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January 14, 2013

Exploring Manchester's lively history

A few days ago, a letter arrived from a longtime resident of Manchester-by-the-Sea politely calling my attention to the absence of any reference to her community in the most recent Essex County Chronicles column. The author of that column, about a 1945 National Geographic article that covered the North Shore, is not to blame; Manchester wasn’t mentioned in the magazine article even once.

To compensate for National Geographic’s “shortcomings,” this week’s offering is devoted solely to early Manchester and is based on interesting material found in D. Hamilton Hurd’s monumental 1888 “History of Essex County, Massachusetts.”

In 1645, the tiny but growing settlement at Jeffreys Creek was granted permission by the Massachusetts General Court to adopt the name Manchester, a nod to the English community from which many of the residents had emigrated. It was left to a later resident, the publisher James T. Fields, to first use the “by the Sea” phrase that would later become part of the town name.

The early settlers were a religious lot, as is evidenced by the establishment of a church shortly after settlement. It was serious business, this religion, and the church fathers left nothing to chance. A “tithingman” was strategically seated in a gallery that also housed the exuberant young men of the town. If the tithingman’s stern gaze didn’t make them behave, “a heavy blow from the official stick” served both to quiet them down and to remind them of the “tortures to come,” presumably in hell, if they didn’t take their godly duties seriously.

Local churchgoers had a Puritan streak in them. For the better part of two centuries, they suffered through Sunday services in winter without the benefit of any real heat. When the First Church finally voted in 1821 to install a wood stove, some of the more conservative members decried the action, claiming the presence of heat would render younger churchgoers “puny and effeminate.”

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