The Colonial Portsmouth Schoolhouse

(This essay was originally published as “Schoolhouse has survived centuries of change,” by the Newport Daily News on April 5, 2016.)

Believing in “how excellent an ornament learning is to mankind,” the Town of Portsmouth three hundred years ago authorized the building of two schools, the Southermost School and the Northermost School. The Southermost with its original frame posts still stands today at the corner of East Main and Union Streets. The Portsmouth Historical Society claims that it is the oldest schoolhouse in Rhode Island.

Southernmost School

Southermost School today


Founded in 1638, Portsmouth in 1716 had existed for 78 years when the town took the action. Its records show that in that year the Town authorized the building of the two schools, the first schools to be built by the town. Portsmouth at the time probably had close to 700 people, as the census of 1708 indicated a population of 628.

The land for the Southermost was donated by William Sanford, presumably a descendant of John Sanford, one of the original 23 signers of the Portsmouth Compact in 1638. It was to be built near what is today 102 Union Street. The Town authorized the sum of 20 pounds for the project; however, the final cost was 23 pounds.

Six years later in 1725, the schools were actually built. The original bill indicates that it was built by Adam Lawton and a “negro.” The building has simple post and beam construction and contained a cellar, chimney, and fireplace.

Sketch, School, frank-coelho-1940-1.jpg-300x220

Rendering of Southermost School in 18th century


James Preston was hired as the first schoolmaster, and the town allowed him and his family to live in the school’s cellar. Schoolmasters during the colonial period throughout New England were generally men. The curriculum was probably designed to teach the students how to write and also to read, if their parents had not taught them. The texts used were probably the hornbook, primer, psalter, and ultimately the Bible. (The hornbook was not an actual book, but a sheet of paper with written material on it, mounted on a board with a handle. It had a piece of transparent material over the sheet.)

On display in an exhibit at the Portsmouth Free Public Library on early education in Portsmouth is a “200 Year Old List of Rules and Punishments Posted at the Southermost School.” The list brings us back to an age when corporal punishment was the norm. It includes:

  • Climbing for every foot over 3 ft up a tree  – 1 lash
  • Wearing long fingernails – 2 lashes
  • For not saying yes or no sir or yes or no marm – 2 lashes

The list gives us insight into views on gender and the apparent unruliness of boys to girls:

  • Boys and girls playing together  – 1 lash
  • Girls going to boys play place – 2 lashes
  • Boys going to girls play place – 3 lashes
  • Misbehaving to girls – 10 lashes

Fighting and unruliness were clearly disapproved.

  • Quarreling at school – 3 lashes
  • Fighting at school – 5 lashes

Misusing the gift of language was also.

  • Giving each other ill names – 3 lashes
  • Telling lies – 7 lashes
  • Telling tales out of school – 8 lashes

The school may have fallen into disuse as records show that at a town meeting in 1746, the widow Sarah Strange, who had been living there, was ordered to leave so that the school could be renovated and once again used as a school.

In 1863, it was bought at auction by the Almy family, moved to Lakeside Farm on Union Street, and used as a storage and harness shed. In 1952 the Hall family gave the school to the Portsmouth Historical Society (founded in 1939), and it was moved to its current location. Inside the school are various artifacts, including original student desks and examples of the primers, copy books, and textbooks from the colonial period.

For more info, see the website of the Portsmouth Historical Society at: The Society’s building at East Main Rd. and Union St. is open to the public on Sundays, 2-4 pm.

(The author would like to thank Jim Garman for his help in writing this essay.)

Fred Zilian lives in Portsmouth and teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.

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