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Brewster rambles all
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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.

Newmarch and Billings' house - Bell tavern - Melcher house - Waldron's - Jenny Stewart's - Mary Martin's - John Francis - The privateer adventure.

JOHN NEWMARCH, merchant, son of Rev. Mr. Newmarch of Kittery, purchased about half of the first meeting-house erected below the South mill, and removed it to the premises on which now stands the lofty three-story brick edifice called Congress Block; where it remained in a state of sound preservation until 1846. At that time, Samuel F. Coues purchased the estate, and the house was sold to Frederick W. Rogers, who took it down, and of the lumber erected a cottage, which is now standing in Jackson street.

Mr. Newmarch occupied his house from the time of his marriage. After his decease, one of his daughters, who was married to Richard Billings, succeeded her father in the proprietorship and occupancy of the homestead. Mr. Billings was a clerk to John Hancock, and his old master used to honor him with a call when he visited Portsmouth. Here Mr. Billings departed this life Dec. 9, 1808, aged 75; and Mary, his wife, Nov. 8, 1815, aged 78. Their only son, John, and his wife, owned the property till 1819, and he died shortly after that time.

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Inside Mr Billing's Store

During a long series of years, Mr. Billings occupied the southerly corner room of the house as a store, and it was continued by him till the time of his decease. His stock in trade consisted principally of flax, chalk, spinning wheels, corn brooms, tobacoo, Dutch smoking pipes, coffee and tea, (as was indicated on a long white sign board suspended at the door.) He had also beneath the back shelves a few blue kegs of what gave men the blues. There was also a goodly quantity of brass cooking utensils; but nothing was so conspicuous and attractive as the pewter ware, which was exposed to the view of every passer-by. Those memorable shining great platters, white and bright as a Spanish dollar, and that variety of Spanish pipes, with stems varying from the length of a finger to that of an arm; the pipes fantastically arranged in those huge plates, then placed on the turn-down window shutter, (which served the office of a shelf on the outer side,) are objects of too memorable attraction to be forgotton by those who were then children, who would gaze in front, first at the loaded mammoth dishes, then at the old gentleman, to see him raise his three-cornered hat to adjust his wig, with one hand, while the other was employed in profusely supplying himself with delicious macaboy. Mr. Billings' gentlemanly affability ever led him to deal out some pleasing past-time expression to his young spectators, and often some happy little joke, which was ever gratefully received. The business part of the building was subsequently occupied many years, and until it was torn down, as a broker's office, by George Manent. Some of the diamond glass windows remained until the building was demolished.

Within a few years the old Bell Tavern has undergone many mutations. The building was erected in 1743, by Paul March, who married a daughter of Mr. John Newmarch, then an occupant of the Billings' house. Mr. March was a merchant, and at times has filled the large yard in the rear of the tavern with hogsheads of rum and molasses. An old lady born in the Gains house, adjoining the Bell Tavern, who died a few years since, stated this as a rich sight a hundred years ago.

The Melcher house, on the corner of Congress and Chestnut streets, facing Vaughan street, was formerly a gambrel two-story house, like that in which the Express office is now kept. It belonged to the Boyd estate. Seventy years ago it required three or four steps to reach the door--the road in that place has been filled that much since. Between 1780 and 1790 it was occupied by Robert Gerrish, and in it was the printing-office in which he printed the New Hampshire Mercury.

Directly east of this house was the bake house of Robert Metlin. Metlin lived to the age of one hundred and fifteen years, and died in 1789. He used to walk to Boston in a day, the distance was then sixty-six miles--buy his flour, put it in a coaster, and then return the third day. This feat was last done when eighty years of age. On the same spot now lives Benjamin Carter, over eighty years of age. He was formerly a baker, and has still in his house the first cracker he made, in 1792.

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Old Beams and Wells

In 1851, in the process of repairing the two-story wooden dwelling house on the southerly corner of Islington and Parker streets, and next easterly of the brick mansion of the late Robert Rice, a large beam was taken from the building, on which was chalked the name of "Daniell Remark, John Thompson, -- Holms, J. Thomas, -- Stephens, John Thomas, 1696."

Inquiries have been made of many of the persons most noted for acquaintance with the early history of Portsmouth, but none impart any information respecting the erection of this building. The above date doubtless shows when the house was erected, and the names of some of the builders.

There was found carefully imbedded in the masonry a three quart stone jug, with a sound cork stopper, containing about a pint of red liquid, of a sweet flavor, but the life of the original spirit which was probably there, when the playful masons sealed it up in the bricks one hundred and fifty-five years ago, had escaped. Around the chimney, under a hearth, several bushels of salt were taken out, which was in a compact state, and retained much of its original strength.

It was formerly owned by a family bearing the name of Stewart; it afterwards belonged to a descendant, and was called "the Jenny Stewart house" for many years. It is situated on a ledge of large extent, which prevented facilities for obtaining water on any part of its garden lot. Its well was consequently made in the street on the side opposite the house, and remained in use as a well until nearly fifty years since; it was then filled up to give a gate passageway for the house now occupied by Capt. Wm. Parker.

The formation of wells in the public roads of Portsmouth for the convenience of private families, was not uncommon in olden times. About the year 1715, Joseph Brewster, who owned and occupied for boarders the Waldron house on Congress street, had his well before his front door on the opposite side of the street, which remained there for nearly a century. Similar cases were common in the early settlements of Portsmouth. The well opposite the Episcopal chapel, fifty years ago was in the front yard of Abraham Isaacs--the northern side of State (then Buck) street being the south edge of where the covering of the well may now be seen.

There are older houses in Portsmouth, but no one so aged could be found, in 1843, which had so well preserved its original external appearance as that on the hill in Islington street, occupied by Miss Mary Martin. The land was purchased by her great grandfather, in 1710, and the house was soon after erected. So that it had stood about one hundred and thirty-two years. It was never clapboarded or painted. Its weather-beaten sides stood the rude buffeting of many a tempest, in proof that plain boards will outstand the age of man even without the application of preservatives. The forest was near it when it was reared,--the branch of the river on its front was unobstructed by a bridge,--and at the head of the creek was a grist and a saw mill in operation. On the south-east, the eye could pass unobstructed to the islands in the river; and in nearly the same direction could be seen the only meeting-house in town, which later than that day, it was voted in town meeting, "shall continue the town-meeting house forever!" How have the obstinate descendants of our worthy sires rebelled against their mandates!

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John Francis' Gold

Though Anthony street does not come up to the Fifth Avenue houses it can claim some residents who are as industrious and as happy as those who dwell in palaces, without half the care and anxiety attendant on high life. There are some localities here, too, which have a historic interest. See this two-story dwelling on the east side of the street, numbered four from Middle street. It sits high, is capacious, and although somewhat dilapidated in appearance, bears marks of once having been a desirable residence. Now for its history.

At the early part of the war of 1812, some American vessels managed to carry on trade, although at no small risk of the owners, for even American flags would not always give protection when any cause of suspicion or doubt arose in the minds of the privateersmen. A vessel belonging to Messrs. Nathaniel A. and John Haven of this port, had made a successful voyage, but before reaching home was overhauled by a southern privateer. Not being satisfied with her papers, she was seized as a prize, and the officers taken on board the privateer. The vessel was manned, and ordered for a port in South Carolina or Georgia. Among the crew was a colored man, bright and active, who was retained on board to aid in taking the vessel into port. This man was John Francis. He not only knew every rope in the ship, but he knew also where the treasures below were concealed. Watching his opportunity, he brought from below the gold for which a cargo had been sold, and in the tub on deck, from which the masts were occasionally slushed, he buried it from sight beneath the greasy mixture which was rarely stirred up. He made himself useful, and aided in bringing the vessel into port. On arriving at the wharf he was permitted to leave. He told them he was poor, and asked permission to take that old slush tub, as the grease would raise him a little change for a day or two. The modest request was granted. He might be seen with that old tub on his shoulder, marching on shore, an object of merriment if not of pity. But John cared for neither. He soon put matters in good trim; fifteen thousand dollars in gold were deposited in the bank, and he notified the owners of the vessel that that sum was subject to their order. In due time the whole amount was realized by the owners, and in gratitude for his faithfulness, the Messrs. Haven built this house for John Francis, and here were spent many years of the life of this honest and devoted negro.

"Domestic relations" being unfortunate, Francis went to New Orleans, and the last we heard from him he was there in a trusty clerkship. Whether dead or alive, the reward of his honesty is visible to all who pass through Anthony street.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
Design © 2001

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