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Educating girls was
not a Portsmouth priority

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

Jefferson Hall--Its school scenes--First public female school, Montague's--Only town grammar school, Taft's--The first Sunday school.

ONE more return to Market Square, and to one of the scenes which our grandmothers remember with the deepest interest. It is to the opening of the first public female day school in Portsmouth. For one hundred and sixty years our town had not regarded the education of females of sufficient public interest to make any appropriation for public schools for them. Those who were able sent their girls to private teachers; those who were not, gave only home instruction.

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One Year with Mr. Montague (1784)

In 1784, when the return of peace awoke the attention of the public to many neglected things, not the least in importance among the new enterprises was the provision for a public school for females. The place selected for the school room was the large chamber of Mr. Grouard's house and hat store, which was on the same spot on which the Brick Market now stands. The house was old, of two stories, and faced the south. The teacher selected was Mr. Montague, a name revered by the grandmothers of the present generation. Never since has Jefferson Hall (which embraces in its limits the very site of the old school room) been filled with a happier company than on the day that school was opened. The girls from eight years and upwards flocked in from the east and from the west, from Christian Shore and from below the South Mill. From all accounts Mr. Montague was an excellent teacher, imparting the rudiments of learning in so impressive a manner that those of his scholars now living, regard that one year's instruction received from him, worth more than any five years' instruction received from any of the private teachers of that day. Mr. Montague's services were continued but one year. He was preparing for the ministry in the Episcopal church, and from the avails of this year's labors he procured the means for visiting England to complete his preparation. Mr. Butler then took the school: but failed in keeping up an interest in the scholars. At the end of his six months the school was given up! And so far as we can learn, for the succeeding thirty years, until 1815, there was no public provision for any regular school for the education of females--if we except the opportunity offered them in the summer months of attending in the boys' school rooms, two hours a day, from six to seven in the morning, and from five to six in the afternoon, on four days in the week, to receive instruction from the boys' teachers in reading, writing and arithmetic.

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Changing Attitudes on Female Education

There have been good private schools for girls always sustained, from the days of Benjamin Dearborn in the last century; and those who had the means have enjoyed the advantages of good education. But it was not until the district system was introduced in 1815, that boys and girls were placed on an equal footing in our public schools.

It has been found that the education of girls is as important as that of boys; and that in capacity for acquiring some of those higher branches which were rarely presented for their study in former times, the preponderance is in favor of the young ladies. Look in upon our female high school of 1859, and see every one of its hundred and twenty seats filled with scholars who have passed the lower branches,--every one with her Latin grammar,--algebra and geometry going off as a pastime, and history and moral philosophy a regular treat, and then question the importance of female education.

What a change in public sentiment! And what an amount of gratitude will be felt for those who have bestowed their influence and their means in producing this great mental elevation of the female sex. The dark ages are not quite so distant as we usually date them. Think of our fathers after the Revolution, awakening to an eighteen months' experiment of the public education of females, and then for thirty years retiring again into that darkness over which their progenitors had plodded for a century and a half!

There are too many novelties in the early history of the boys' schools in Portsmouth to present them in this ramble.

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Schoolmaster Taft

While on the spot of the primitive female public school, we are reminded of the second occasion when that same spot was occupied by a school, in which the writer was enrolled. The devastating fire of 1813 having swept away all but the walls of the old brick school house in State street, Jefferson Hall was furnished with seats, school commenced--and here that venerable apostle, Master Taft, and his fondly attached scholars, were gathered for a year, until the ruins were restored. Master Taft had been one of Washington's Life Guard, and in nobleness of character seemed to emulate his high example. If he ever erred, it was from having too much urbanity in his disposition.

Up to 1815, Mr. Taft's was the only public grammar school in Portsmouth. The district system was that year introduced--eight grammar schools were at once established, in which girls and boys had equal privileges of seats, and all the old teachers were laid aside. If there was ever anything that touched the school boy's heart to with sorrow when he again stood on Market Square, it was to see the venerable Master Taft, in the possession of the full dignity of his manly virtues and classic learning, and uncontaminated by any of the follies of life, compelled from penury to take the humble position of clerk of the Market--the learned companion and guard of Washington bending his naturally upright and manly form, and daily performing the menial duties of his office! The boys felt it--but they had not the means to do for him as their hearts dictated.

Again, for a third time, children are gathering for instruction in the same locality where the girls attended their first public school in 1784, and where the town grammar school for boys closed in 1815. It is now 1818--it is the Sabbath, and in Jefferson Hall is the first Sunday School of the town. There is no parcelling off into sects, or sexes, or complexions. The moral wants of all are equally regarded, and the Bible is the great text book. That town school is a matter of history.

We will not attempt a further sketch, for there is enough in the recollections of those three schools to carry the imagination of the reader in a more extensive ramble than we present, when he again paces Jefferson Hall, or passes its uncomely exterior.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
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