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From British hotel to Patriot
tavern -- this building survived

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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.

Learn more about the William Pitt Tavern

Earl of Halifax hotel--Meetings of Royalists--Mob assault--Mark Noble injured--Staver's escape--John Langdon--French fleet--Distinguished visitors--Lafayette--Louis Phillippe--Washington.

BEFORE us on the south-west, as we stand at the intersection of Court and Atkinson streets is the ancient three story mansion, now, although very well preserved for a building in its ninetieth year, possessing no very inviting aspects. When it was erected, buildings of three stories were few and far between. So late as 1798, of the six hundred and twenty-six dwelling houses in Portsmouth, eighty-six were of one story, five hundred and twenty-four were of two stories, and only sixteen of three stories. The general style of building large houses up to the time of the Revolution was with gambrel roofs--but so far as our investigations have extended but few of that class were built after the Revolution. So when the reader wishes to pick out the old houses which have stood for eighty years, he may safely regard the gambrel roof houses as older than the American Constitution.

Many of the present age have doubtless passed this old building on Court street without regarding it any more worthy of note than a hundred others in the city, and but few know that it has historical associations which entitle it to pre-eminence.

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The Earl of Halifax Hotel

In our last ramble was given some account of John and Bartholomew Stavers, who more than a century ago came to Portsmouth from England, and by close application to business acquired property. John was an inn-keeper. His first hotel was on Queen street, under the sign of the "Earl of Halifax." Having acquired a sufficient sum to warrant the enterprise, in 1765 he purchased of Hon. Theodore Atkinson this lot directly in front of the Atkinson residence (the old house now half demolished.) In 1770 the new hotel was completed, and thrown open for the accommodation of genteel travellers. On a high post which was planted near the north-east corner of the hotel, was put up the favorite sign of the "Earl of Halifax," which had become as necessary as the proprietor's name to give popularity to a hotel, which was then to Portsmouth what the Revere is now to Boston, and the St. Nicholas to New York. Such spacious accommodations for man and beast. In proof of the latter, is the stable now standig in the rear of the house, on the corner of Jefferson street, a marvel for its capacity even in these times. It was the stable not only for the horses of the travellers, but also of those that bore the "Flying Stage Coach" once a week to Boston and back, and the repository of that rare vehicle every week from Saturday night to Tuesday morning.

In the upper room of this hotel the Masonic meetings of St. John's Lodge were for several years held. The Grand Lodge of New Hampshire also met here. But these were not all the exclusive meetings held in the hotel. Mr. Stavers being an Englishman by birth, the distinguished travellers from abroad put up with him, and the hotel was in some degree regarded as under foreign influence. In 1775, when the troubles with the mother country began to assume a threatening aspect, the "Earl of Halifax" hotel was regarded with a jealous eye. It continued to be made a place of resort by those who had for years frequented it, and as the transactions of the ruffled and laced government officials in the back rooms were little understood by those out of doors, no very good construction was placed upon them. Whether or not a tory spirit was nurtured there, is not for us at this day to say;--but frequently as the spirits in the decanters became depressed and the spirits around the table became correspondingly elevated, the noise from the company would sound rather too loyal to the listening patriots. It was a day when the light of the Revolution began to gleam in the distance, and it must have been a matter of no small anxiety with the officers of the crown to show to their sovereign a loyal deportment, or put at risk not only their emoluments of office, but also peril their necks.

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Axe Attack: Revolution on the Doorstep

These private meetings at the "Earl of Halifax" hotel were regarded with a jealous eye by the Sons of Liberty, and one day as a company of recruits was passing down the street, the leader, Capt. Hopley Yeaton, threatened that if any one looked out from he hotel, the windows should be smashed. None appeared, and the company passed on. The threat was probably given for a pretence to assail the hotel; for, a few days after, a mob gathered around the premises, and an axe was heard cutting at the foot of the sign-post. The irritated landlord, Mr. Stavers, gave an axe to his black slave, and commanded him to warn the invader, and cut him down if he did not desist. The slave dare not disobey one whose word was law--and gave a blow directly upon the head of Mark Noble, which brought him to the ground. Noble survived--but was an insane man for the forty years he afterwards lived. The mob soon collected around, the black fellow retreated, the sign was brought down, and a general assault was made with stones and brick-bats upon the house. Every window on the street was broken in, the house was left in desolation, and the visitors escaped as they could find opportunity.

The affrighted slave immediately disappeared. Search was long made for him, and at length in a large rain water tank in the cellar, which extended nearly up to the ceiling, he was found standing up to his chin in water. Mr. Stavers did not feel safe within the reach of the mob, so taking a supply of gold in his pocket, he hastened by the back door to his stable, bridled his little black mare, and without waiting for a saddle, made a speedy exit through Jefferson street, for some place of safety, (where, he knew not,) until the excited feelings of the populace should subside. It was soon noised abroad that he had fled, and two men went on horseback in pursuit. After passing through Greenland they came within hail of him, and called upon him to stop. This quickened his pace, and he was soon, by a bend of the road, out of their sight; and turning suddenly into a barn in Stratham, open by the road side, his pursuers were permitted to go ahead. In Stratham he quartered for a fortnight with William Pottle, Jr., a man who had usually supplied his hotel with ale.

The affair soon put the town in commotion, and John Langdon, with other leading patriots of the day, repaired at once to the Hotel. As Langdon entered the north-east parlor, one of the mob had just raised a chair to dash in pieces an elegant mirror. Langdon seized the man's arm and holding him firmly said--"Stop, young man, you must have a dash at me first--you may perhaps be doing more harm than good."

By judicious management, Capt. Langdon quieted the excited feelings, saved the house from being demolished, and through his influence in due time Mr. Stavers was induced to return. After returning to Portsmouth, he was seized by the committee of safety, and conveyed to Exeter jail. He was opposed personally to taking up arms against his own countrymen, but willingly took the oath of allegiance, and was released on the assurance that he would in no way oppose the effort to procure independence. Mr. Stavers soon had all suspicions of toryism removed, and enjoyed that share of confidence and support to which as a good citizen he was entitled.

The ravages of the mob had been of material injury to Mr. Stavers, and he did not immediately repair his hotel. The windows were for some time boarded up, and many of the distinguished officers of the Revolution have feasted in those rooms with scarcely a pane of glass in the windows. At length the hotel was fitted up--the old sign retouched, and the name of "William Pitt" took the place of "Lord of Halifax." This sign was placed against the side of the building and remained there until about fifty years ago. This sign gave the name to Pitt street.

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Distinguished Tavern Guests

Now comes another scene. It is 1782, the French fleet is in our harbor, and eight of the principal officers in white uniforms, take up their quarters at the sign of "William Pitt." Who is this young and handsome officer now entering the door of the hotel? It is no less a personage than the Marquis LAFAYETTE, who has come all the way from Providence to visit the French officers who are here boarding. Here was the scene of their happy meeting, which was enjoyed with all that enthusiasm which characterizes the habits of the French. Forty years elapsed between this and LAFAYETTE'S last visit to Portsmouth, which changed his raven locks to gray hairs, and his buoyant step to the infirmities of age.

Who is this alighting from his coach, dressed with so much taste and attended by his servants--to take up his quarters here? It is one whose name stands out on the Declaration of Independence, like the pencilings of a thunderbolt on a clear sky--JOHN HANCOCK truly. Here, too, is the place where ELBRIDGE GERRY, RUTLEDGE, and other signers of the same immortal instrument, have found a cordial welcome. And General KNOX, that stalwart man, who was two officers in size and three in lungs, here many times found such a resting place as his heavy frame required.

Who are these three young men with their servant, standing at the door politely bowing and asking, on the recommendation of Gen. Knox, for accommodations? It is in the time of the French Revolution, and here stand three sons of the Duke of Orleans--LOUIS PHILLIPPE and his two brothers. The hotel is full and the future King of France bows and retires, to take quarters with Governor Langdon. Louis Phillippe ever remembered that visit to Portsmouth. When on the throne in France, he made enquiry of a Portsmouth lady who had obtained an introduction, "Is the pleasant mansion of Governor Langdon still standing?"

One scene more. It is 1789: General John Sullivan, the President of New Hampshire, and his Council, are here convened. There, coming down Pitt street, on foot, is the noblest guest that ever honored any American hotel by his presence. He enters this very door, and GEORGE WASHINGTON, President of the United States, here makes his final complimentary visit to our State authorities. This is the last spot where the father of his country personally complimented our State, through its official dignitaries. That circumstance, if no other of the interesting incidents connected with the history of the "Earl of Halifax" and "William Pitt" hotel, should give value to its ancient frame so long as it may stand. As a note of its past history, the picture of William Pitt, the friend of America, should be again restored over the door, that the interesting events of the old hotel may be kept in lasting remembrance.

See official tavern page on Strawbery Banke web
(press BACK to return to SeacoastNH)

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