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The Lost Jaffreys Come Home at Last


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.


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