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The mansion is gone, but
Aldrich's poem lives on

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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.

Atkinson House - Theodore Atkinson - His style of life - Descendants - Legacy to the Church.

As we pass down Court street there is to be seen on the north side, at No. 41, separated by only one lot from Atkinson street, the sad remains of a once handsome edifice. It was erected about a century and a quarter ago, by THEODORE ATKINSON, whose name stands conspicuous in our State history as a Councillor, Judge and Secretary of the Province. He was the son of Theodore Atkinson of Newcastle, where he was born in 1697. He graduated at Harvard in 1718. He returned to Newcastle, where he served as Lieutenant at the Fort for two years. He was then appointed Clerk of the Court and studied law. Up to 1733 he had been the Representative of Newcastle in the General Court, and in 1734 was admitted to a seat in the Council. Probably about this time he built the house on Court street above referred to, was then married, and made this his home to the close of his life in 1779. For many years Col. Atkinson had command of the first regiment; he was also Collector, Naval Officer and Sheriff of the Province. He was also delegate to the Congress at Albany in 1754, and held various other offices of trust. He was a man of great popularity, being of a lively disposition, social and fond of merriment.

In 1746, when John Tufton Mason sold his title to New Hampshire, Theodore Atkinson bought one-fifth of the whole State; that is, of such parts as had not previously been granted or settled.

Col. Atkinson's stable, which was on the north-east corner of Court and Atkinson streets, was furnished with the best horses, and his coach was the coach of the town. His house, though not quite so extensive, was finished on the model of Sir William Pepperell's. The hall and stairway are similar, and it was probably built about the same time. The original Corinthian caps to the columns of the front door were finely executed, and are still in tolerable preservation. We have a relic of the mantle carving, a head forming the cap of a pillar, presented to us by Leonard Cotton, the present owner of the premises.

Col. Atkinson was a man of much wealth, and in this house was probably to be found more silver ware than in any other house in New Hampshire. An old lady who died in 1858, said that in her youth she spent several years in the family, and that two whole days were required to make a general cleaning of the silver ware. An iron-grated closet in the chamber displayed the shining treasure beyond the reach of robbers.

In early times and until about the year 1770, the garden of the Atkinson house was on both sides of the street. The land now covered by the house of T. D. Bailey and the old Stavers house, to Jefferson street, was the front garden of Col. Atkinson.

He gave the name to the town of Atkinson in this State, as a large portion of it belonged to him. The town of Francestown and the adjoining town of Deering, in this State were named for his son's wife, Frances Deering Wentworth ,--not named by him, however, but by Gov. John Wentworth, after his marriage.

Theodore Atkinson died in 1779, at the age of eighty-two years. His wife (Hannah Wentworth, a sister of Gov. Benning) died several years before him. After his death, most of his property by bequest came into possession of Mr. William King of Dover, who added Atkinson to his name and was afterwards known as Hon. William K. Atkinson. The country residence of the latter was on that eminence near the northern end of Piscataqua Bridge, called "Atkinson's hill "--commanding one of the most beautiful prospects in the State. Wm. K. Atkinson married Abigail Pickering, daughter of Judge John P. and sister of the late Jacob S. Pickering.

Hon. Theodore Atkinson left a legacy of about a thousand dollars to the Episcopal church in this city, to be expended in bread to be distributed on Sunday to the poor of the parish. This distribution of more than a dollar's value in bread every Sabbath has now been regularly made for about eighty years--in which time about five thousand dollars have thus been expended, and the well appropriated fund is unimpaired.

As the relation of some rather romantic incidents connected with this locality would occupy too much space for this ramble, we will close it with some extracts from a poem communicated to the Portsmouth Journal by T. B. Aldrich, in 1853. The poet spent many of his youthful days in the house opposite the Atkinson mansion.

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The Old House
By Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Editor's Note: Long before his national fame, young Thomas Bailey Aldrich submitted this poem to Charles Brewster, editor of the Portsmouth Journal. The house, across the street from his boyhood home, is likely depicted in "Diary of a Bad Boy" and appears in Chapter Six (page 88) of Aldrich's history of Portsmouth "An Old Town by the Sea."

The Old House stands alone,
A queer and crumbling pile;
And tho' its shattered gables tell--
Like the vibrations of a distant bell--
Of days and years, mayhap of centuries flown,
I cannot help but smile.

That Old House stands alone,
Over the windows and the oaken door,
There's something in the mouldings that's so quaint;
No knocker rings upon those pannels more;
Some urchin rung it off!
In these degenerate days an urchin is no saint,
But dares to laugh and scoff
At things that bear the holy taint
And impress of the past.

Its windows boast not one whole pane of glass;
And tho' it pains me, let it still be said,
That I have broken many a square, alas!
Nor 'squared accounts' with Cotton, I'm afraid.
I'm grieving now I ever threw a stone,
They used to echo thro' the dismal rooms
With such a mournful, melancholy moan.
Besides, the windows always blushed so red,
When sunset stooped to catch the winged gulls,
Or stripped him, shameless, for his ocean bed;
But now they seem like eyeless skulls
Of some poor mortals dead!

The Old House stands alone;
But years and years ago
Near the east corner an old elm stood;
With time 'twas bent as we've seen some with woe,
Or famed Napoleon in his thoughtful mood--
It was cut down and used for fire-wood.

I saw them fell it--sorry sight to me,
For I had learned to love it tenderly.
I wept the while; my heart was tender then,
And things like those were sorrows deep for me.
They heard me not; it was mine eyes that spake,
My heart that cried, 'Oh, Woodman, spare that tree!'

In that half-rotted elm the Old House lost a friend;
It used to shield it from the snow-storms wild,
And over it with seeming fondness bend,
Just as a mother o'er her sickly child.
There was between that aged house and tree
A sure and palpable affinity.
The elm would bend to it with such an air
Of sweet anxiety and parental care,
That tho' its branches but appeared to creak,
I would not say those branches did not speak.
But it is passed, the loving tree is gone,
The pile remains, decaying all alone.

* * *

That structure seems ideal!
There's such an indistinctness in its form,
I sometimes doubt if really it be real.
So oft its roof hath felt the drenching storm,
So oft it has been danced upon by hail,
That contour seems washed out!
And when I view it 'tis with half a doubt,
As dimly through a veil.

Oh, ancient house, thou puttest me in mind
Of my dear grandmother, who on travel bent
Was always sure to leave something behind.
It seems to me that Time on flight intent
Forgot thee quite, and thus hath left thee
For the prey "of years,"
The food of storm fiends, and to feel the tears
Of cloudlets when they weep.

* * *

When first I oped these eyes, so soon to close,
The antique structure fed my childish gaze;
Its huge brick chimneys like leviathans' arose,
Or tombstones telling of departed days.
It was some six, or full eight years ago,
Those dear delapsed chimneys were removed.
Six or eight years? it hardly seemeth so,
(Not easily I forget the things once loved,)
So fresh comes back the memory of my woe,
When I beheld those chimneys dark and tall,
Tottering as if they knew not where to fall,
Bending like topmasts into a sudden squall,
Reeling like Samson when his eyes were out,
Through my half-blind and aching eyes
Each tear I shed was then about
A three-cent piece in size.

* * *

Ah, that Old House might tell a startling tale,
Could its cracked wainscots and dark closets speak;
One word might make the boldest lip turn pale,
Or send the heart's blood bubbling to the cheek.
Ere I was born, when my grandsire was young,
A legend curious, rather wild withal,
Around that lonely mansion hung;
And at some future time,
Should I possess a quantity of rhyme,
That legend shall be sung.

Those chambers drear, deserted save by storms,
Shall hear again in the pleading lover's sigh;
I'll clutch the past ! bring back its phantom forms,
And light with passion many a sightless eye.

* * *

Oh, let me tell thee one thing, trembling house,
That in thy days of former pomp gone by,
When light feet danced where crawls secure the mouse,
And thy bare walls were hung with drapery--
I tell thee truly--when thy haunted halls
Were scenes of bridal, birth and revelry,
And funeral wails resounded in thy walls,
None in those hours of pain and joy gone by
Could love thee then, more fondly now than I.

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Atkinson House Notes
By Sarah Haven Foster

Bonus Excerpt from
Read more in: When Helen Met Sarah

Atkinson House

This fine old mansion, which resembled in appearance the Pepperrell House in Kittery, was built about 1734 by Theodore Atkinson 2d, Secretary of the Province of N.H., and one of the most eminent men of his time.

When Col. Mason sold his title to the N.H. grant in 1746, Atkinson purchased one-fifth of it. He was very wealthy, and his house was said to contain more silver ware than any other in the state. It was handsomely fitted up, and the grounds embraced nearly all the neighborhood.

Atkinson was an excellent man, and devoted to religion. At his death he left a legacy of over $1,000 to the St. John's Church, the income to be dispense in bread to the poor, which is still done. He died in 1779, and his son having died before him, the property, including the mansion, passed in the hands of a relative, who took his name.

His son Theodore Atkinson, jr. who had succeeded his father as Secretary, died on the 28th of October, 1769, and was buried in great state, and two weeks after , (Nov. 11,) his widow was married to Gov. John Wentworth, her cousin, to whom she had been attached in early life.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
Design © 1999

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