The namesake of the New Castle NH school, Maude H. Trefethen, taught for 51 years


J. Dennis Robinson

Almost a century and a half after her birth, Maude Hayes Trefethen’s name still rings the school bell. Born in 1874, the year the first Wentworth Hotel opened, “Miss Maudie” taught elementary school in the small island town of New Castle for 51 years. His tenure spanned from 1895, just before the Spanish American War, to the year following World War II in 1946. Six years later, the only school building in New Castle was named in his honor. But who was Maude Trefethen?

The answer is sketchy at best. The New Castle Historical Society, housed in the old town library that was previously a church, includes a rare full-length photograph of the fashionably dressed young woman. Her hair is long. She seems calm and determined. A second photo shows the teacher with her class of 17 dark “first cycle” students standing in front of the town’s old wooden school in 1898. In a similar photo from 1911, with her hair up, Maude is wearing a white shirt, a stiff white collar, and a black tie. The archives then jump decades ahead on a tall, elderly woman a few years before her death in 1956.

A full-length photograph of fashionable young Maude H. Trefethen who taught early years at New Castle from 1895 to 1946.

Of the few photos we have, with one exception, Maude Trefethen is far from smiling. And in this Victorian-era portrait, taken in a studio in downtown Portsmouth, it’s her eyes that provide a cheerful glow. Without a commemorative tribute or, apparently, even a published obituary, we can only assemble a brief biography from the few pixels of data in the Portsmouth Herald’s online archive.

Island school

But first, let’s quickly read a brief history of early education in New Castle. According to historian Anna White, elected officials on the Big Island planned to build their first school building on land “near where the stocks are” in 1669. The school opened for “illiterate youth. and educated “on the island soon after. The program, suggests White, probably came from a wooden “hornbook” printed with the letters of the alphabet, Roman numerals, and the Our Father.

A portrait of Maude H. Trefethen (1874-1956) who was born, worked as a teacher, retired and died in New Castle.

The boys attended classes in the morning and the girls in the afternoon and summer. Teachers came and went. Classes sometimes functioned as a “Dame School” in which a woman, possibly a widow, was allowed to live in the building in exchange for her job. In the early 18th century, educators, including Mr. Sampson Sheafe, could be paid in salted fish, as was customary with the ministers of the Isles of Shoals. Teachers often had to supplement their meager income by cultivating a dedicated plot of land.

New Castle’s Second School was a small, two-story structure on the site of the town’s current post office. Built in 1823, this is where Miss Maude reigned supreme among elementary school students (grades 1-4) for 51 years. His saying, according to Anna White, was “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say A WORD!” In the early 1900s, Maude Trefethen was paid $ 13 per week or $ 185 for each quarter of 15 weeks.

An “upper school” for grades 5-8 was built in 1849 on Cranfield Street. Both school buildings were equipped with a pot-bellied stove, blackboard, desks bolted to the floor, inkwells and outhouses. High school teachers, usually very young women fresh out of “normal school”, came and went quickly. Corporal punishment was not uncommon among the “big boys” who attended high school. “You put them on,” a local parent reportedly told the teacher, “and when they get home, I’ll put them on a bit more. “

Maude Trefethen taught students in a small wooden schoolhouse built in the center of New Castle, on the site of the modern post office, for 51 years.  Built in 1832, the building featured a pot-bellied coal stove, blackboard, and outhouse.  This photograph dates from 1911.

Memory of Miss Maude

Islander Gene Morrill turned 5 in January 1930, when Maude Trefethen was in her 35th year teaching grades 1 to 3. There was no first grade in town that year and no kindergarten, Morrill later recalled, so he and four other 5-year-olds became grade one. Miss Maude’s class included her desk, a piano, an octagonal wall clock, a pot of fresh water, a pot-bellied coal stove, and the obligatory portrait of George Washington.

The school bell drew its current from large batteries. The older kids upstairs had a Victrola radio, globe and hand-cranked record player, Morrill recalls. There was also a series of rolled up maps that lowered like a blind to show the United States, Europe, the world, and a WWI battle plan.

In a brief essay written for the historical society, Morrill described Maude Trefethen as “a maternal lady … gracious and caring” who never married. “There has never been a problem with discipline in the primary classes,” he wrote. “Mademoiselle Maude was so esteemed that her word was our law. Every now and then she taught us how to avoid delays, whisper or keep our desks clear. Punishments were infrequent, but when it was necessary they consisted of lowering our heads on outstretched arms on our desks, a position we stayed in until we were told to sit down.

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After 51 years of teaching in a rough wood school, Maude Trefethen retired after World War II.  She was able to attend the inauguration of the current brick New Castle school building, named in her honor, in 1952. She died in 1956.

Pieces of a life

The following brief glimpse into Maude Trefthen’s life, cobbled together largely from newspaper clippings, may be wrong, but it’s a start. She was born in New Castle in 1874 to William and Izette Neal Trefethen. Her father, who lived to be 98, may have served at Fort Constitution during the Civil War and may have performed in the town’s military band late in life. Her mother, whose date of birth is unknown, died in 1887, leaving 13-year-old Maude with two older siblings, Judson (born 1863) and Bernice (born 1869).

Hired as a teacher in 1895, aged 21, Maude H. Trefethen is also among the employees of George B. French’s haberdashery on Market Street in Portsmouth. One of the Portsmouth Herald’s largest and most regular customers for decades, French’s sold everything from rugs and coats to corsets and cut glass. Big business ads described French’s as “Portsmouth’s most complete store” and “the quality store”. Maude’s haute couture outfits, as seen in the first photographs, indicate that she was a summer employee here. In 1910, she attended a Geo store girls party. B. The French store.

There were many Maudes and many Trefethen in Portsmouth at this time, including another Maude Trefethen “from Portsmouth” who then worked at an institute for the blind in New York. But it’s clear from the Herald’s social notes that our Maude was both deeply involved in the Girls Club and occasionally visiting her sister in Boston.

In March 1923, according to two newspaper articles, Miss Maude walked her students from New Castle Elementary School along snow-covered roads and bridges to Portsmouth, where they attended a lecture illustrated by the famous author for children Thornton W. Burgess. It was, Burgess commented, the biggest compliment he had ever received. “To say [the children] appreciated, that’s an understatement, ”reported The Herald.

Miss Maude filled her students with a love of music. His little “Rhythm Band” consisted of one or two horns, a snare and a bass drum, metallic triangles and a lively rhythm kept by first graders banging drumsticks together. Its “little people” dressed in matching uniforms performed like a large orchestra, accompanied by a miniature conductor. His little chorus sang “Newcastle by the Sea”. We also see evidence that their teacher played the piano at local dances and the organ at the congregational church.

In 1930, the teacher accepted a collection of South American butterflies mounted in a display case, offered to her students. In 1935, she published a personal note thanking her students for the gifts honoring her 40th year of teaching. A decade later, the city voted to grant Maude two-thirds of her annual salary when she retired the following year. His career was over, but his legacy would live on.

In his honour

The need for a new school building was long overdue. In 1951, the Town of New Castle envisioned a prime plot of land at the intersection of Portsmouth Avenue and Cranfield Street. Portsmouth attorney Charles M. Dale, however, claimed to own the property. Dale, former Mayor of Portsmouth and Governor of NH, is perhaps best known as the lawyer who “broke the will” of Charles Prescott. On his deathbed in Pennsylvania, Charles had donated $ 3 million to the hospital where he died. Her sisters, Mary and Josie Prescott, challenged the will. They hired Dale to collect the money, which he did, for a significant fee. The Prescott sisters, both teachers in Portsmouth, then bought up much of the “ravaged” South End waterfront and established Prescott Park. Dale was also strongly opposed to the creation of the Strawbery Banke Museum, a project he called “a pig in a poke”.

Maude Trefethen, ironically, was part of a small group that claimed to own the same land – and planned to donate it to the city. New Castle officials seized the land by eminent domain. In less than two weeks, the city voted an additional $ 8,000 to the $ 40,000 already accepted to begin construction on the new school, and construction began.

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“Virtually all of the residents of this island community turned out” for the dedication of the Maude H. Trefethen school in January 1952, the Herald reported. Miss Maude and three generations of her students attended the opening ceremony at the end of August. A state official addressed “the bustling crowd of mosquitoes. A speaker recalled the way Miss Maude had treated annoying students: “As much as I love you, you can’t do that,” she used to say.

During her retirement, sitting on the porch of the house where she was born, a journalist asked Miss Maude why she had done so well in half a century of teaching. “I’ve never met a kid I didn’t like,” she replied.

Copyright 2021 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Dennis is the author of a dozen history books on subjects such as the Strawbery Banke Museum, The Music Hall, Privateer Lynx, the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. Her first historical detective novel, “Point of Graves”, is due out this fall. He can be contacted at [email protected] or visit online.


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