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Tales of the Old Bell Tavern

SIgn of the Bell/


Brewster spins yarns about a downtown tavern that burned in 1867. Legend says it was the haunt of Revolutionary War patriots, of Johnny Tilton the chicken boy, jailkeeper Ebenezer Chadwick, John Paul Jone’s landlady Sarah Purcell and many others.




The Old Bell Tavern.

Editors Note: See the update at end of article. C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth, New Hampshire columnist and editor in the early to mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. From Brewster’s Rambles About Portsmouth, 1859 exclusively on – JDR

Brewster's Rambles at SeacoastNH.comTHE old landmarks of a city, if not of great beauty, have an interest which time gives to many things of antiquity. Four or five successive generations have been wont to look upon this old tavern, as one of the matters which formed the hub of the busy wheel of Portsmouth. In the recollections of our older inhabitants, the Court House, the old North Church and the Bell Tavern have an association, together with the Parade and the old oak still standing, which has fixed a lasting picture on the mind.

They have revolutionary associations. When the patriot Manning on the west Court House steps threw up his hat, declaring that King street should no longer bear that name, but in Congress street should in future the Bell Tavern be found - -from that day the name of the street was changed.

In 1727, the Gains house was built on the west side of the Bell Tavern lot, having a front yard 40 or 50 feet deep. In 1738, a building occupied by Robert Macklin, the baker, who lived to the age of 115 years, was burnt on the present site of Congress Block. Soon after, a portion of the first meeting house was removed to the spot, from the south mill dam, and made a dwelling house for John Newmarch, a merchant. Five years after, in 1743, Paul March, who married a daughter of John Newmarch, built the Bell Tavern.

The building was framed by Hopestill Caswell of New Market, a mulatto, half brother of Paul March. That it was strongly made, the test of a century and a quarter has shown. On the completion of the work there was, according to the custom of the day, a merry gathering to commemorate it. Though Hopestill had performed an important part of the work, he did not venture to approach the board, until it was decided by the company that he should be permitted to come in and partake with them on the joyful occasion.  

How long March occupied it, and whether it was at first a public house we know not. An old lady, who saw the house erected, once told us that several years after its erection she had seen the yard filled with hogsheads of molasses, rum, and such goods as showed that March was extensively engaged in mercantile pursuits. Previous to the revolution the house was occupied by Mr. John Greenleaf, and the sign of the Bell (painted blue) was hanging from the post. Whether or not it was intended to represent the "Blue Bells of Scotland," it is not in our power to decide. At that time there was another public house kept by Mr. Foss in the neighborhood, on the spot where the stable of the Franklin House now stands.


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Friday, January 19, 2018 
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