J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Latin School Entrance Exam

Master John Lovell (shown here, in an image from the 1886 Catalogue of the Boston Public Latin School) didn’t let just any child into Boston’s South Latin School in the decades before the Revolutionary War. No, a child had to be male and white. He had to be old enough—usually seven years old. He had to read English already. And it helped to be prompt.

Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) recalled the admission process in a letter he wrote to a Boston newspaper in 1844, which was quoted in the Catalogue:

I perfectly remember the day I entered the School, July, 1773, being then seven years and nine months old.

Immediately after the end of [Harvard] Commencement week, I repaired, according to the rule prescribed for candidates for admission to the lowest form [i.e., the youngest class], to old Master Lovell’s house, situate in School Street, nearly opposite the site of the old School House. I was early on the ground, anticipated only by Mr. John Hubbard, who lived near—it being understood that the boys were to take their places on the form in the same routine that they had presented themselves at the house.

The probationary exercise was reading a few verses of the Bible. Having passed muster in this, I was admitted as second boy in the lowest form.
Throughout their scholastic career, the boys were seated according to their class rank. That made it clear to them and everyone else how well they were performing. Thus, ambitious young Harry Otis kept careful track of his ranking, and might have resented John Hubbard for living close enough to Master Lovell’s house to get an early lead.

In fact, lists kept by Master Lovell and his son and by classmate Joshua Green, Jr., show that Harry was initially ranked third or fourth, behind an unidentified Lovell, Hubbard, and Samuel Taylor. But by the end of 1773 “H. G. Otis” was at the head of his form, and probably stayed there until the Revolution began.

Jonathan Homer (1759-1843) had a different reason to feel miffed about this admission process because the Lovells turned him away, probably for being too young:
At the age of six and a half years, I was sent to master John Lovell’s Latin School. The only requirement was reading well; but, though fully qualified, I was sent away to Master [John] Griffith, a private teacher, to learn to read, write and spell.
Homer returned to the South Latin School the next year, went on to Harvard, and became a minister in Newton, where Homer Street starts (or ends) at the site of his church.

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