouth economy was at its worst. Embargoes, the War of 1812, and the downtown fires had turned the maritime boom years to bust. Many young people were headed West and to the expanding cities in search of better opportunities, leaving this city full of rotting wharves and fading memories. The Jaffreys, by contrast, were newly rich and outsiders to boot.


A library is born

It was during this nostalgic era that the Portsmouth Athenaeum was formed in 1817 as a shared private reading place, long before the era of public libraries. George Jaffrey had time on his hands and an inherited family reputation to uphold. At least initially, he also had money to invest in the struggling organization. Jaffrey bought shares #3 and #4inthe venture. Historian Nathaniel Adams bought #1 and newspaper editor Nathaniel Haven, Jr. bought #2. Their portraits also decorate the Athenaeum walls. The group purchased the Federal-style building in Market Square in 1823, the same year as the Portsmouth Bicentennial, a solemn celebration of the city’s 200-year history.  This event, in effect, kick-started the city’s unending attention to the past.

Like many outsiders who followed him, George IV got caught up in the fascinating history of Portsmouth. He served as “commissioner” and later librarian at the Athenaeum, and was in charge of the “cabinet of curiosities.” This odd museum, formerly on the top floor, has largely been disbursed, but still includes carved Fiji native paddles, an armadillo, some fossils, a whale’s “eye” that is actually a reproductive organ. A gray curved object from the old museum, donated by the Jaffreys, is currently on display in the Reading Room with other Jaffrey items. What looks like a fossilized foot is reported to be lava from Mt. Vesuvius gathered by early 19th century tourists. George contributed books from his own library that are now extremely rare, and published the first catalog of books available at the Athenaeum.





Decline and disappearance

Clementina and George, at first, moved into the century-old family mansion on Daniel Street. “It stood in solitary grandeur at the crest of a low hill,” according to historian James Garvin, and was connected to the street by a noble line of linden trees. It was “massive and U-shaped,” Garvin wrote in his book Historic Portsmouth, with richly paneled rooms and fireplaces framed in imported delft tiles. The exterior, with its beaded clapboards and ornate doorway were a wreck by the time it was photographed in the late 1800s. As Jaffrey’s fortune declined, he was forced to sell off more property, and eventually the entire house. It fell to ruin and was torn down in 1920, but not before portions of the interior woodwork, including a rare, carved, corner cupboard (called a “beaufait”) was removed to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

CLICK TO SEE the Jaffrey mansion

Had it survived, the Jaffrey House would be among the city’s architectural treasures and the Jaffreys would be well-studied and familiar as the Warners and the Wentworths. But nothing remains, not even the hill that the house stood on thanks to a 1967 federal development project. The narrow road that connects Daniel to Bow Street, was once a fire lane through the Jaffrey family property. The name Jaffrey’s Court has been abandoned there, as has the portion of Court Street once known as Jaffrey Street. The original Jaffrey home on Great Island finally burned in the 20th century.

One architectural link may remain. Tom Hardiman says that, after selling the mansion, the Jaffreys moved into a stately brick home on State Street. That site is now Portsmouth Provisions and Googies Sandwich Shoppe, best known to locals as the former Richardson’s Market. Basil Richardson, owner of three brick buildings on that spot says it is possible that the Jaffreys lived there in the first half of the 19th century. Some of the rooms, long converted to apartments, show hints of an ornate lifestyle, he says. Louise Richardson, his wife, says she’s heard rumors of the Jaffreys, and now plans to do some more research.


There was no George Jaffrey V. The couple had two daughters. Matilda died at age 15, and Mary Harriet, whose husband died in a shipwreck that killed 183 army officers and soldiers, had no children. By his death in 1856 George Jaffrey had lost almost everything. His wife and daughter inherited the family furniture. Clementina, according to Aykroyd’s research, disposed of the family portraits of George I through IV. She put the portraits “crushed and folded, frames and all, into a barrel” and them to John Jeffries, who was reportedly so upset that he ordered them burned. Clementina and Mary moved away from Portsmouth soon after the Civil War.

But the paintings survived, somehow. And with their return, comes the return of the Jaffrey story, piece by piece. Time has not treated George IV kindly. “Mr. Jaffrey was a gentleman by profession,” one historian wrote, “but not eminent in his profession.”

Untrue, says Elizabeth Aykroyd. And so say all the proprietors who recently toasted prodigal portraits of Clementina and George. He was instrumental in creating and sustaining one of the most enduring and important historic organizations in Portsmouth. Now Portsmouth is fast becoming one of the nation’s hottest heritage destinations, where every city block – if we take the time to listen -- speaks volumes.

“His legacy is the Portsmouth Athenaem,” Aykroyd says. “That means more in the long run, than his name on a street sign, or a building, or even a town.”


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His books, including MARITIME PORTSMOUTH: The Sawtelle Collection (edited by Richard M. Candee) are available locally and on