Diary of a Portsmouth Dockyard Worker


In 2021 local historian Larry B. Keech called the Portsmouth Athenaeum with a simple question.

Would the Athenaeum be interested in a digital transcription of a set of over 40 diaries written by local resident Supply Foss Trefethen?

These diaries recorded daily life in Rye and Portsmouth covering the 50 years from 1856 to 1907. They capture events from the mundane to the notable: notes on the local weather; births, deaths and marriages of friends and family members; working at Portsmouth Dockyard; references to shipwrecks; and commentary on local and national politics – including assassinations, executions and civil war.

So absolutely yes, the Athenaeum was interested.

Who is Supply Foss Trefethen?

Supply Foss Trefethen, a resident of Rye, was born in 1833 and died in 1907. He has worn many hats: son, brother, husband, father, shipbuilder, house builder, carpenter, farmer, landlord and politician among others.

He saw the change at the Navy Yard from wooden ships to battleships in the 1860s and steel or iron ships required by the navy in the 1880s.

After:When FDR visited Portsmouth and Naval Shipyard. 1932 city tour documented in recent photo donation

He witnessed the electric tram line passing right by his house. As early as 1907, he deplored the “tombiles” (automobiles) which ran more and more in the streets.

He served as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives for Rye in 1905. In the same year he discussed the “big blast” of the Henderson’s Point explosion to improve shipping in Portsmouth Harbour.

After:This WWII veteran started at Portsmouth Dockyard aged 16. He’s still here at 95.

An August 1867 painting by Thomas P. Moses titled "Coming from the shipyard." Foss Trefethen (1833 to 1907) of Rye was a shipbuilder at Portsmouth Dockyard, a carpenter and a farmer.

What’s in the diaries?

The diaries begin in 1856 when 23-year-old Trefethen lived with his older brother, Joseph P. Trefethen, in Portsmouth at 1 Dearborn St.

In January 1857, he noted the “freezing” of Piscataqua and walked on the ice to Kittery, Maine, with friends.

Over the years he describes major fires in Portsmouth, Rye and Kittery. During the Civil War, he follows the war campaign and is very open in his opinions about the success of these efforts.

After:At The Athenaeum: Life on the water inspired Kittery Point painter George Wasson

For 40 years he worked as a shipbuilder at Portsmouth Dockyard. However, employment at the yard was inconsistent, dependent on government contracts and funding. So, like many civilian Naval Yard workers, Supply supplemented his income as a carpenter and farmer.

Supply bought land and built a few houses, one on Sagamore Avenue in Rye and one on Lincoln Avenue in Portsmouth.

This house at 366 Sagamore Raod in Rye was built by Supply Foss Trefethen.  At the intersection of Sagamore and Clark Avenue, the place was once known as Trefethen's Corner.

He also worked for Frank Jones at the brewery and worked extensively for Alfred Langdon Elwyn at the Langdon-Elwyn Farm (now the Urban Forestry Centre).

After:Portsmouth Dockyard’s $1.3 billion economic impact: Here are the cities with the most workers, payrolls

As a farmer, he supplemented his grocery budget and income. Over the years, he expanded his domain. He grew vegetables, especially potatoes, had fruit trees, and raised chickens. Towards the end of his life he owned 75 to 80 chickens and regularly sold eggs and meat to friends, neighbors and the Rockingham Hotel.

Foss Trefethen built this home at 319 Lincoln Ave.  in Portsmouth.

Supply Trefethen was a diverse and active member of the community. He was also observant and opinionated.

As a shipbuilder, he described the working day at Portsmouth Dockyard, including several work accidents, some of which resulted in death.

As a farmer, he noted the weather and the price of eggs daily.

As a resident, he recorded changes in families, neighborhoods and daily life.

As a politician, he considered the effects of local and national events.

All these notes, experiences and reflections are a mine of information for genealogists and historians.

After:At the Athenaeum: the Peirce Island swimming pool took a long time to make a splash

Transcription, cataloging of Trefethen diaries

Although journaling was common in the 19th century, few journals have survived over the decades. In fact, many columnists ordered their journals destroyed upon their death.

For years, Larry Keech has been transcribing the journals of Trefethen, owned by the Rye Historical Society (which has the originals in its collection).

He not only deciphered the scribbled calligraphy, but also edited for easier reading and provided annotations for genealogy and historical background based on his extensive research.

A photo of Supply Foss Trefethen's grave in Portsmouth South Cemetery.

Portsmouth Athenaeum Librarian Robin Silva then cataloged the over 1,000-page transcript, creating a searchable cross-reference of people, places and events that is now available to researchers on the Portsmouth Athenaeum website portsmouthathenaeum .org.

With 450 names of people listed as well as nearly 175 businesses, ships and localities, it is a rich look at local life in the second half of the 19th century.

The Portsmouth Athenaeum, 9 Market Square, is a members library and museum founded in 1817. The Research Library and Randall Gallery are open Tuesday to Saturday, 1-4pm. Masks are mandatory. For more information, call 603-431-2538 or visit www.portsmouthathenaeum.org.

An excerpt from Supply Trefethen’s journal

“Today was the coldest day on record in Portsmouth. This morning at 6am the thermometer was 27 below zero in parts of the city. There had never been so much ice in the river Piscataqua before. It is passable by ice from Pray’s Wharf to Badger’s Island. But a little higher up hundreds have crossed and crossed for the fun or the weirdness of it on the ice, keeping the sport going all morning, I was one of the numbers. In the morning I thought I would drop by the mechanics shipyard on Nobles Island (where I work when we have the right weather) to see if everything was okay and meet some friends. They invited me to come across for the fun of it I agreed and we embarked and had a nice trip as all the ice was pretty smooth We started from Nobles Island just at the stern of the ship on the stock and went to Badger’s Island, walked through Badger’ s Island, then we went back down to the shipyard and back, thinking it was a novelty to pass on to antiquity.


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