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Charlestown schools after 1793

By Frank Mortimer Hawes

Since our reference to Samuel Holbrook, schoolmaster of Charlestown (Vol. III., p. 68) an interesting article has appeared in the New England Genealogical Register, Vol. 58, p. 308, which informs us that he was born in Boston, 1729, the son of Abiah and Mary (Needham) Holbrook. His eldest brother, Abiah, Jr., was a distinguished schoolmaster of Boston, from 1741 to his death in 1768 or 1769. Samuel began to teach in 1745 as his brother's assistant, and in 1750 was receiving a salary of £ 50 as usher of the South Writing School. In 1769 he succeeded his brother as master of this school, at a salary of £ 100. In 1770 one Thomas Parker complained that Master Holbbrook had given his son an unreasonable correction, but apparently no action was taken. In 1776 Mr. Holbrook received an extra £ 80 on account of the high cost of living, and in 1777 he was allowed £ 100 for the same reason. He seems to have continued his work in Boston until 1782.

The Memorial History of Boston says: ‘Samuel Holbrook, the schoolmaster, was Town Clerk of Charlestown, 1783.’ There must be some mistake in the date of his death, July 24, 1784, as the Charlestown records speak of him as late as March 5, 1787, when he was still living. His successor, Samuel Payson, was at the head of the town school in 1788. June 1 and November 12 of that year he received his quarter's salary, in the last instance £ 27 15s Od. December 7, 1792, ‘The committee appointed upon memorial of Mr. Payson, the schoolmaster, have attended and find Mr. Payson has lost £ 50 in consequence of being obliged to sell his warrants for less than their nominal value in order to subsist himself and family. They report it is just and proper that the town make good the deficiency.’ Mr. Payson probably continued to serve as town clerk until his resignation from the school, some time in 1800. Samuel Payson, perhaps a graduate of Harvard College, class of 1782, according to Wyman, was in the census of 1789, and came from Chelsea in 1787. He married Grace Webb in 1790, and together they reared a [39] family of children. He became cashier of the Massachusetts Bank, and a trustee of the Charlestown schools in 1802.

During a part of this period George Bartlett appears to have been master of the writing school. Voted, December 6, 1790, that George Bartlett have an order on the treasurer for his bill for ink for the school, 12s 11d. Mr. Bartlett was born October 5, 1760, and was a brother of Hon. Josiah Bartlett, already mentioned. He married Mary Gorham, and one of their family of eight children, Catharine, became the wife of Rev. James Walker, president of Harvard College (Wyman). From 1812 to 1816, inclusive, Mr. Bartlett served on the board of trustees.

December 3, 1792, voted that Mary Rand have an order on the treasurer for her bill for schooling poor children, £ 1 5s Od. This item preserves the name of one of the female teachers of that period.

We are now arrived at a time when Charlestown school affairs are to take on a more modern aspect. In accounting for the change, which was a gradual one, we can do no better than to glean from the records. The immediate cause, it would seem, was a financial one.

May 20, 1790. ‘An examination of the poors' bonds and of the school bonds showed there was a deficiency; to make good the principal in the Bonds belonging to the Schools would require £ 488 18s 8d, and it was voted that this be made good so that the will of donors may be complied with.’ Messrs. James Russell, Richard Devens, and Thomas Harris ‘proposed that a farm in Stoneham, improved by Silas Simonds, and belonging to the town, be appraised and, so far as the sum will go, be taken in part for this deficiency, and that the remainder be taken in real estate or bonds, so that the funds may be kept good.’

October 4, 1790, a committee of three, James Russell, Samuel Dexter, and Isaac Mallett, was given ‘full power to make transfer of the town's farm at Stoneham, so that the fee may rest in the school forever, as they may see fit.’

April 4, 1791, ‘Voted to appoint a committee of seven to consider what further provision is best to be made for the public school and report at the May meeting. The gentlemen appointed were Richard Devens, Esq., Samuel Dexter, Esq., Captain [40] Thomas Harris, John Larkin, Timothy Thompson, Jr., John Bromfield, and Philemon Russell. They beg leave to report it is their opinion that females be admitted into the public school within the Neck for six months of the year, from May to October, inclusive; that their hours of instruction be from 11 to 1 and 4 to 6, from the age of seven or more. That until nine years they be taught reading and spelling. That after that age they be also taught writing and arithmetic, and that reading from that time be considered as including propriety as to cadence, accent, emphasis, and pauses, and that a sum not exceeding £ 50 be granted to provide an usher for the six months aforesaid, of which the other schools are to take their due proportion. That a committee of five be appointed to obtain some suitable person for that purpose, and that in order to promote the best interest of the school and excite a laudable ambition in the scholars, the same committee shall for the year ensuing as often at least as once every quarter visit the school to enquire into the proficiency of the scholars, the instruction and discipline of the school, and to advise with the master respecting the same, and that a committee for similar purposes be annually chosen.’ Voted that the selectmen be the committee to regulate the schools and provide an usher for the school within the Neck for six months. Later it was voted to add Richard Devens, Samuel Dexter, Philemon Russell, and Seth Wyman to this committee.

May 23, 1791, ‘Voted that Captain Goodwin alter the schoolhouse to accommodate it for an assistant master.’ The last named committee was re-appointed in May, 1792.

Evidently there was some doubt as to what constituted the school fund. Some claimed that the Common was the property of the school, and proposed as an investment that a house and barn be built thereon to rent as a tavern. A discussion naturally followed, and a committee was appointed to look into the legality of the matter. Later in the year, in a warrant for a town meeting, we read: ‘To know whether the town will take some measures to place all funds belonging to the schools upon a more advantageous footing than they now are.’ This is the vote recorded: ‘That Hon. James Russell, Richard Devens, Esq., and Aaron Putnam, Esq., be a committee on school funds, and [41] to report at an adjourned meeting the amount of said funds and the best means of placing them at interest, and what the probable income from them will be.’

In December this committee reported the school fund to be as follows:—

Farm in Stoneham, prized at£ 450.
Bonds due from Richard Miller, Jonathan Chapman, and Richard Chapman£ 70. 0.1
Captain Nathan Adams, William Grubb, and Richard Trumbull£ 24. 0.
Captain Benjamin Frothingham£20..6
Lot of land sold to Timothy Wright£ 119. 0.8
Received of Samuel Swan, Esq., for a lot of land belonging to James Kenney, secured by money borrowed of the school fund£ 49. 12.0
Farm at Stoneham, deficient£ 38.18. 8
A certain pasture in Medford£ 90. 0.0

To this may be added the commons which it is proposed to rent; notes due from Nicholas Hopping, £ 51 16s 5d, and from Benjamin Sweetser, £ 26 Os Od, but from these nothing is expected. The committee is of the opinion that the income from the funds will amount to £ 70 per annum. They recommend that a committee be appointed to care for this fund. It was voted to accept this report, ‘and that the same committee be empowered.’

In examining the records the writer must have overlooked the following item, which appears in the Charlestown school report for 1873, where a history of the school fund is given: ‘March, 1793, voted to sell the common, and that the proceeds be vested in funds for the use of the school.’

March 4, 1793, at the town meeting, which adjourned to 3 o'clock in the afternoon, it was moved and carried, that seven trustees be chosen to superintend the schools and the school fund. To the more conservative, and especially to the board of selectmen, this measure may have seemed reactionary in the extreme. For one hundred and sixty years control of all school [42] matters had been vested in that body. But this was the year of the French Revolution!

The same day it was voted that a committee of three be appointed to apply to the general court to have trustees incorporated to superintend the school and the school funds, who shall be chosen annually. The legislature passed the act March 27, 1793, and Richard Devens, Nathaniel Gorham, Josiah Bartlett, Aaron Putnam, Joseph Hurd, Nathaniel Hawkins, and Seth Wyman constituted the first board of trustees of the Charlestown free schools.

April 18, 1793. The town treasurer was empowered to deliver to Aaron Putnam, Esq., treasurer for the trustees, all the moneys, bonds, notes of hand, etc., being the property of the free schools of Charlestown, that now are or may come into his. the treasurer's, hands.

From this time all proceedings of the Charlestown School Board, up to 1814, were recorded by the secretary in a book, known as Volume I. Unfortunately, this valuable record is supposed to be lost, certainly it cannot now be consulted. The selectmen's books furnish us with the annual amounts appropriated for schools, the names of the trustees as they were elected, and a few other items.

Voted May 6, 1793, to raise £ 175 for the schools, in addition to the school funds.

May 12, 1794. The proceedings of the trustees of the schools, with a state of their funds, were read in town meeting. This may be called the first Charlestown school report. The same day it was voted to raise £ 200 for the schools.

May 6, 1795. The second annual report was presented, and the sum of £ 350 was appropriated for the schools. But what is of more interest to us, it was also ‘voted to build a schoolhouse in Milk Row,’ and £ 100 was appropriated, and if there is any surplus ‘it is to be disposed of by the trustees at their discretion.’ The sum named must be construed as generous in the extreme; but the simplicity of the last clause is almost touching. The good fathers of the town were to learn that appropriations for schoolhouses never come out with a surplus. We hear no more of this project until the meeting of May 14, [43] 1798, three years later, when it is voted that the trustees exhibit their account for building the schoolhouse in Milk Row to the selectmen, and if they think it right, that they direct the treasurer to pay them what they have expended more than the original grant for that purpose, and direct the assessors to tax the same.

August 6, ‘98, voted to approve of Mr. Samuel Tufts' bill for building the schoolhouse in Milk Row, and that the assessors be directed to tax the balance, being $241.49, agreeably to a vote of the town in May last. This would make the whole cost of this school not far from $750, or half as much again as the original estimate.

May 1, 1797. After the proceedings of the trustees and their accounts were read and approved by the citizens at town meeting assembled, it was voted to raise $1,166 for the schools. Thus the old order of things was passing, and we are to hear of pounds, shillings, and pence no more. This was the annual appropriation (or more exactly, $1,166.66) until 1801. The amount gradually increased until May, 1806, when it reached the sum of $3,000. It fell off again in 1808 to $2. 000, but by May 14, 1812, again stood at $3,000. May 3, 1813, the sum voted for school purposes was $3,500.

The death of George Washington occurred December 14, 1799. The town records of Charlestown take notice of the event December 26. It was then voted to hold a commemorative service, Tuesday, the thirty-first. As the school children took part on that sad occasion, it seems fitting to include an account of the day in these annals. A detachment of artillery ‘near the monument’ fired minute guns until the procession entered the meeting house, where the exercises were held at one o'clock. Order of the procession:—

The marshal.

The male children, from seven to fourteen years of age.
The public schoolmasters.
The young men from fourteen to twenty-five.
Three military companies.
Military officers.
King Solomon's Lodge of Masons. [44]
The assessors, parish-treasurer, and clerk.
Trustees of the free schools.
The ministers and deacons.
Town treasurer and town clerk.
Magistrates and representatives.
The selectmen.
Band of music. Marshal.
The programme consisted of ‘a dirge on the organ, prayer, a funeral hymn, discourse, funeral ode, the Valedictory of George Washington, Occasional dirge, blessing.’

The entire exercises seem to have been conducted by Rev. Jedediah Morse, D. D., who preached from the text: ‘So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died. His eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the Plains of Moab thirty days.’

March 3, 1800, it was voted that the representative be directed to petition the general court that the Act incorporating the free schools be so far allowed that three of said body shall be a quorum to transact business. At the May meeting it was voted that four trustees be chosen within and three without the Neck. Thereafter this seems to have been the established rule.

In August of this year it is ‘voted to build a schoolhouse of brick on or near the spot in which the schoolhouse within the Neck now stands, for the accommodation of schools, town meetings, and other public business, and that all the other school buildings be put in repair.’ The committee to procure estimates were Lemuel Cox, George Bartlett, Matthew Bridge, Oliver Holden, Thomas Harris. The town proposes ‘to pay one-third the cost at commencement of the work, one-third when completed, and another third at a distinct period to be agreed upon.’ Later the trustees are empowered to dispose of the old school building to the best advantage.

May 10, 1802. Voted $100, to repair the schoolhouse near Alewife bridge, and voted the thanks of the town be extended to Mr. Zabdiel B. Adams for the present of a lot of land at the Neck for to erect a town school upon; and to thank Mr. Daniel [45] Raymond for his present of an ornamental image in the new brick schoolhouse.

We may conclude that the school at Alewife bridge was considerably damaged, probably by fire, for the trustees are given the discretion to repair or to build anew. May 3, 1803, it appears that ‘the expense of building the new schoolhouse in Ward 3 near Alewife bridge, in addition to $100 voted last year, was $400.’

July 15, 1805. Voted to dig a well at east end of the brick schoolhouse, to contain two pumps. There were two other wells in town (for fire purposes) at this time.

July 3, 1812. Voted that the trustees have printed and handed to the citizens by the constables for the May meeting all annual statement of their funds, and a correct amount of moneys expended, in future. This was not an innovation, for there are in existence printed reports signed May, 1801, and May, 1802. The next that has come down to us is for 1813. From the Report of 1801:—

Mr. Payson had unexpectedly resigned, and a Mr. Tillotson was engaged on trial. Unfortunately he fell ill, and the school was supplied by Messrs. Sewall and Rockwood, and afterwards for about the same time, six or seven weeks, by James Pike. Finally Mr. Ashur Adams was engaged. Mr. Blood was in charge of the reading school for young misses, and also gave instruction in English grammar, geography, and the Latin and Greek languages. The trustees flatter themselves that these gentlemen will give reasonable satisfaction to the town. Amount of money received, including $1,000 towards building the new schoolhouse and town hall, $4,124.81. Paid out, $3,--035.10; leaving a balance of $1,089.71, ‘and the trustees are proud to say they owe not a single dollar, to their knowledge.’ The number of scholars, between the ages of seven and fourteen (both sexes), exclusive of those without the Neck, is 347. Of these, sixty-six live above the house of Captain Richard Frothingham. The trustees recommend building a school at the Neck for them. This will require another master. The sum appropriated for the last five years past, where there has been only one [46] master within the Neck, has been $1,666.66. The estimate for the coming year is as follows:—

For two masters, within the Neck$1,091.67
For poor children, education and books125.00
Rent for room, stove, etc100.00
For school No. 2, without the Neck287.00
For school No. 3, without the Neck145.00
For school No. 4, without the Neck145.00
Deducting income of school fund437.85
Leaves to be provided for$1,505.82

Signed by Benjamin Hurd, Jr., Secretary.

On hearing this report the town generously ‘voted $1,650 for schools, not including cost of new schoolhouse.’ From the Report of 1802:—

There will be required $1,650, in addition to the income from the fund for the following purposes: To support the three schools without the Neck, to maintain two masters ‘the year round’ within the peninsula; $150 will be needed for supporting a school on or in the neighborhood of the Neck, and $100 for the children of the poor. The trustees propose that all schools taught by the women, as well as the others, be free schools and supported at the expense of the town; also, that they be under the superintendence of the trustees. This undertaking will add four or five schools for little children to be taught by women, at an additional expense to the town of $1,000. The lot of land given by Mr. Adams is in a very commodious situation near the Neck, and there are enough scholars in that section to constitute a school, and enough below to fill the two public schools by the meeting-house. The trustees recommend building on this lot at the Neck, as a gentleman offers to loan for two years a sum sufficient to erect a schoolhouse.

Signed May 10, 1802, by Benjamin Hurd, Jr., Secretary.

[To be Continued.]

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