What books would you think Portsmouth’s first schoolmaster had in his collection? You might guess an arithmetic book and a dictionary. Schoolmaster James Preston had those, but would you think of books for seamen and navigators? We happen to know what books he had because there is a record of the town selling eight books that comprised the library of the ” James Preston, school master, late deceased.”

Preston’s book titles lead me to believe that Preston was trained as a navigator, not a teacher.  Attracting a well trained teacher would have been difficult in the small town of Portsmouth.  Town records show that in 1724 it was voted that “that the schoolhouse erected and built in said town be improved by the freemen of said town and will hire and settle a schoolmaster in each house for the benefit of all children as shall be sent to be instructed therein.”  The Southermost School would serve the children in the south end of the town and the Northermost School would be built to serve the students in the more settled area of the north part of town.   By the next year at least the Southermost School was open.

Historian Edward West was able to go through town records to write an article about Portsmouth’s early schools and schoolmasters.  He found that our first school teachers were mostly poor, had large families and with the little salary they received they had a hard time providing for their families.  West believed that Southermost School was built to house the families of the schoolmasters because it was constructed with an oven in the cellar. West found a mention in the town records that “James Preston (school master) present at this meeting Engaged upon his word that he would Remove himself and his family out of the School House by the first day of September next except the Freemen of the Town should see cause to Improve him to keep school there after the Expiration of said Term.”

Although Preston and his family had lived in the cellar

Southermost School on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society.

of Southermost School, it was clear from the records that they also boarded with parents of students.  Documents show that James Strange had been boarding Preston and his family.  West found records that it was the town’s responsibility to keep the schools in repair, but that the parents of the children who attended the school paid for the expenses of the school.

The town had responsibility for the poor and there were few public buildings to house someone who was down on his luck.  In December of 1727 the Town Council heard that James Preston was sick and helpless.  Two men were appointed to “take care for his relief,” to find a place of residence for him and his family and to provide a nurse for his wife.  All that James Preston had, including his books and his cow, were sold to contribute to his upkeep.  When James Strange refused to house Preston any longer, it was ordered the the family be relocated to Southermost School in the cellar.  By 1729 the Town Council ordered ” that James Preston and his family be removed out of the School house wherein they now live…”  His wife was ordered to “bind out” her oldest children so they would no longer be a burden on the town.

In April of 1730 James Preston died and the town paid for the funeral expenses.  We don’t know what became of his family.  The Southermost School housed other families through the years.  Sarah Strange, who with her husband had turned the Preston family out of her home, found herself inhabiting the schoolhouse in 1746 after her husband’s death.

Credit to the work of Edward H. West:  Early Schoolhouses and Schoolmasters of Portsmouth, Rhode Island.  In the files of the Portsmouth Historical Society

Preston’s books:

Norwoods Epitomy of Navigation, Cockers Decimal Arithmetic, Mariners Compass Rectified, Seamans Kelender or an Ephemerides, The Art of Measuring, Marriners New Calendar, The Great English and Latin Dictionary and Gumbers Scale.