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A dubious achievement, Portsmouth
invents work-houses for the poor

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See nearby York debtor's prison

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.

The earliest Pauper Work-House, 1716--Almshouse on Court street--Clement March and his family--Superintendents.

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Portsmouth Invents the Work House

It may not be generally known, though the fact was stated in the valuable discourse of Rev. Dr. Burroughs at the opening of our new Almshouse in 1834, that in Portsmouth was built probably the first pauper work-house erected in this or any other country. It appears by our town records, that at a meeting held April 9, 1711, it was voted to build an alms-house; and the house was built on the spot where the Temple now stands, previous to 1716, when it was fit to be tenanted. Here paupers were put, and set at work by the selectmen. It was not until 1723 that an act was passed in England authorizing the establishment of parish work-houses, after which time they came into use in the old country, as well as in this.

Up to 1750, Rebecca Austin is the only name that appears as keeper of the Portsmouth Almshouse. In 1750, William Hooker was appointed keeper, who held the office to 1756, when the old Almshouse was abandoned, for the occupancy of the new one that year built on the glebe land, on the present site of our Court House. For the full history of the work-house system and a great variety of other interesting details, we refer the reader to the above discourse, which furnishes an important and very interesting chapter in Portsmouth history.

The opening of the second Almshouse in 1756, presents to our readers a man who in some respects was the most conspicuous in the last century, to whom the management of the house was entrusted for thirty-six years. CLEMENT MARCH was a man of giant size--his height six and a half feet, and his frame well proportioned. His presence was enough to command the obedience of all entrusted to his care. Nor was that presence always necessary--for his grandson, still living, has told us that when a boy he frequently visited him, and so much was the keeper feared by the inmates, that when any disturbance was heard in any room, he would say, "Nat, take my cane there." The boy shouldering the long, mysterious wand, and marching through the room, would restore quiet without saying a word. He was, however, a kind and affable man, and his company was sought for at all merry-makings. In 1758 we find him constituted the north parish constable, and his duty was to keep the unruly boys in and about the church in order, for which he was to receive four shillings old tenor each Sabbath. He was for many years the collector of the north parish, and as sexton for thirty years from 1760 his portly form might have been seen at the head of the funeral processions generally.

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The Men Who Ran the Alms House

Soon after the death of Clement March in 1790, William Vaughan was by the north parish appointed sexton; and the town appointed Deacon John Noble, whose residence had been at the Plains, to be superintendent of the Almshouse. In 1801, Deacon Noble died, and William Vaughan, his successor, was appointed to the superintendency of the Almshouse, which trust was held by by him until 1825, and then John Grant, his son-in-law, was appointed. In 1830, Capt. Robert Neal was appointed. In February, 1835, he resigned, and Capt Hanson M. Hart was appointed superintendent, and held his trust to March 25th following. It was under Capt. Neal's administration, Nov. 12th, 1834, that the inmates were removed from the old Almshouse to the new Almshouse on the town farm.

Col. John Crocker was next appointed superintendent, March 25, 1835, and held his trust till November 15, 1836, when Robert Morrison (our present Mayor), succeeded him. April 7, 1841, he resigned, and John Huntress from that date was superintendent for eleven years. April 23, 1852, Daniel P. Scott was appointed superintendent, and held his trust from that date till April 16, 1856, when William Moses was appointed superintendent. The old Almshouse on Jaffrey (now Court) street, was a two-story building of large dimensions. It was built for L1275, old tenor, expenses of materials, etc., making the whole cost about L3838. It was not only a place of residence and labor for the poor, but it also afforded rooms for transacting town business. There was one room called the Chapel, and another called Union Hall. Here the overseers transacted their business--here the town library was deposited; and at the close of the business year Union Hall, with all its dismal surroundings, had its rich table spread and the fathers of the town, in one good supper, took up the pay for their year's services.

In this house Clement March reared a large family of his own; three sons--John, Nathaniel and Jonas C.,--and four daughters, Margaret (who married Mr. Maloon,) Sarah (who married Barnet Akerman), Hannah (who married Mr. Clark, the father of Joseph and William Clark), and Elizabeth (who married Josiah Akerman).

Jonas C. March became a trader of some note at Rochester, and was the father of John, now a merchant in New York. Nathaniel March, who died in early manhood, was the father of the venerable Nathaniel B. March, now of this city. John March occupied a house on Congress street, fronting the opening of Middle street, on which spot the present house was built by his daughters. In a front projection of the old house was his saddler's shop, where he and his nephew, Nathaniel B. (who was brought up by him), might be seen in their leather aprons busily engaged, while the three side benches were not unfrequently filled with visitors of the highest rank in Portsmouth, and the poor as well as the rich discussing with him the topics of the day, gathering from his experience and apt aphorisms ideas which had no small influence on the administration of public affairs. He was a man of correct life, sound judgment, meek and affable--and of a disposition which placed him among that class of men whom every body called "uncle." He was regarded "a perfect man in his generation," and closed a happy Christian life in 1813, at the age of fifty-five years. He left two sons and three daughters--John, Nathaniel J., Sarah, Catherine and Elizabeth. John was married, and five of his children are now living: John S. March (cashier of the Hide and Leather Bank, of Boston); Martha, widow of John S. Cutts; Sarah, widow of James Nowell; Helen, wife of Moses P. Brown, of Brooklyn; and Catherine, wife of H. M. Whitney, postmaster of Honolulu.

The March family of Greenland is connected with the above, in a distant line.

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Worked Himself to Death

There was yet another March family resident in Portsmouth, in a house in the rear of the present Academy yard, where Hon. John March, of Eaton, was born some seventy years ago. This latter John, who left town early in life, was a powerful man--he could raise with his hands the wheel of a hay cart, when loaded with a ton of hay. He acquired good estate and reputation. His death was caused by over exertion. The grass had been cut on a small field which was disputed property. His hay cart entered the field at the same time with that of the other claimant. Determined to load up as much as possible, he pitched it up with whirlwind speed, throwing up large stacks at a time, and thus he obtained the largest share--but the exertion on a hot day was at the cost of his life--he went to his house and soon expired.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
Concept & Design Copyright © 2000

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