(Written in 1906)
Back to Scollay family page
|By the recent deaths of William Scollay Whitwell and W. Scollay
Whitehall, Jr., the famous Scollay family so - prominent a hundred years
and more ago, but which has gradually passed away has become practically
extinct. A few descendants are still with us, however, and although
the name itself has ceased to exist, yet Scollay square is the token that
is left of the memory of the founder of the family. Very little has been
written about the Scollays, but I have gathered together some interesting
facts from newspaper clippings and various other sources, which may be
acceptable to lovers of traditions of old Bostonians.
Before sketching the history of Scollay's building, I would like to mark out, as clearly as possible, the condition of the surrounding land about the latter half of the eighteenth century. South of the building, including the entire street known as Tremont Row, to the opening to Pemberton Square, west side of Tremont street to Beacon street, stood a row of fine residences, with gardens between and behind them. For its whole length it was known as Tremont street, but that part now called Tremont row was also sometimes laid down on the maps as Pemberton hill.
The residence of William Powell was on the corner where the Hemenway building now stands. The upper covered end of what was then Cornhill was then covered with buildings, and the street itself formed part of numerous back yards. A narrow lane, then called Hillier's ladle, was all that marked the after-course of Brattle street.
In the centre of the space bounded by Court and Tremont Streets stood a long row of buildings, of which Scollay's building was the largest. At the eastern end of that structure stood a wooden building, two stories high, of irregular form, being wider at its point of contact with the brick building then at the end nearest to the present once of the United States Trust Company. It was owned by Colonel Scollay, and was regarded as a part of the block which formerly bore that name. It was occupied by one Turell for a museum. In was in a central location, light and airy, and filled with curiosities.
Scollay's building proper was a two-storied structure of brick. It was then occupied above for offices and on the basement floor by merchants. Here was, for a long time, the greatest tea store in Boston. Beyond, to the westward, were several buildings in a row, known as the Bridge estate, and one or two others, the whole being terminated by a wedge-shaped structure, one story and stretching out to a sharp point at the in height, head of Hanover street, directly opposite Concert hall On the Tremont row side it was simply a dead wall, but on the Court street side were the entrances to little location, was light and toy shops and other small trading stands. The intermediate buildings were occupied at various times for dwellings and for stores.
The title to the property was, in 1774, in Joseph Russell, and was deeded to him in that year to William Vassall. I have not been able to discover with any degree of certainty who Joseph Russell was, but he is supposed by some to have been a near relative of Benjamin Russell, printer of the Columbian Centinel, early Boston newspaper. The deed, still in the possession of a descendant of Colonel Scollay, with other subsequent deeds, mentions a building as standing on the lot, and the price paid for the whole property was 300 pounds. Mr. William Vassall, to whom it was sold, was at the time a resident of Cambridge and a rich land-owner. The house of Professor Longfellow stands upon a part of his Cambridge estate.
But Vassall was an adherent of the King, and, during the Revolutionary war, fled to England. The Property stood in his name, nevertheless, until 1795, when he sold it to Patrick Jeffry for 160 pounds. This second deed does not mention any house as standing on the lot conveyed, and it is not improbable that the building mentioned in Russell's deed was of wood, and had been destroyed by fire some time during the twenty-one years it had been the property of Mr. Vassall.
Mr. Jeffry sold the estate before the beginning of the century, the building afterwards known by his name, but undoubtedly put up by Mr. Jeffry, and as he originally constructed it, was then upon it. The title remained with Colonel Scollay and his heirs until Jan. 7, 1868, when it was transferred to Mr. Arioch Wentworth for $100,000. Several years later he sold to the city of Boston for $200,000 and the building was torn down.
The Scollays were an old Scotch family, and came from the Orkney Islands,
but it is not easy to ascertain when the first of the name emigrated to
this country. John Scollay is mentioned in Drake's History of Boston
as having leased the Winnisimmet Ferry for one year, as early as 1692,
and in 1695 it was again leased to him for seven years. John Scollay, the
father of William Scollay, was the first of the name who attained much
prominence in Boston. His portrait, painted by Copley, and that of his
wife, a crayon by
He is mentioned by Drake as having signed a petition to the King in 1761 with about fifty others of the principal merchants of the town of Boston, to complain of the illegal action of the revenue officers of the Crown. In 1764 he was chosen the third of seven Selectmen, a board in which he was afterwards brought into prominence. The records do not show, however, that he was re-elected the following year. In 1747 he was elected one of the Fire-wards of the town, which shows him to have been a man of public spirit and coolness, in the opinion of his townsmen. In March, 1784, the town voted “Thanks unto John Scollay, Esqr. for his good and faithful Services as a Fire Ward for thirty-five years past." At a subsequent period in his life, in 1788, he was chosen President of the Scots Charitable Society.
Among the prominent men mentioned by Frothingham in his Siege of Boston, John Scollay is spoken of as a man “of much public spirit, energetic and firm." He was again elected to the board of Selectmen in l 773, and the following year became chairman, which position he held during the whole of the Revolution and until 1790 or for a period of sixteen years, and up to the time of his death. At the beginning of the siege he, with others, sent a note to General Washington, then in Cambridge, to request some favor in the name of Colonel Howe, the British commander, but the note was returned with an unfavorable answer.
At the evacuation, he was among the prominent men of the town in the rejoicings of the people at the deliverance of Boston, and his social correspondence with General Washington on that occasion is still preserved in the family.
Colonel William Scollay, son of John, derived his title from his commission as Colonel of the famous Boston Regiment, which included most of the military companies of the town, to which position he was elected Aug. 20, 1792. His name and address are Contained in the first Directory of Boston, published in 1789. His occupation was that of an apothecary and druggist, and his place of business was at No. 6 Cornhill, now Washington street.
He was chosen one of the Clerks of the Market in 1788, Selectman 1792-95 and Fire-ward annually from 1792 to 1806 inclusive. In 1796 he received a vote of thanks from the town '' for his good services as a Selectman a number of years past," and in 1807 a similar vote was passed recognizing his service as Fire-ward.
Quite early in life, however, he abandoned trade and gradually became an extensive operator in real estate. His home was at first on or near the spot where the Boston Museum formerly stood, north of King's Chapel burying-ground, and his garden extended back to near the line of Court square. He afterwards removed to the Bussey house, in Summer Street, and while there was associated with Charles Bulfinch and other prominent men of the town in the improvement of Franklin street. That enterprise was was originally started on the Tontine plan, which would give to the last survivor of the owners a title to the whole property; but owing to some difficulties the temporarily popular plan was abandoned.
On the crescent of Franklin place was erected the first block of buildings built for himself a dwelling-house on this new street, and lived there up to the time of his death, which in Boston occurred in 1809. He had been interested in the development of South Boston; was one of the advocates of the Federal-Street bridge, which was at the time successfully opposed – and owned a large tract of land in South Boston, upon and near Dorchester Heights. He had at one time intended to build a dwelling-house for himself on that eminence, had already excavated the cellar, but he afterwards abandoned the project. Some time after his death, however, about the year 1815, the family moved to South Boston. Colonel Scollay was the youngest but one of eight sons of John Scollay, who also left several daughters; one of those daughters married Colonel Thomas Melville who was known as "the last of the cocked hats.”
Colonel Melville was one of the Boston Tea Party, and Mrs. Melville suspected that her husband had some important business on hand, and as he lay sleeping the morning after the Party, she discovered tea in the shoes he had worn. This she carefully kept without asking as she was wise enough to know that secrecy was imperative, and when she heard of what had happened, she naturally realized that her husband had been one of the “Mohawks." These tea-leaves were preserved in a bottle, which was in the possession for a long time of the family, but later on, it is said, found its way to the American Antiquarian Society at Worcester. Colonel Scollay and Thomas Melville were both members of The Lodge ; the former was its presiding officer 1788-91 , and also held prominent offices in the Grand Lodge.
William Scollay was the only one of the eight brothers who left sons to arrive at manhood, and both of the two who survived him died without leaving children. It therefore happens that there is no family now living who bears the name of Scollay. One of Colonel Scollay's daughters was the wife of the late Dr. Jacob Bigelow. Sir Robert the celebrated engraver, and Malcolm Laing, who made himself famous in Scottish literary circles in the eighteenth century, were connections of the Scollay family in the old country.
The corner-stone of the State House was laid with Masonic rites on the 4th of July, 1795, and among the names inscribed on the silver plate was:
Right Worshipful Wm. Scollay
Colonel William Scollay had a sister named Mercy Scollay, who lived
in Medfield. She was a close friend of Benedict Arnold. Arnold was
very much interested in the three younger children of General Warren, and
The first of the row of buildings between Tremont row and Court street to yield to the demand for more room was Turell 's Museum, which was sold to the town and pulled down about the year 1814. This was probably done in consequence of the proposition to cut through the street now known as Cornhill. That thoroughfare was laid out about the year 1816 or 1817, and was at first called Market street. In I 828, when North and South Market streets had been laid out, the name of Market street was changed to Cornhill.
Tremont street originally reached only to Winter street; the continuation as far as Boylston street, then Frog lane, was Common street, and beyond Frog lane it was Nassau street. Common street is now nowhere near the Common, and Nassau street is the name applied to a small street off Harrison avenue. Marlboro and Newbury streets, in the Back Bay, are names recalling those once given to parts of what now constitute Washington street. Brattle street was opened a few years after Cornhill, the old line of Hillier's lane being adhered to. The opening of this street was the original cause of the removal of the long line of buildings from the Bridge estate to Hanover street.
There was, about the year 1841, an agitation in favor of the demolition of the whole row, and an earnest effort was made to secure an appropriation of $10,000 for that purpose. The scheme was, however, strenuously opposed. The pretext for the removal was that the heavy omnibuses and stage coaches, some- times four and six-horse teams, entering and coming Brattle nest of hotels and street, then boarding-houses, did not have room to turn, and the city was asked to afford relief in the interests of the traveling public. The movement failed, and the buildings stood for a long time thereafter.
The wall at the pointed end of the row was low, and a person standing on the sidewalk, just east of where Copeland's store was - the upper side of the street was higher then - could look over the wall and see the people on the opposite sidewalk, near the Oriental Tea Store. When the colored population of the city used to celebrate West Indies Emancipation, by a procession on "Bobolition Day," as it was called, the line, led by Peter Gus, always passed through Court street at a fixed hour. The boys regularly collected on the Tremont row sidewalk in swarms, and testified their gratification at the abolition of slavery by souvenirs in the shape of potatoes, rotten lemons, eggs and other missiles of the kind. All this abusive treatment ceased with the demolition of the buildings, about the year 1848. At the same time, the Bridge estate was purchased by the city.
Scollay's building was originally only two stories high on the upper or south side. Some time after it was erected the idea was conceived of digging a cellar, the building having been at first without one. This was dug smaller than the building, and walls were built up to protect the foundations from caving. When the grade of Tremont row was changed, at the time of the Pemberton square improvement, the land about the south side of the building was dug away and thus for the first time the basement floor became available and desirable for business purposes.
Among the occupants of the building about this time, and before, were the Hon. James Savage, who had his law office there; Mr. John H. Rogers, who removed to the opposite corner after the improvement of Pemberton square, and in the basement was the famous barber shop of Bob New. New's sign was an immense painted caricature of the hair-dresser's profession, and New himself, was the Boston Joe Miller of the period. In the same building, or in one of those in the row, was the largest thread store in the town. Mr. Joseph Bridge kept a grocery store in which he also sold plants and seeds. For some time before the portion opposite Concert hall was demolished, one of the engines of the Boston Fire the basement was the famous Department was stationed there.
Still later the whole of Scollay's building was leased to a Mr. Dimmock for a term of years. The lessee proposed to add two stories to the building. The heirs of Colonel Scollay employed two practical mechanics, one of them Mr. William Washburn, examine the structure to see whether it would be safe to more weight to the foundations. They reported that it was “fully able to carry two more stories,'' and pronounced the foundations entirely safe, notwithstanding the excavation of the cellar. Mr. Dimmock then proceeded with the work.
In spite of its central location and its light and airy situation, Scollay’s
building was never a favorite with tenants of any kind. The rooms
were small and uncomfortable, and owing to the isolated position of the
building, access to it was difficult across the crowded streets that surrounded
it. It does not appear, from examination of the records, that any men very
famous in the history of Boston or in national affairs, excepting Mr. Savage
and Mr. Rogers, have ever occupied offices in it. The historical associations
were altogether with the building itself.
William Scollay was born Nov. 24 1756 and married Catherine Whitwell Oct. 5, 1780. She was born in 1760. They had: Catherine, born July, 1781; died August, 1781. Catherine, born Feb. 27, 1783 ; died 1863. William, born February, 1885 ; died September, 1813. Lucy Cushing, born I 788 ; died September, I 883. (She married Benjamin Whitwell in 1808, and the mother of William S. Whitwell, Sr.) John, born 1789 died 1790. Mary, born January 1793, died 1882. (She married Dr. Jacob Bigelow in 18 I 7, whose daughter, Bigelow, is now living in Boston and is in perfect health at the age of 82, and whose grandson, William Sturgis Bigelow, is living in Boston.) Anne Wroe born November, I 794 ; died 1845 . (She married Charles P. Curtis.) Elizabeth Hamilton, died aged 11 years.
William S. Whitwell, Sr., was born May 23, I 809, and died Oct. 31, 1899. He had a sister, now Mrs. William Parker, who is still living and is enjoying perfect health and activity at the ripe age of 95 years. She lives in Brookline and seems to be in the fullness of life. William Scollay Whitwell died a few months ago, leaving a widow (Blanche Bonestelle) and three sons, William Scollay Whitwell, Jr., Cutler Bonestelle Whitwell and Sturgis Bigelow Whitwell. His sisters, Miss Mary H. Whitwell and Mrs. William Tudor and reside in Boston.
For much of this information I am indebted to Mrs. William Parker, Miss Mary Bigelow, Mrs. William Tudor, and Mr. Charles P. Greenough.
It is to be about the regretted that so little has been written about the Scollays, and that the information which can be obtained, treating directly of this fine old family, is so meagre. But, if the students of history will trace out its different collateral branches, their work will be one of absorbing interest, and it will be found that John Scollay's descendants have been title their ancestry. By their loyalty and conservatism they have always been honored citizens, and have taken the first place in every movement that would promote the welfare of the community in which they have been so beloved.
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