Architecture Advocates: Charles Brewster
By J. Dennis Robinson
Even his best friends said he was dull. His two-volume Rambles about Portsmouth remain the most important books about New Hampshire’s only seaport. Yet historian Charles Brewster (1802-1869) was, himself, a shy methodical man, who led a remarkably uneventful life.
Brewster was fascinated by Portsmouth’s colorful past. His nearly 200 collected essays describe the fading colonial capital with its grand and crumbling mansions. Brewster began working for a weekly newspaper at age 16 and stuck to his job for 50 years. He lived most of his life within walking distance of Market Square with his wife Mary and nine children. Disinclined to travel, it is said he walked the 2,000 feet between his office and home enough times to circle the globe.
He would track a new story, a friend said, with the patience and dedication of Audubon searching out a new species of bird. Brewster frequently interviewed senior citizens, some born as early as the 175os, preserving their tales for future readers. He wrote with such style, clarity, and passion, that his work survives today as one of the city’s few published histories
Brewster died as serenely as he lived– in a house just a block from where he was born on Islington Street. “Good-bye,” he told a lifelong friend, “I shall not be alive tomorrow.” He is buried under a copse of trees in South Cemetery.
But he left us invaluable descriptions of local streets, buildings, and the people who occupied them. As editor of the Portsmouth Journal, Charles Brewster published over 2,000 editions without a camera, typewriter, telephone or electricity. Brewster’s stories defined the city with topics ranging from witchcraft to slavery. His description of historic buildings provided the details for the first architectural walking tours–and his words still ring out as tour guides wander the familiar streets today .
J. Dennis Robinson, is the author of a dozen history books including Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, available in local stores and online at Amazon.com. You can follow his history posts on Facebook here.