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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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The South Latin School Closes for War

Yesterday I quoted Harrison Gray Otis on his first day at the South Latin School in Boston. Today I quote his memory of his last day under Master John Lovell, which was the memorable morning of 19 Apr 1775.

In the morning about seven, Percy’s brigade [i.e., the British reinforcement column] was drawn up extending from Scollay’s building [underneath the J.F.K. Federal Building] thro’ Tremont Street nearly to the bottom of the Mall [on the Common], preparing to take up their march for Lexington.

A corporal came up to me as I was going to school, and turned me off to pass down Court St. which I did, and came up School St. to the School-house. It may well be imagined that great agitation prevailed, the British line being drawn up only a few yards from the School-house door.

As I entered School I heard the announcement of “deponite libros” and ran home for fear of the regulars.

Here ended my connection with Mr. Lovell’s administration of the School. Soon afterwards I left town and did not return until after the evacuation by the British in March, 1776.
“Deponite libros”—“Put down the books”—was the way the Latin School masters traditionally ended the school day.

By that evening, Boston was under siege by the provincial militia. On 24 April, Harry Otis’s classmate Joshua Green, Jr., wrote in his diary: “Bro’t my books home from Latin School”—by then it was clear that school would be closed for a while. (Joshua’s diary was published by a descendant in Facts Relating to the History of Groton, Massachusetts, volume 2, of all places.)

Two weeks later, the Greens left Boston to stay with relatives in Westfield. At the same time, the Otis family went to Barnstable, where Harry’s grandfather had a large estate. Most other wealthy families who adhered to the Patriot cause also departed, leaving the Loyalists.

Among those Loyalists were Master Lovell and most of his relations. But his son and assistant, James, was a Patriot. With his wife pregnant and himself suffering from diarrhea, he felt he couldn’t leave. Instead, he arranged for some of their older children to go out, and tried to make himself useful to the provincials. In August, Nathaniel Appleton quoted James Lovell as saying that a return to teaching would be “spending his time idlely schooling the children of a pack of Villains.”

But by that point James Lovell no longer had much choice about where he would spend his time. In late June, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the military authorities had put him in jail on suspicion of spying for the rebels. Chroniclers say that in March 1776 the Lovell family sailed from Boston to Halifax on one ship, Master John as a passenger and James as a prisoner. The Latin School on School Street reopened later that year without them.

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