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Back to School

Cottage Row, Circa 1911. A black and white photograph showing five boys standing in front of the cottages of Cottage Row.


Fancy growing up on an island! What things you could imagine: hunting for buried treasure, exploring shipwrecks, escaping from blood thirsty pirates. Your life could be a veritable Treasure Island and you, like Jack Hawkins, could explore and imagine to your heart’s content. But real life is different from fiction and the children who grew up on the Harbor Islands had to take time away from their play to help their parents and go to school. 

Although the islands are less than 10 miles from Boston, the parents who lived on the Harbor Islands a century ago could not simply send their children to school on a bus in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. The only way to get on and off the islands was by boat, and only when the weather cooperated. For the younger children, some of the islands had a school and teachers would either live on the island or come in by boat. Similar to “one room schoolhouses,” several grades were taught together. These were happy times for children; Billie Hargreaves remembers her days on Spectacle: “[I]f it was warm, we were allowed to move our desk and chairs out onto the grass to continue our schooling for the remainder of the day.” These privileges enjoyed by the younger children on island were not available to the older students who had to go to the mainland for their education.

As the crow flies, the islands are not that far apart. Matilda Silvia lived on Peddocks Island within sight of the town of Hull, where she went to school. She describes days where, “there were often hours of waiting in the freezing cold for a boat due at five p.m., but arriving Hull at 7:30 or later, long after dark. At times the inability of the boat to make it down the harbor in a fierce storm, left the children stranded, and having to be put up at Fort Revere in Hull, sometimes for a couple of days. There was no time for play; no time for school activities.”

Much farther out, on Lovells Island, Harold Jenkins had to make his way to Hull. Harold’s family was fortunate enough to be able to rent a house in Hull where Harold and the other children would stay with their moms during the school week and return to the island on the weekends.  But this, too, depended upon the weather: “Sunday, (if the weather was good) one of the other of our fathers would row us to Hull. If the weather was bad, we waited until Monday morning and took the Army boat to Hull. This made us about an hour late for school.”

Most people could not imagine taking the steps many island families did to assure their children an education. And yet today with the challenges of adapting to life in a pandemic world, perhaps many of you would be glad for the ride in a small boat in a choppy harbor.

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