Portsmouth Women: Phebe Hathaway and the Rhode Island Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

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Portsmouth women were active in promoting temperance. There were men in the movement, but much of the work was done by women who had witnessed the evils of alcoholism in their own family. Among the Portsmouth women in leadership roles were Phebe A. Hathaway who worked on the state level and Eunice Greene who organized in our community. ( Eunice’s work locally will be the topic of another blog.)

Phebe A. Hathaway was born on April 14, 1822 in New York. Miss Hathaway spent some time in Portsmouth. The 1870 census lists her as a governess (teacher next to it) residing in Portsmouth in the household of Joseph Macomber. Macomber was President of the Portsmouth Teacher’s Association. From census listings we know she was still in Portsmouth in 1875. The Rhode Island Chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded on January 20,1875. The meeting was held at the Providence Central Baptist Church. Records of the meeting show that there were discussions about whether the word “Christian” in their title might turn some people away. The women voted to keep the word in their title. This may have been the beginning of the WCTU in Rhode Island, but many of the women involved were already involved in temperance efforts. Phebe Hathaway was voted in as one of the two vice presidents. When the group held their annual meeting a few months later, the President of the group resigned and Phebe was elected to that office. Phebe served as President of the state organization for the next two years.

At first members of the WCTU were American born women aged twenty and over. By the end of the century the organization reached out to include foreign born women who believed in the cause. The women took a pledge to abstain from all liquor, wine, beer and hard ciders. They also tried to actively discourage others from either selling or drinking alcohol. They even confronted bar owners and liquor sellers. Alcohol was considered to be at the root of a number of social ills. The Rhode Island WCTU held rallies and distributed temperance pamphlets throughout the state.

In 1874 Rhode Island did pass a state prohibition law against manufacturing or selling liquor except for medicinal purposes. This law only lasted a year and many think it was withdrawn because the state missed the tax revenue alcohol generated. The temperance movement gained popularity in the state and by 1880 the state had fifteen local chapters. At one time the WTCU of Rhode Island had 120 “unions” or branches. There were district conventions and an annual state convention. With the ratification of the 18th Amendment which prohibited liquor nationally in 1919, the reason for the organization no longer existed. Miss Hathaway died in 1886, so she did not see the temperance effort succeed.

Portsmouth Women: Julia Ward Howe, Mother’s Day and other Causes

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Julia in her Oak Glen Parlor

Did you know that Julia Ward Howe was the first to propose a Mother’s Day? She envisioned it as a Day of Peace in protest to war?

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!… We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” ~Julia Ward Howe, 1870
From her Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace
She wrote in Reminiscences in 1914:  “I had desired to institute a festival which should be observed as Mother’s Day, and which should be devoted to the advocates of peace doctrines. I chose for this the second day of June thus being a time when flowers are abundant and when the weather usually allows of open air meetings. I had some success in carrying out the plan. In Boston I held the Mother’s Day meeting for quite a number of years. The day was also twice in Constantinople and often a place nearer home. In Philadelphia we are informed it is still observed as established by Mrs. Howe in June.”

Women’s Suffrage Movement:

Julia was an important organizer for the women’s interests.  In the interest of gaining the vote for women, she helped found the New England Suffrage Association in 1868 and the statewide Massachusetts Women Suffrage Association.  She was in favor of the 15th Amendment which was to grant the vote to black men but not all women.  This was a break with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  She sided with Lucy Stone in founding the American Woman Suffrage Association.  She edited the Woman’s Journal for 20 years.  In 1889 the groups were back together again to support votes for women.  When Susan B Anthony came to stay with Sarah Eddy, she visited Julia at her home in Portsmouth.

Clubs to Promote the Interests of Women:

Julia organized clubs of various sorts wherever she went.  In 1873 she helped create an organization (Association for the Advancement of Women ) to improve education for women and help them enter into professional jobs.  Julia was especially fond of Women’s Clubs.

These are just some of her causes.   She didn’t just support these efforts, she dug in and worked hard for the success of the causes dear to her heart.



Portsmouth Women: Julia Ward Howe and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

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Oak Glen – Julia Ward Howe home

How the Battle Hymn of the Republic was Written – Julia’s Own Words
It was during the second year of the war and I had gone to Washington with my husband and pastor, the Rev. James Freemann Clarke. I had wished many times that I could do something for my country but the way seemed closed. My husband was too old and ill to go; my son was only a boy. The children were young so I could not leave my home for long myself. While we were in Washington there was a great review of troops across the river. We drove to out to see it. While it was in progress there was a dash made against some of the troops by the enemy. It was repulsed, but the review was abandoned, and the troops came thronging back to Washington and we with them. The progress of our carriage was slow, for the roads were crowded with soldiers. To encourage the men we began singing various songs and hymns and they would join the the chorus. After we had sung “John Brown’s Body” Dr. Clarke turned and asked me why I did not write some new words for that music. I replied that I had tried several times, but never could seem to write any good enough. The next morning just about 4 o’clock I woke suddenly. As I lay there in bed the words of the hymn began to form themselves in my mind. I got up and by the faint light of the early morning scrawled them on a piece of paper and then went back to bed and sound asleep again. That is the way the hymn was written. (Saturday Evening Post- as quoted in the Newport Mercury May 30, 1914)

Julia’s words were published in the Atlantic Monthly in February of 1862. Set to music (from John Brown’s Body) it became a rallying cry for the Union. Although it is more of a Christian hymn, the song was used by the anti-slavery and suffrage movements as well.

Portsmouth Women: Julia Ward Howe, Activist and Author

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Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe was a Portsmouth woman of note.  Julia and her family came to Portsmouth every summer from the time of the Civil War to 1910 when she died at her Oak Glen home on Union Street. Both of Julia’s homes in Portsmouth were in the Lawton Valley area.  Julia was intimately involved in Portsmouth life.  She even used to preach at the Christian Union Church (now the home of the Portsmouth Historical Society). The historical society is blessed to have some items from her home at Oak Glen.  Included among them is her writing desk.

Julia had deep family roots in Rhode Island.  On her father’s side she was descended from Roger Williams and colonial Rhode Island Governors.  Julia was born in New York City on May 27, 1819.  Her father, Samuel Ward, was a banker and her mother was Julia Cutler.  Julia Ward Howe was only five years old when her mother died, but Julia seemed to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an author.  She began writing very early and even contributed to the New York Magazine when she was just seventeen.  Through her career Julia wrote poems, plays, travel sketches, essays, stories, book and play reviews.  She is best remembered for writing the poem which was set to music as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”  (More on that topic in the next blog).

She persisted in writing even when her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, discouraged her efforts.  She even had works secretly published so her husband would not know about them.   Julia and Samuel Howe married in 1843. The Howe family lived in Boston where Samuel was a founder of the Perkins School for the Blind.   Julia would have an understanding of the need for women to have more control over their own lives.

On her 89th birthday, Julia Ward Howe made some hopeful comments to her well wishers. “When I remember the cold welcome given to all the great reforms, temperance, anti-slavery, woman suffrage, the higher education of women, etc. – and when I see how largely they have been accepted into the practical program, I feel that life is miraculous. The world is now wide awake to things which 60 years ago saints and philosophers dreamed of but never expected to see.”

Julia was active in all the reforms she mentioned.  She was a voice that commanded attention.  When she died in 1910, her obituary in the Newport Daily News summarized all the aspects of her life. “She was a beauty, social queen, preacher, poet, anchor, a lover of music and all the fine arts and a friend of the oppressed in all nations, a platform speaker of great popularity, the maker of home the gentlest, most ideal and holy to be conceived, a loyal, helping and loving wife, and yet one of the most pronounced of woman suffrage; the friend and intimate of the rich and powerful of earth yet with a heart full of sympathy for the lowly, ignorant and downtrodden, and with pen and voice ready for their defense and uplift.”

In coming blogs we will cover Julia and her Causes (including how she started Mother’s Day) and Julia’s own description of how she wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Portsmouth Women: Ruth “Jolly” Earle – Citizen of the Year

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Ruth Earle in poolRuth Earle’s years of service to Portsmouth’s children was honored in 1973 when she was named “Citizen of the Year.”  She was born in Portsmouth in 1913 to Jethro Peckham and Sarah Anthony Peckham.  Newspaper articles from the Newport Daily News provide dozens of examples of her work in the community.

At the time Ruth was honored in 1973, Ruth had spent  33 years devoted to the Girl Scouts. Since 1934 Ruth served as Troop leader and trainer.  She even went to Venezuela as a trainer.

Many of us in Portsmouth remember Ruth as a fixture at Sandy Point Beach during the summer.  As of 1973 she had spent 25 years with the water safety program.  Ruth taught countless numbers of Portsmouth children how to swim.  She continued teaching swimming and water safety at the Boys Club Teaches in Newport and she taught an adapted swim program at the Howard Johnson Pool for those who needed the extra attention.

Some called her “Mrs. Red Cross” for her dedication to first aid and motor corp of Red Cross.  She went into schools to teach children to appreciate and care for their pets.

Ruth served the adult community in Portsmouth as well.  Her father Jethro Peckham had been town moderator for 19 years and Ruth succeeded him in 1968.  She served two years and was the first woman to hold that town position.   She was active in the Portsmouth Conservation Commission, the Grange, the Portsmouth Historical Society, the National Travelers Club, the Elmhurst Advisory Committee and the American Field Service.  She even served as the Portsmouth Correspondent for the Newport Daily News.

Ruth Earl died in 1999, but she will be remembered for her service to Portsmouth and to our children.

Portsmouth Women: Isabella Fish – Teaching in Portsmouth


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:  http://www.portsmouthhistorycenterarchive.org).   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.

Portsmouth Women: Edith Taylor Nicholson – Pillar of the Community


Taylor family copy

Mrs. Taylor and four of her children

The obituary for Edith Taylor Nicolson is full of glowing praise. She was one of the country’s richest women, she was the owner of Portsmouth’s largest estate (Glen Farm) and she was a benefactor to many institutions. Her philanthropy to local charities was vast. She was a substantial donor to the Newport Community Chest, Newport Hospital, Trinity Church and the Mary Street YMCA among others. Edith was active in the Portsmouth Historical Society, the board of the Newport Casino, the Newport Preservation Society, the Portsmouth Free Public Library and she was one of the founders and early presidents of the Casino Theater. Her contributions to the community are too numerous to count.

How did a New York socialite come to be so involved in Portsmouth and Aquidneck Island life?

Edith was born in 1874 to the family of Heber Bishop, a New York philanthropist and entrepreneur. She married Moses Taylor, a banker and railroad executive, on August 19, 1896 at Trinity Church in Newport. Among the guests were prominent members of Newport society – Vanderbilts, Oelrichs, and Belmonts.

Mrs. Taylor comes to Glen Farm
Moses Taylor’s father, HAC Taylor, began buying land around the Glen in Portsmouth in the 1880s. The Taylor family had a home in Newport on Annandale Avenue, but the Taylor family preferred the countryside of Portsmouth to the high society of Newport. HAC Taylor hired John Russell Pope to design their new home. HAC died before the Manor House was finished.  Moses Taylor and his wife Edith had lost a son in World War I in France.  There are stories that the French chateau style and the broad grass steps of the house were designed to remember the place where their son died. The Manor House was completed in 1923 when Moses and Edith began to come for the summer.

Mrs. Taylor and her Gardens
The architect had encouraged the Taylors to hire the Olmsted Firm to do the landscaping. The founder of the firm, Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the best known landscape designers and the company continued with his sons. The gardens were designed to be at their best in July and August when the Taylors would be in residence.
Fresh flowers were brought to the house every day.  The Taylors had a permanent Garden staff that took care of the gardens while the Farm staff took care of the farm. Edith Taylor was very concerned about the garden plans.  Her rose garden was planted in a circular shape on the lower lawn.  Among the trees listed in the Olmsted archives are lindens, elms, hemlocks, spruce, tulip trees, red and scarlet oaks, larch, purple beech and pines.   Some of the trees were grown in the Glen nursery or brought from Long Island, but some came from the local Vanicek nursery. Mrs. Taylor opened her gardens to public view on several occasions in order to raise money for charity.

Moses Taylor died in 1928 and Edith married G. J. Guthrie Nicholson (a railroad owner) in 1938. Edith became even more fond of the Glen. She continued to add property to Glen Farm and supported fifty families that lived and worked on the farm. Her kindness to these families is well documented. She enjoyed sailing and there was a dock and boat house at the Manor House.  Her 24 foot sailboat (named the “Nieuport”) was anchored off the dock.  When Mrs. Taylor was elderly and no longer sailed, she had a painting of the view from the river along the ceiling of her bathroom.  The Taylors also had a yacht called the “Iolanda ” which they used for foreign travel.  She gave the yacht to the British for use in the war effort in World War II.

Mrs. Nicholson and the War Effort
During World War II the Portsmouth Civil Defense organization was looking for a place a field hospital could be set up and ready if was needed. Edith was chairman of the Portsmouth Chapter of the Red Cross. She converted an unused horse barn built in 1911 for that purpose. Funded by Mrs. Nicholson, an equine maternity hospital became a modern (for World War II standards) casualty center. The harness room became a supply room with the harness cabinets filled with blankets, sheets and other hospital equipment. The first stall had fluorescent lights over an operating table. There were cabinets filled with surgical tools. Across the room was an “ether room” where patients would “come to” after surgery. Each of the six remaining stalls held cots. A Portsmouth resident, Dr. Stanley Hart (a retired commander in the U.S. Navy Medical Corp) was on call 24 hours a day to swing into service if the field hospital were required during war or for the community. The hospital was never needed, but Red Cross workers were trained there and kept at ready. Portsmouth was ready for medical emergencies.

Mrs. Nicholson converted one of the cottages on the farm to be a center for the Red Cross. Local women met there to roll bandages and sew for soldiers. Potatoes and other crops were grown especially to feed soldiers.

After the war Mrs. Nicholson began to auction the Glen Farm herds and wind down activity on the farm. She died in 1959 and portions of the farm were sold by her son, Reginald. Fortunately the Town of Portsmouth was able to buy pieces of the farm and it is used for recreation in the town today.

Edith Bishop Taylor Nicholson can rightly be called a pillar of the Portsmouth (and Newport) community.

Portsmouth Women: Sarah Fish Tucker – Minister


Quaker Meeting House
circa 1700

Sarah Fish Tucker was an accomplished minister for the Society of Friends, but we don’t remember her story. There are many history books that praise the activities of Portsmouth farmers, business leaders and public servants. It is rare to find stories about the accomplishments of women in town. Fortunately for us, Sarah left us her story in a spiritual memoir – “The Life and Religious Experience of Sarah Tucker- A Minister of the Society of Friends.” This is an autobiography and it is available digitally through a number of book sites.

She begins the book with her Portsmouth background. “I was born at Portsmouth, Rhode-Island, the 14th day of the 2d month, 1779, of honest parents, whose names were Preserved and Sarah Fish, both of respectable family but neither of them in religious profession with any denomination at that time.”  Her father had a Quaker background and her mother tended to Baptist beliefs.  She wrote:  “My mind was early, even in my very tender years impressed with a deep sense of good and evil, and
of the reality of a future state in which mankind would be rewarded according to their deeds.”  From childhood she longed for a religious community and she hoped to serve as a minister when she grew up.

When she was sixteen the Methodist tent meetings were popular in Portsmouth and Sarah would have joined the Methodist faith if her father had not interfered.  As Preserved Fish grew older, he was returning to the Quaker faith.  Sarah began to attend Quaker meetings and officially joined them at the age of twenty-one.  She searched for ways to keep her faith and not be influenced by the lifestyle of the young men and women in the Portsmouth community.  The childhood hope to become a minister came back to her.  In 1810 she joined minister Ann Smith in a journey to, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In May of 1813 Sarah married James Tucker, an elder in the Dartmouth Friends meeting.  They were married at her home meetinghouse in Portsmouth.   She and James had three children who lived:  Phebe, Jesse, and Samuel.  She would leave her family to “hit the road” as a “circuit rider” or traveling minister. While she was away one of her children had an accident that left him almost blind.  Whatever the trial, Sarah took it as something that would ultimately make her stronger.   In between her trips up and down the East Coast, Sarah often became very sick – even to death’s door.  If you can understand how difficult it would be for women to travel in those days, it is remarkable that she continued to make her visits to Society of Friends meetings and families.  She always enjoyed returning to her Portsmouth roots as part of her visits.  She seemed to enjoy visiting personally with the families even more than attending meetings.  This personal encouragement was one of the aims of her ministry.

A note at the end of the book by members of her Friends community says: “She was sound in doctrine ; her ministry was weighty and edifying, waiting for the openings of Divine truth, zealously engaged to arouse the lukewarm and indifferent to a deeper indwelling, and to an experimental knowledge of the regenerating power of the grace of God….

In her last days: “She imparted much tender counsel and advice to her children ; and after taking an affectionate leave of her family, she quietly departed this life, the 23d of 3d month, 1840, aged sixty-one, and having been a minister about thirty-seven years.”


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