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The Dull Life of Charles Brewster

Charles W Brewster / SeacoastNH.comBREWSTER'S RAMBLES

Newspaper editor and author Charles W. Brewster (1802-1869) was the inspiration for this web site. Quietly, week after week for 50 years, he published stories about the history of his hometown. His work did not win him awards or fame or riches. It simply made him happy and fed his soul. Today his accumulated "Rambles About Portsmouth" remain a window into Portsmouth;s past.



Charles W. Brewster (1802-1869)

Even his best friends said he was dull. Although he likely recorded more exciting local stories than anyone before or since, Charles Brewster was himself a shy methodical man who led a remarkably uneventful life. He lived most of it within walking distance of Market Square in downtown Portsmouth, NH. Remembered by a classmate as "more sedate" than other boys, Brewster began work for a weekly newspaper at 16 and stayed with it for 50 years.

Writing His Rambles

As writer, printer and eventually editor of the Portsmouth Journal through 43 annual volumes, Brewster produced hundreds of literary "Rambles" about the town and its inhabitants. He would track a new story, a friend said, with the patience and dedication of Audubon searching out a new species of bird. He wrote with such style, clarity and passion that his work survives today as one of the few published histories of Portsmouth.

The Brewster family could proudly trace its ancestors directly, although likely not corectly, from the Mayflower. Charles Brewster was born just two years into the 19th century, but remained drawn to earlier times. When not at work, at the North Congregational Church, or home with his wife Mary and their nine children, Brewster spent every available hour researching and authenticating his colorful tales. He would take a year, if needed, to track down precise details of a popular anecdote for his "Rambles.". Colonial and revolutionary manuscripts, letters, family and city records, old newspapers, deeds, wills, tombstones -- these were his treasures. An avid oral historian, Brewster frequently interviewed senior citizens born as early as 1752, verifying one story against another. With men like Franklin Pierce and Daniel Webster passing on the streets of Portsmouth, Brewster longed for the days when George Washington, Lafayette, John Paul Jones and others walked the same narrow harbor roads.

Press Time in Portsmouth

Each Friday until about midnight he and whichever friends wandered into his downtown office would "work off" the paper. After editing the metal words into place and inking each page, it took two strong pulls of the hand press for every impression. In all his years with the Portsmouth Journal, Brewster personally launched all but a dozen of two thousand consecutive editions. His honest decent reporting and strong family values were welcome in nearly every home, no matter what their politics. Brewster's literary skills were apparently well received. On one occasion he anonymously entered a poetry contest sponsored by a competing newspaper. The rival editor was reportedly stunned to learn that the sweet award-winning poem was not penned by a local woman as suspected, but by the publisher of the Portsmouth Journal.

Unlike most newspapermen, Brewster preferred people to politics and paperwork to people. A punctual church-goer and sometime-member of local government, he refused public calls to run for mayor. Unaffected by local fashion or modern thinking, a contemporary said Brewster was attached to "old habits, old principles, old friends, old books, and old ways of making money." Disinclined to travel, it is said he walked the 2,000 feet between his office and home enough times to circle the globe, and always with the eyes of a man exploring uncharted territory. Always more interested in truth than profit, Brewster turned the business over to his son soon after the Civil War.

Brewster died as serenely as he lived in a house just a block from where he was born on Islington Street. "Good-bye," he told a lifelong friend, "I shall not be alive tomorrow." And, just as calmly, he slipped off into his own chapter of Portsmouth history.

BREWSTER’S RAMBLES has posted a great many of the 149 essays from two volumes of Brewster’s Rambles. We expect to "migrate" those archived articles and add more in the near future. Click above for the list of essays available online.

Copyright © J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. First published online here in 1997. Updated 2006. Primary source: Essay by Bray Simes from the second edition of "Brewster's Rambles." 

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