Like most white children in eighteenth-century Boston, George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742-1840) learned to read at a couple of private neighborhood schools. He told his 1835 biographer about learning from “Mrs. Tincum” and “Mother McCleod.” Then about age seven he went off to the Queen Street Writing School, kept at the time by Master Samuel Holyoke.
But young Hewes wasn’t always diligent in his attendance, as this anecdote from Traits of the Tea Party shows:
He had been late or absent one morning, when his mother, at his request, gave him a note to “the Master,” which was the usual mode of escaping punishment for such an offence.About 1752, the Queen Street school was closed because of a smallpox epidemic. Eventually it reopened, but young Hewes never went back. His schooling was over.
She complied readily, and he went on his way rejoicing, till, as he passed by the house or shop of his uncle Robert—for whom he was named, and always a great friend of his—he was questioned a little about his late hours, and called in. “Well, Bob, what’s that you have in your hands?” asked the good man, as he was sending him off again with a word of advice.
The lad offered the paper for inspection. His uncle questioned him farther. He told all the truth of the case, as usual, without hesitation, confessing his misdemeanor, but rejoicing in his “excuse,” which, however, turned out to be a request for Master Holyoke to give poor Robert a sound whipping, duly signed by Abigail Hewes herself.
He began to cry, and his uncle began to write. He gave him another paper, differently worded, and every syllable of which he was to remember to the last hour of his life.
“Well, Robert,” said the good lady when he returned, “what did the Master say to you?”
“Nothing, ma’am—only to sit down.”
“Only to sit down! was that all?”
“Yes, ma’am!” said the boy, pulling his hat a little over his eyes.
The old lady pondered the matter a moment. “Did you call at your uncle’s, Bob?” said she.
“Ah-ha! you did, indeed! Well, remember this, Bob, if you run away again, I shall go to school with you myself.”
(Portrait of Hewes at age 93 courtesy of The Bostonian Society.)