Serjeant Family Letters, 1769-1840

Administrative Information

Biographical Sketch

Related Collections


Scope and Content Note

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Series Description and Folder Listing

1/2 document box
Processor: Christopher J. Lenney
.21 linear feet
Date: January 2007

Acquisition: No accession records exist for this collection. However, a possible chain of ownership is traced at the end of the Scope and Content note below.

Access: There are no restrictions to items in this collection.

Permission to Publish: Requests for permission to publish from the collection should be made from the Executive Director.

Copyright: The Cambridge Historical Society does not hold copyright on the materials in the collection.

A Note on Names. The spelling Serjeant has been selected to agree with that used in other C.H.S. publications and by historians of Christ Church, Cambridge. The letters themselves are inconsistent on this point, although the variant Sarjeant seem to predominate. Likewise the spelling Browne has been adopted as that agreed upon by historians, although Brown is not uncommon in the letters themselves.

Biographical Sketch:
Winwood Serjeant (c.1730?-1780) was born in Bristol, England and ordained by the Bishop of Rochester in 1756. He was sent in 1759 to South Carolina as an Anglican missionary by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.). There he served briefly at St. Philip’s Church in Charleston, until (in Nicholas Hoppin’s words) “sickness and domestic difficulties” compelled him to resign. Afterwards, he took up a position at St. George’s Parish in Dorchester, South Carolina, where he remained until 1767.

Serjeant was twice married. His first wife followed him to South Carolina, but subsequently returned to England, where she died. In 1765 Serjeant married Mary Browne, daughter of the Rev. Arthur Browne and Mary Cox of Portsmouth, N.H. She bore him three children, Marmaduke, Mary, and Elizabeth. Serjeant’s wife and his other Browne connections are a very important aspect of this collection and will be discussed separately at the end of this sketch.
In June 1767 Serjeant assumed the pulpit at Christ Church in Cambridge as its third rector. His salary was £100 per year, responsibility for which was evenly shared by the parish and the S.P.G. Serjeant also (at least initially) received £18 per year in lieu of a house and glebe. Upon coming to Cambridge, he resided at 7 Waterhouse Street and then in a house near the corner of Bond and Garden Streets built for him by Henry Vassall, a prominent parishioner and one of the church’s founders.

Christ Church, established in 1759, had had a short but troubled history. When Serjeant first arrived in 1767, the parish had been without a settled minister for two years, and was still recovering from the scandalous departure of its second rector, Samuel Griffith, also an S.P.G.-sponsored missionary. Griffith proved to be a clerical impostor and a thief who had availed himself of every opportunity to pilfer the houses of his parishioners of silver, linens, and other valuables. The first rector, the erudite royalist East Apthorp, had also been forced to quit his post in the so-called Mayhew controversy, having become embroiled in a pamphlet war with the local Congregationalist clergy over the S.P.G.’s practice of establishing “rival” Anglican missions in towns (such as Cambridge) which were already provided with Congregational churches.

Serjeant was cut from a very different cloth from his predecessors, and his gentler manner must have come as a welcome relief. His early reports to the S.P.G. indicate that he valued the “regularity and tranquility” of his Cambridge parish and that he tasked himself with the “steady, unaffected discharge of what comes under my cure.” Batchelder considered that the years of Serjeant’s ministry were “among the happiest in the history of the Church.” But they were not to end quite as peacefully as they began.

The congregation itself was small, composed of no more than 15 or 20 wealthy or well-to-do and almost exclusively Loyalist families. In Serjeant’s words, “six of them [were] possessed of ample fortunes, the rest in very easy circumstances were retired from business.” Lieutenant Governor Thomas Oliver was a communicant. From it inception, Christ Church was eyed with suspicion by its Congregationalist neighbors as a Tory enclave, a threat to the orthodoxy of Harvard College, and as a potential foothold for Anglican designs on puritan Massachusetts. The first rector, East Apthorp, was said to have nursed ambitions of being made a bishop, and the imposing house he built for himself was locally ridiculed as the “Bishop’s Palace.”

Serjeant, while not politically outspoken, was a loyalist by nature, and by virtue of his social and religious position, a sworn upholder of the Crown. Anti-Tory sentiment came to a head in the summer of 1774, when virtually the entire congregation of Christ Church fled Cambridge for its safety; some to British-occupied Boston, and others to Newburyport or Nova Scotia. Events culminated in early September 1774 when riotous crowds compelled Thomas Oliver to resign his seat on the Mandamus Council and flee to Boston. (Batchelder has speculated that Serjeant may have also been driven from Cambridge at this time.) Serjeant recorded in one of his letters (not here preserved) that he had “lost not less than £300 in household furniture and books destroyed and pillaged.”

Serjeant and his family sought refuge first in Kingston, N.H. where he hoped to find “a peaceful retirement among rural peasants,” but when anti-Tory feeling even in the countryside became too hot for him, he removed to Newburyport. Stricken with paralysis in 1777, he returned to Bristol, England in 1778 and died at Bath on 3 September 1780.

Mary Browne Serjeant, Winwood Serjeant’s second wife, authored four of the letters in this collection. She was the daughter of the Rev. Arthur Browne (1699-1773) the Anglican rector of socially prominent Queen’s Chapel in Portsmouth: Browne published numerous sermons as well as an anonymous pamphlet defending the S.P.G. in the Mayhew controversy mentioned above. Mary wed Winwood Serjeant in a service performed by her father on 31 October 1765, and began her married life in Dorchester, South Carolina, before her husband took up his new duties in Cambridge in 1767. She bore three children: Marmaduke, born ca.1766, Mary born in Cambridge in 1769, and the youngest, Elizabeth. Mary’s mother died in 1773, and her father died of apoplexy shortly afterwards on a visit to Cambridge. Upon his death, the rectorship of Queen’s Chapel was offered to Winwood Serjeant, but he declined it. The entire Serjeant family fled Cambridge in 1774-75 and departed for Bristol, England in 1778. Her son Marmaduke died at age 14, about the same time as her husband. Her two daughters continued to live with her in Bath, England, and she spoke of them fondly in her letters.

The common thread among all but one of the letters is their recipient, Mrs. Elizabeth Browne Rogers (1741-1813) of Portsmouth, N.H, the sister of Mary Browne Serjeant. Curiously, more is known of her than of the Serjeants themselves, and an understanding of her life adds a vital dimension to the letters, since her side of the correspondence is not known to survive.

Elizabeth was the youngest of nine children: Thomas, Marmaduke, Arthur, Peter, Lucy, Jane, Mary, and Anne. (Some of these siblings are mentioned in the letters; however, it should be noted that certain names repeat in various generations of the family.)

Elizabeth Browne Rogers’ chief claim to fame is that she was wife of the well-known French and Indian War hero, Robert Rogers (of Rogers’ Rangers fame), whom she married in 1761. She sat for the colonial portraitist Joseph Blackburn in commemoration of this event. (This painting now hangs in the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, N.C.) Rev. Browne, who seems to have steered his daughter into this marriage, soon grew alarmed at reports received of his son-in-law’s misconduct and began to counsel divorce. Elizabeth Rogers initially resisted, but ultimately heeded this advice. In 1778 the New Hampshire legislature granted her a divorce from her husband (of whom she painted a scurrilous picture in her petition) and also accorded her custody of their child Arthur. She was later re-married to John Roche (or Roach), a former sea captain and fur-trader.

The sources researched for this sketch suggest that a considerable amount of Rogers family material still exists in private hands. Of particular note are three letters (1766-1771) written to Rev. Winwood and Mary Serjeant by Mary’s mother which appear in the privately printed family history, Glimpses of an Old Social Capital, referenced below.

Related Collections:

Batchelder Collection, Cambridge Historical Society.
This collection contains extensive research notes on Serjeant’s life. Regrettably Batchelder, who was Senior Warden of Christ Church and Vestry Clerk for many years, never completed his researches into Serjeant’s life.

Cambridge Loyalist Claims. Cambridge Historical Commission.
This is a copy of Loyalist claims filed in the British Public Record Office and contains one submitted by (or for) Winwood Serjeant.

Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
These records are held on microform by Harvard University and other research libraries; the originals are kept by the S.P.G. in London. Rev. Nicholas Hoppin states in the foreword to his 1858 history: “A careful examination made in London of the records and correspondence of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts brought to light some important facts.” Hoppin quotes many informative letters written by Serjeant to the S.P.G. on his Cambridge ministry.

Batchelder, Samuel Francis, Christ Church, Cambridge: Some Account of its History and Present Condition, Especially Prepared for Visitors. Cambridge, Mass.: Graves&Henry, 1893.

Brumwell, Stephen, White Devil : an Epic Story of Revenge from the Savage War that Inspired The Last of the Mohicans. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.

Cuneo, John R., Robert Rogers of the Rangers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Day, Gardiner Mumford, The Biography of a Church : A Brief History of Christ Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1951.

Hoppin, Nicholas, A Sermon on the Re-opening of Christ Church, Cambridge, Mass. : Preached on the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity, November 22, 1857 : with a Historical Notice of the Church. Boston, Mass.: Ide and Dutton, 1858.

Rogers, Mary Cochrane, Glimpses of an Old Social Capital (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) : as Illustrated by the Life of the Reverend Arthur Browne and His Circle. Boston : Printed for the Subscribers, 1923.

Rogers, Robert J., Rising Above Circumstances : the Rogers Family in Colonial America. Bedford, Quebec: Sheltus & Picard, 1998.

Scope and Content Note:
The Winwood Serjeant collection consists of a total of twelve letters. Eleven date from 1769 to 1789 and constitute the collection proper. The much-later twelfth letter, dated 1840, sheds light on their early provenance, and will be discussed at the end of this note. Six of the eleven letters were written by Winwood Serjeant; four by his wife, Mary Browne Serjeant; and one possibly by Mary Serjeant, the juvenile daughter of Winwood and Mary Serjeant. All were addressed to the same person, Mrs. Elizabeth Browne Rogers (later Roche or Roach) in Portsmouth, N.H., who was respectively the sister-in-law, sister, and aunt of the letter-writers. The letters can be conveniently divided into two groups, 1769-1775 and 1780-1840, based on chronology and principal authorship.

Letters (1769-1775). The first six letters were written by Winwood Serjeant to his sister-in-law Elizabeth Browne Rogers, whom he styles in the convention of the day as “Sister Rogers.” They contain family and domestic news (much of it obscure), local Cambridge gossip, references to current events (particularly the coming Revolution), and offer spiritual comfort and worldly advice. The notable closeness between Serjeant and his sister-in-law may have been fostered by the deaths of her mother and father and her desertion by her husband. The relative dearth of information about Mary Serjeant in Winwood Serjeant’s letters suggests that she may have simultaneously pursued her own correspondence with her sister, which does not survive for these years.

Winwood Serjeant’s letters are flavored throughout with gossipy references and frank language, perhaps more typical of an Anglican rector than a puritan divine. Serjeant speaks of “Greasy Sides Mrs. Borland and her sly boots of a husband;” he informs his sister-in-law that “Billy Apthorp[’s] youngest son is married to a nasty, dirty drabble-tail strump” [6 April 1772] and elsewhere alludes to a man who has “taken lodgings with a dirty jade in a publick house in Charles town.” [21 May 1774] As would be expected, Serjeant’s letters bear news of mutual acquaintances and record milestones in his family life, such as his moving into his warm new house (the one provided by Henry Vassall), and the christening of his son Marmaduke, complete with details of the feast that followed: roast chicken, goose, mince pies, and cranberry tarts. [6 April 1772] But they also refer to public events.

In his first letter [18 January 1769] Winwood speaks of the proposed 1769 scientific expedition to observe the transit of Venus from Lake Superior. This expedition was endorsed by Benjamin Franklin and Harvard mathematician John Winthrop, but never realized. Serjeant makes inquiries on behalf of a “chuckle head of a fellow” who wishes to get some “intelligence of Lake Superior, where he is going …stargazing.” He is particularly interested in data on longitude and latitude. The query was by no means misdirected. Elizabeth Rogers had lived for two years (1766-1768) in Michilimackinac (now Mackinac Island, Mich.) where her husband was posted as commandant. Major Rogers had dispatched an expedition of exploration to Lake Superior in 1766.

Serjeant also offers spiritual comfort to his sister-in-law whose marriage is seriously troubled: “I am sorry to find that you are so highly disgusted at the sight of men: I own you have had bad luck with some of our sex: but my Dear Soul! be not impatient, trust in a kind providence…” [21 May 1774] “I am sorry you have received no satisfactory account from Major Rogers: I don’t wonder in the least at your resentment at his most impudent behaviour & ill treatment of you…” [15 June 1774] Elizabeth Rogers father died in 1773 and Serjeant counsels her on managing his estate, finding housing, and even on selling a slave: “I would not advise you to let him have Pomp for less than 50£ Sterling, he is certainly worth that. I could sell him for you to a Carolinan for 10 or 20 pounds more.” [17 October 1774]

Serjeant’s last letters speak of the deteriorating political situation: “Boston is in a terrible situation, & will be much more so if they do not submit to government before the Fall…” [15 June 1774] “There is no house to be had in Boston for love or money. The troops and the tories that are dayly coming in there for refuge crowd the town.” “God only knows what may be the event of this rashness.” [17 October 1774]

The seventh letter [13 February 1775] is written in a unfamiliar and poorly legible hand. It is addressed simply “Dear Madam” and is apparently signed “Dutiful niece, an [?] serjeant.” Serjeant’s two daughters were Mary (Polly) and Elizabeth. It is clear from later letters that there was no third daughter. Perhaps “an serjeant” is “m[ary] serjeant.” However, she would have been only about six years old at this time. So either she was precocious, or the letter was dictated. Nicholas Hoppin appears to have concluded from this letter that Winwood Serjeant was serving at the time as chaplain aboard a British ship commanded by a Captain Hartwell.

Letters (1780-1840). The next five letters are from Mary Serjeant, then residing in Bath, England, to her sister Elizabeth Rogers (later Roche), whom she addresses as Betty. In the first she apologizes for not having written at the time of her hasty departure from Boston, and describes her voyage to England as “very fatiguing.” Bath (known as a mineral spa) had been chosen as a suitable place to live in hopes of restoring her husband’s health, but it proved unavailing: “to add to my misfortunes poor Mr Sarjeant wast taken with a fit on Thursday last & died last Saturday night.” [28 September 1780]

Mary Serjeant’s letters alternate between cries from the heart to attempts to put a brave face on her life as a poor clergymen’s widow. In one letter she complains: “O my d[ea]r Betty you do not know half the troubles and fatigues I have gone through, in besieged towns, shipwrecked hungry and cold often.” [1 June 1784] Yet in another she implies she is leading a merry life: “I have the honor of setting by the Duke of Cumberland in the Pump Room, he is very like Diddlely Dan Phillips. The King & the Royall Family’s personage are as familiar to me as any people in Boston.” In church she sits “opposite the pretty minister, for you know I was always fond of a black coat, he is a Batchelor and we are very great.” [3 October 1785] She rejoices that Bath has fourteen churches, several private chapels, and “but one filthy Meeting House,” which may be a parting shot at the puritan New England she has left behind.

In reality, Mary Serjeant seems to have been very lonely, and disappointed by a beloved sister who rarely takes up a pen to write: “O’ that it were but possible that I might be transformed into this letter while you are perusing it, that I might have the unspeakable happiness of once more being held in your beloved arms.” [30 April 1789]

After 1784, the two letters with surviving address information bear the name Liza or [Eliza]beth Roche, reflecting her sister’s remarriage. John Roche, in John Cuneo’s biography of Robert Rogers, was “famous for his unholy expletives and excessive potations,” but a reference in one of the letters paints a more favorable picture: “[I] am glad Mr. Roche behaves kind to you. If he does not I never will acknowledge him as a brother.” [1 June 1784] One final reference is made to the fate of Robert Rogers: “Colonel Rogers is living, he is here poor man and in the fleet [apparently the Fleet Prison, London] which I am heartily sorry for.” [1 June 1784] Rogers did die in London in 1795, and had spent time in debtors’ prison in his latter years.
The final letter, dated 26 March 1840, records that the letters were handed down within the Rogers family and sheds light on the provenance of the collection as a whole. In it, George Adament [?] lends to Rev. Doct.[?] Burroughs certain “old letters of the Brown family,” and asks for their return, as he is accountable for them to “Mr. D. F. Rogers.” While the names are not entirely legible, Burroughs may refer to the Rev. Charles Burroughs (1787-1868), a well-known Episcopal clergymen and antiquarian living in Portsmouth at the time. Perhaps through him the letters came into the possession of the Rev. Nicholas Hoppin, Rector of Christ Church in Cambridge from 1839 to 1874. The letters were certainly known to Hoppin, who refers to a few Serjeant letters “which have been preserved, addressed to his sister-in-law in Portsmouth.” Hoppin directly quotes from one letter [15 June 1774] found in this collection. From Hoppin they may have passed to the next historian of Christ Church, Samuel F. Batchelder, and from Batchelder to C.H.S.

The letters underwent conservation treatment at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in 2006.

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Serjeant, Winwood, 1730?-1780 — Correspondence.
  • Serjeant, Mary Browne, 1736-? — Correspondence.
  • Rogers, Elizabeth Browne, 1741-1813 — Correspondence.
  • Rogers, Robert, 1731-1795.
  • Christ Church (Cambridge, Mass.)
  • Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (Great Britain)
  • Cambridge (Mass.) — Social life and customs.

Winwood Serjeant Letters
Series Description and Folder Listing:
[table colwidth=”5%|5%|90%”]

||Letters (1769-1775)
1|1|Letter from Winwood Serjeant (19 January 1769)
1|2|Letter from Winwood Serjeant (6 April 1772)
1|3|Letter from Winwood Serjeant (4 January 1773)
1|4|Letter from Winwood Serjeant (21 May 1774)
1|5|Letter from Winwood Serjeant (15 June 1774)
1|6|Letter from Winwood Serjeant (17 October 1774)
1|7|Letter from Mary Serjeant (the younger)? (13 February 1775)

||Letters (1780-1840)
2|8|Letter from Mary Serjeant (28 September 1780)
2|9|Letter from Mary Serjeant (1 June 1784)
2|10|Letter from Mary Serjeant (3 October 1785)
2|11|Letter from Mary Serjeant (30 April 1789)
2|12|Letter from George Adament? (26 March 1840)

This collection was digitized and transcribed in 2019 thanks to generous funding from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.