When, in 1750, Governor Benning Wentworth began to rebuild for his mansion at Little Harbor, two miles from the business centre of Portsmouth a farm-house which dated from the latter part of the sixteenth century, he thought more of comfort than of architecture. Evidently those who later added to the house thought as little of architecture as the original builder; the product became such a strange conglomeration of wings and ” L’s ” that it is difficult to see which is the original portion. Once the house contained fifty-two rooms, but a portion has been torn away, and the structure as it stands is not quite so spacious, though still large enough for a hotel. Even the cellar is tremendous, for Governor Wentworth provided there a place for his horses, to be used in time of danger. Thirty animals could be accommodated there.
Many of the rooms are small, but some are of impressive size, notably the Council Chamber, where meetings that helped to make history were held, and the billiard room, where the owner and his associates were accustomed to go when the strain of business became too great.
Longfellow thus describes the house :
“It was a pleasant mansion, an abode Near and yet hidden from the great high-road, Sequestered among trees, a noble pile, Baronial and colonial in its style ; Gables and dormer-windows everywhere, And stacks of chimneys rising high in air Pandian pipes, on which all winds that blew Made mournful music the whole winter through. Within, unwonted splendors met the eye, Panels, and floors of oak, and tapestry; Carved chimney-pieces, where on brazen dogs Revelled and roared the Christmas fire of logs; Doors opening into darkness unawares, Mysterious passages, and flights of stairs, And on the walls, in heavy gilded frames, The ancestral Wentworths with Old-Scripture names.”
While Governor Wentworth was an important figure during the days preceding the Revolution, the mansion is celebrated not so much because of his political service as because of the romance of his second marriage.
Martha Hilton, the heroine of the romance, was ” a careless, laughing, bare-footed girl.” One day a neighbor saw her, in a short dress, carrying a pail of water in the street. ” You, Pat ! You, Pat ! Why do you go looking so? You should be ashamed to be seen in the street ! ” was the shocked comment. But the answer was not what the neighbor expected. ” No matter how I look, I shall ride in my chariot yet, Marm.”
The story of what followed is told by Charles W. Brewster, a historian of old Portsmouth :
” Martha Hilton afterwards left home, and went to live in the Governor’s mansion at Little Harbor, doing the work of the kitchen, and keeping the house in order, much to the Governor’s satisfaction. . . The Governor has invited a dinner party, and with many other guests, in his cocked hat comes the beloved Rev. Arthur Brown, of the Episcopal church. The dinner is served up in a style becoming the Governor’s table. . . . There is a whisper from the Governor to a messenger, and at his summons Martha Hilton comes in from that door on the west of the parlor, and, with blushing countenance, stands in front of the fireplace. She seems heedless of the fireshe does not appear to have brought anything in, nor does she seem to be looking for anything to carry outthere she stands ! a damsel of twenty summersfor what, no visitor can tell.
” The Governor, bleached by the frosts of sixty winters, rises. ` Mr. Brown, I wish you to marry me.’
To whom?’ asks his pastor, in wondering surprise. ` To this lady,’ was the reply. The rector stood con-founded. The Governor became imperative. ` As the Governor of New Hampshire I command you to marry me ! ‘ The ceremony was then duly performed, and from that time Martha Hilton became Lady Wentworth.”
Longfellow’s record of the incident is given in the poem, ” Lady Wentworth “:
“The years came and . . . the years went, seven in all, And all these years had Martha Hilton served In the Great House, not wholly unobserved : By day, by night, the silver crescent grew, Though hidden by clouds, the light still shining through; A maid of all work, whether coarse or fine, A servant who made service seem divine ! Through her each room was fair to look upon; The mirrors glistened, and the brasses shone, The very knocker at the outer door, If she but passed, was brighter than before.”
Then came the strange marriage scene :
“Can this be Martha Hilton? It must be ! Yes, Martha Hilton, and no other she ! Dowered with the beauty of her twenty years, How ladylike, how queenlike she appears ; The pale, thin crescent of the days gone by Is Dian now in all her majesty ! Yet scarce a guest perceived that she was there Until the Governor, rising from his chair, Played slightly with his ruffles, then looked down And said unto the Reverend Arthur Brown : `This is my birthday : it shall likewise be My wedding-day, and you shall marry me!’ ”
Governor Wentworth died in 1770, three years after the coming to America of Michael Wentworth, a retired colonel in the British Army. Mrs. Wentworth married him, and he became the second lord of the mansion. During his residence there Washington was welcomed to the house, one day in 1789.
Martha Wentworth, the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Wentworth, married Sir John Wentworth, an Englishman, and they lived in the old house until 1816, when the property passed to a family of another name.
There are a number of houses in Portsmouth which tell of the ancient glories of different branches of the Wentworth family. Perhaps the most famous is the Warner house, which was begun. in 1718 by Captain Archibald Macpheadris, and was finished in 1723, at a cost of £6,000. Mrs. Macpheadris was Sarah Went-worth, one of the sixteen children of Lieutenant Governor John. Wentworth, and sister of Governor Benning Wentworth. Their daughter, Mary, married Hon. Jonathan Warner, who was the next occupant of the house. The property is known by his name, rather than that of the builderperhaps because it is so much easier to pronounce! The house is now occupied by Miss Eva Sherburne, a descendant of the original owner.
The Warner house has a lightning rod, which was put up in 1762, under the personal supervision of Benjamin Franklin. It is said that this was the first lightning rod erected in New Hampshire.