Belle Fish

Newtown School

Isabella Frances Fish was a longtime primary school teacher at the Newtown School on Turnpike Ave.  Her life revolved around class after class of the youngest students in Portsmouth.  The school was located just where the playground is today.  Miss Fish was born in 1858 to Lawrence Fish and Frances Faulkner.  Isabella and her brother William lived in the St. Paul’s Rectory for over 42 years.  It would have been a short walk from her home to her school.  Newspaper accounts show that Isabella (or Belle as she sometimes called herself) was active in the community.  She sang at an 1887 Order of the Good Templars concert, helped stage a comedy called “Brother Josiah” (a benefit for teacher education) and she was regularly an officer in the Teacher’s Association.

In the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society is a group of items that belonged to Miss Fish.  Like most teachers, Isabella kept detailed class records. Some of those record books have been digitized and are available to view in the Digital Archives of the Portsmouth History Center. ( See:   The record books provide an excellent primary source of what schools were like in Portsmouth from the 1880s to the First World War.

The earliest record dates from 1886 to 1889.  The record books do not contain any grades nor do they list the subjects taught.  They are wonderful sources for genealogists because they list the name of the student, their age, their parent’s name and their attendance records.  In the back of the record book the teacher is asked to give information about class size, salary, holidays, journals they read, etc.   Belle lists her education as “Grammar School” in Portsmouth.  The date of her first teacher certificate is listed as November 24, 1885.  This teacher ledger represents the beginning of Belle’s long career in Portsmouth.  Her class size was eighteen students. We are used to children being close in age in any given grade, but Belle’s students ranged in age from five to twelve years old (in the same class).   She lists her salary as $35 per month.  By 1889 class size is 28 students.  The great event described is a Memorial Day program with lists of songs (Soldier’s Memorial Day, the Flag Song), recitations (Susie’s New Hat)  and performances (the Alphabet with twenty three students participating).

The register covering 1906 and 1907 shows an influx of students with Portuguese surnames.  Her 1886 roll had listed one Hispanic sounding name -Pacheo.  In 1906 the names Gomez, Silva, Rosa and Carreiro are listed.  In the 1916 records Bettencourt, De Camara, Meitazo, Oliveria, Viera, Farias, Mota, Rapoza, DeCosta, Victorino, Matose, Cabril, Combra, Soares, Silvia, Costa and Escabar join the rolls.  In 1916 measles was a major problem with at least fourteen of her students listed as home with the illness – all at approximately the same time.  There are 55 students per class and the monthly salary is up to $60 a month.

Belle’s registers give us a good idea of what the school year was like.  Students were at school from August 28 through June 28.  There were four terms for grading.  Among the holidays are Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas (3 days), Washington’s Birthday and Memorial Day.  There were Snow Days and Stormy Days when school was closed and there was a “Visiting Day” when the school was closed so that the teacher could visit other schools.  The registers keep a list of visitors to the school and we often see the name of Mrs. John Eldredge on the list.  Emeline Burke Eldredge was Superintendent of Schools and she served on the school board and school committee for many years.  On one visit she brought her friend Sarah J. Eddy to visit Miss Fish’s class.  Sarah, a champion of the humane treatment of animals, brought materials for the children and teachers concerning caring for animals.

Students with measles

Miss Fish may not have had children of her own, but many generations of Portsmouth students experienced her care as a teacher.