Woodcut of historic Ipswich Town HillStories

A Sunday at Old Ipswich

John Ross Dix

In 1846, British writer John Ross Dix (1811 – 1865) visited Ipswich and recorded his observations in “Local Loiterings, and Visits in the Vicinity of Boston, by a Looker-on“:

“It is a pleasant thing occasionally to leave the great city – the brick and mortar Babylon — and go forth into some quiet village, where the everlasting hum of commerce is unheard, and the crowd of idolaters who incessantly bow down to the great idol, ‘Mammon,’ is unseen. Especially delightful is it, to me at least, on the last day of the week, to repair to some primitive village, and there, ‘When the loud wagon is laid by, And wearied beasts rest quietly,’ spend the sacred Sabbath hours.

“In the country there is a quiet calm, above, beneath, and all around, which soothes the often-vexed mind, and tranquilizes the spirits which may have been bound down by the strife and turmoil of the six weary working days which have preceded it. I do not refer at all to places where holiday folks resort, peopling the privacy; but to quiet, almost out-of- the-way country hamlets or villages, of which few think, save those whose interests are bound up with them. Such a place is old Ipswich, and a friend having assured me that my antiquarian predilections would be gratified by a visit to it, I left Boston by the Eastern Railroad cars Saturday evening, and after an hour’s ride arrived at the town station.

“There are few places (by-places I mean, of course, towns or villages,) in America which in reality have any claims to antiquity. What is called an old house here, would be almost modern in England; but so far as I have yet observed, Ipswich certainly has the most of venerability about it in appearance.

“After a cheerful repast at the house of the pastor of the First Religious Society, a friend accompanied me in a stroll through the town, and a pleasant walk we had, in the bright moonlight, down the High, or as it is called more generally, ‘Pudding Street’, from the circumstance of a frolicsome set of young fellows having once upon a time taken some hard-boiled hog’s pudding from an old woman’s kettle, and played football with it down the street.

“There seems to be in Ipswich quite a rage for nicknames, for many of its inhabitants, I was informed, are better known by some soubriquet than by their own proper designations. This propensity to calling things by other names than the proper ones, also extends to the hills and valleys round about, as I shall have occasion to notice.

“As we walked down the town, the quaint appearance of the houses struck me very forcibly – very different were they from those in most of the New England towns. They had pointed gables, and irregular slanting roofs; and in many of them the upper stories projected considerably over the basement apartments, in some such a way as the old houses are built at Chester, and in some of the old cities in England. They were usually decorated with red or brown paint, and had in consequence a somber appearance, which contrasted strikingly with that of a few jauntily-painted modern cottages in their neighborhood, which shone in all the glory of white fronts and green shades,

The Ipswich jail on Green Street
The Ipswich jail and lunatic asylum on Green Street was taken down in 1933

“The Sabbath morning was bright and beautiful, as if a ‘bridal between earth and sky’ had been celebrated at early dawn, and all creation was yet rejoicing at the happy union. At half-past eight the bell of the Lunatic Asylum, a large red brick building, close to which is the jail, swung out, and gave sonorous intimation that service was about to be held there.

“I repaired to the chapel, and seated myself amongst the melancholy congregation. Melancholy indeed, for besides the casual visitors, and the lunatics, it consisted of men of crime, prisoners from the adjoining jail. The service commenced by a hymn being given out. It was distinctly sung by the choir, and the doleful tone I thought more calculated to depress the mind than to enliven or distract it. Then followed a prayer and a sermon, during which the mad people indulged in all sorts of antics, which it was at once amusing and distressing to witness. One poor creature, just before me, sat all the time in an attitude of the deepest dejection, his head bowed down, and his hands clasped together. I never witnessed such an incarnation of misery.

“Near me a man indulged in the most grotesque contortions of face; a third, a little way off, amused himself and those around him, who seemed to look with compassion on their brother madmen, by playing unheard tunes on an imaginary instrument. Many of them yawned prodigiously, and frequently an exclamation as if of impatience, or an oath would burst from the lips of some present. As soon as service had concluded, they leaped from their seats in a moment, as if the confinement had been very irksome to them, and quickly left the chapel.

“There are several churches in Ipswich. The principal one is that of the First Religious Society, under the pastoral care of the Rev. D. P. Kimball. Previously to the commencement of the service, I ascended to the tower of this old building, and from the bell-gallery had a fine view of the country round. Far away was the ocean, gleaming in the sunshine, and towards it, crept like a silver serpent the pretty and picturesque Ipswich river, crossed by its ancient bridge. A little way off was Heartbreak hill, a place to which some story of true love, whose course, it would seem, did not run smooth, gives its name. Nearer was Love Lane, and the Lover’s Fountain.

“Away in the distance were seen hamlets and towns, dotting the green landscape; indeed on every hand were scenes of verdurous beauty. But the bell gives note of preparation; and lo! from a hundred hones come forth young and old, grave and gay; and in the peaceful summer calm they approach, singly and in groups, towards the sanctuary.

“Let us enter. It is an old place this, with its square pews, in which are straight high-backed chairs, so characteristic of a former generation. The galleries are deep and elevated from the floor, more than is usual in modern erections. And what a monstrous pulpit! Big enough for a minister of “forty-parson-power”. Look at the twisted railings of the banisters; the quaint panels; and above all, do not, indeed you cannot, fail to observe the mighty sounding-board, which is as big as the canopy of an ancient bedstead, and quite as elaborately carved.

“Over the preacher’s head, on this sounding-board, is a star which is splendidly gilt; this star had a companion at one time, to keep it in countenance, in front of pulpit; but a strict deacon, fancying, perhaps, that the only star of the pulpit should be the preacher, had, some years ago, the gold scraped off! The interior of this pulpit is so capacious that a whole Presbytery could find room enough and to spare’ in it; indeed, I think a parsonage house to its occupant would be quite a work of supererogation.

“The Rev. Mr. Kimball, who has labored in Ipswich for many years, officiated. On the conclusion of the service I walked forth on the green, and whilst sitting on a piece of rock, which Whitefield once occupied as a pulpit, looking, as an old man of the village said, ‘like a flying angel,’ I read from a pamphlet entitled, ‘The Simple Cobbler of Agawam in America,‘ some curious particulars respecting the old church and its founders.

Simple Cobbler of Ipswich by Nathaniel Ward

“A note to this ‘Simple Cobbler,’ which was written by the Rev. Nathaniel Ward, the first pastor of the church, consists of the following extract from Johnson’s Wonder-working Providence of the Lord, printed in London in 1638, respecting the 9th church of Christ, gathered at Ipswich:

‘This year (1635) came over a further supply of eminent instruments for furthering the admirable worke of his, amongst whom the Reverend and Judicious servant of Christ, Mr. Nathaniel Ward, who took up his station at the Towne of Ipswitch, situated on a faire and delightful river, in the Sagawamship or Earldom of Aggawam. The peopling of this town is by men of good ranke and quality, many of them having the yearly revenue of large lands in England before they came to this wilderness, but their estates being employed for Christ, and left in Banke, as you have formerly herde, they are well content till Christ shall be pleased to restore it again to them or theirs. Their meeting-house is a very good prospect to a great part of the towne, and beautifully built. The Church of Christ here consists of about one hundred and sixty souls, being exact in their conversation, and free from the epidemical diseases of all Reforming Churches, which under Christ is procured by their learned, pious, and orthodox ministry, as in due place (God willing) shall be declared. In the meantime, look on the following meters considering that Soldier of Christ, Nathaniel Ward:

‘Thou ancient sage –Come Ward among
Christ’s folke –take part in this great work of his.
Why dost thou stand and gaze about so long?
Dost war in jest, when Christ in earnest is?
And hast thou armed with weapons for that end;
Thou hast prevailed, the hearts of many hitting,
Although the Presbyter’s unpleasant jar
And errors daily in their braines do come,
Despayer not — Christ’s truth they shall not hear,
But with his help such dross from God refine.
What man! dost mean to lay thy trumpet downe?
Because thy son like warrior is become
Hold out, or sure less bright will be thy crowne,
‘Till Death – Christ’s servant’s labor is not done.’

“This Nathaniel Ward was a quaint old writer, as his Simple Cobbler, which is full of shrewd humor and biting sarcasm, testifies. He occasionally versified, too. Take the following as a specimen :

‘So farewell, England old,
If evil times ensue;
Let good men come to us,
We’ll welcome them to new.
And farewell, honored Friends,
If happy days ensue,
You’ll have some guests from hence,
Pray welcome us to you.
And farewell, simple worlde,
If thou’lt thy conscience need,
There is my last and awl,
And a Shoe-maker’s end.’

“On the old church green once stood the town gallows, the stocks and the whipping post. The hole in which the latter was placed, is still to be seen. Witchcraft, it seems, once flourished in Ipswich, and here were the unhappy individuals who were convicted of it, punished.

“This ancient church is about to be pulled down, and a new one is to be erected on its site — not before it is wanted, for the present church is in a most dilapidated condition. There is in Ipswich a noted female seminary, but I did not see anything of the fair scholars. Report speaks highly of it as an educational establishment, and I doubt not, with truth. The outside of the building is by no means attractive, whatever the excellences of the interior of the establishment may be.

The Devil’s Footprint at Meeting House Green

Most old places have their old stories, and Ipswich is by no means an exception to the general rule. Whenever I visit such localities, I generally manage to pick out some old inhabitant, (I have never yet, though I sought diligently, discovered the very oldest) from whom I learn the legends of the place. In some such way I heard from a garrulous old crone the following rude ballad rhymes, which are founded on the circumstance of an indentation, somewhat resembling a foot or hoof-print,  being visible on one of the rocks close by the church, and which is said to have been caused by the devil, who alighted there after he had accomplished that favorite feat of his – jumping over a church. Here is the ballad, which the reader is at perfect liberty to believe or not, as he chooses. It has at least something of the smack of Southey’s diabolic rhymes about it, and may be quite as true, for aught I know.”

THE DEVIL’S LEAP

‘Ding dong goeth Ipswitch bell,
As if it were ringing a funeral knell;
From morning’s dawn until evening gray
Ipswitch bell has been ringing away!
The ministers and the elders stand
Each with a bible and prayer book in hand;
And the sexton pulls with all his might,
For the church is lit up with a brimstone light.
The doors are barred, and the windows too,
And the lamps in the pulpit are burning blue;
And a smell as of sulphur is strong around,
And the building shakes from the roof to the ground.
They know that the Father of Evil strives
To enter the church. So they pray for their liv
es,
They list to the flap of Apollyon’s wing,
And the more he threatens, the louder they sing.
The fiends are clustering on roof and spire,
They peep through the panes at the frightened choir;
They race and gibber, and still the more
They try to break in at the great front door.
All through the night until morning light,
The parson kept praying with all his might,
Till at last the Evil One made a jump
Over the church, and came down with a thump
Of his foot on a rock, and still on the green
On the stone may the print of his foot be seen;
And still on each Sunday the parson prays
To be kept from the Devil and all his ways.
And still Apollyon goes prowling about,
Whilst the elders work hard to keep him out;
And the sexton labors to scare him, as well,
By the ringing and swinging of Ipswitch bell!

Other visitors to Ipswich:

President Washington visits Ipswich, October 30, 1789 - On October 30, 1789, Washington passed through Ipswich on his ten-day tour of Massachusetts. Adoring crowds greeted the President at Swasey’s Tavern (still standing at the corner of Popular and County Streets) where he stopped for food and drink.
General Lafayette Lafayette returns to Ipswich - In 1824 citizens of Ipswich heard with "unfeigned pleasure" that General LaFayette, "the undeviating defender of rational freedom and the rights of man, the illustrious friend of America" would be passing through our area. The town prepared the most elaborate tribute it had ever paid to a visitor.
John Dunton's visit to Ipswich John Dunton’s visit to Ipswich and Rowley in 1686 - in 1686, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart on High St. were favored with a visit from the book seller John Dunton, who came to Ipswich "in the course of his saddle-bag peregrinations."
Woodcut of historic Ipswich Town Hill A Sunday at Old Ipswich - In 1846, British writer John Ross Dix visited Ipswich and recorded his observations in “Local Loiterings, and Visits in the Vicinity of Boston, by a Looker-on"
Woodcut of John Adams A Revolutionary Guest: John Adams’ letters from Ipswich - John Adams visited Ipswich many times during his tenure as the Boston representative to the colonial legislature from 1770 to 1774.

Categories: Stories

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5 replies »

  1. Thanks for story.

    I am GG…son of Palmer Tingley who on April 8, 1635 sailed from the Port of London on the ship Planter. A miller as profession, he brought with him from England a certificate from the minister of Kingston-on-Thames stating that he was no subsidy man and testifying to his conformity. He was in Ipswich, in 1639, when he received a grant of eight acres in reward for his services in the war against the Pequot Indians in 1637.

    Never found if, when or where grant exercised.

  2. Hi Gordon,

    This is a lovely reflection on a Sunday in Ipswich by John Ross Dix – somewhat in the tone of Washington Irving.

    Very interesting was his description of some ancient houses in town – “They had pointed gables, and irregular slanting roofs; and in many of them the upper stories projected considerably over the basement apartments, in some such a way as the old houses are built at Chester, and in some of the old cities in England.” I presume these have not survived.

    The writer’s visit to Sunday service to the combined “lunatic asylum” and jail certainly describes “other days.” I also enjoyed the “Simple Cobbler.” Great post.

    • I think he was describing saltbox houses that have second floor overhangs and facade gables. We still have a few of them, for example the Howard house on Turkey Shore, the Knowlton house on Summer St., the former Ross Tavern that was moved to Strawberry Hill, and the Matthew Perkins house on East St. Interestingly, the Whipple house has side overhangs but not on the front. The overhang and facade gable were a unique short-lived post-medieval revival style from around 1680 to 1710. The beautiful Queen Anne Victorian on N. Main Street replaced a fine example of this style that John Dix would have seen near the Meeting House, known as the Dodge House. https://historicipswich.org/47-north-main-street/

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