The girls came from all over. They were daughters of the nation’s elite, of people such as Robert E. Lee and Lincoln’s former Secretary of War Edward Stanton. They were Lorillards, Lefferts, and maybe even Bartows. In the nineteenth century, these “young females of good family connections” were students at the legendary Pelham Priory, a school for young ladies about a mile north of the Bartow mansion. Extant records are limited, but we can still trace various students and make some intriguing discoveries.
The Reverend Robert Bolton (1788–1857) was from a prominent family in Savannah, Georgia. In 1807 he went to England, the land of his forebears, to work in the Liverpool office of the Boltons’ cotton-exporting business. In 1810, he married Anne Jay (1793–1859), the daughter of the Reverend William Jay of Bath, and the Anglo-American couple had fourteen children. In 1836, the Boltons left England and moved to Westchester County, New York, where in 1838 they designed and built the Pelham Priory (now known as the Bolton Priory). Extensive gardens and grounds surrounded the massive Gothic Revival building, which overlooked Long Island Sound.
The Boltons started the Priory school sometime in the late 1830s, when a family friend from Savannah brought his daughter to Pelham to be educated with the Bolton children. By 1840, the new school—which followed the doctrine of the Episcopal Church—was firmly established under the supervision of the Reverend and Mrs. Bolton. Girls studied literature, mathematics, Latin, French, music, art, deportment, religion, and other subjects. Describing his parents’ approach to education, William Jay Bolton wrote that “young ladies could be highly educated without the opera, without novels, without dancing.” Emily Earle Lindsley, a Priory pupil whose father was one of the teachers, sets the scene for us:
The Armory, a large room in the center of the house, was where my father and one or two others held their classes. They sat at the head of a long, black oak table, made by the brothers Bolton, from wood which grew on the property. . . . A log fire burned in the large stone fire place . . . Stained glass windows made by one of the sons of Mr. Bolton filled the east end of the room. Mounted suits of armor, the walls decorated with a variety of swords, daggers, spears, and other warlike implements, carved high backed chairs from the time of Charles the First, and many other objects of artistic and historical interest made a most unusual setting for recitations.
In 1850 Robert and Anne Bolton returned to live permanently in England, leaving their eldest daughter, Nanette (1815–1884), in charge of the school with the help of her younger sister Adele (1830–1911). Nanette Bolton’s approach to admitting new students is wryly described by noted author and former pupil Margaret Deland (1857–1945) in her memoir Golden Yesterdays:
The Priory, which, back in the 1830’s, opened its stately evangelical doors to “young females of good family connections,” would be today an anachronism. That the doors did not open to everybody was not due to snobbishness—it was a serious sense of responsibility. Also, personally, Miss Bolton preferred girls from below Mason and Dixon’s line. Philadelphians were received, and a few “young females” from the Southwest—which is how we Pittsburghers got in—this was long before the mushroom fortunes of Pittsburgh began to cast sooty shadows on us. New York was so worldly a place that Miss Bolton only received its girls if their parents were, as she expressed it, “earnest persons,” as well as of good family connections. It was rumored that she said “No” to Boston. Boston was not worldly, perhaps, but it was sadly unorthodox. There were—Miss Bolton was sorry to say so—but there were many Unitarians in Boston—and in quite good families, too!
The school closed in the early 1880s after Nanette’s health declined. In 1883, a former student, Adele Sampson Stevens (later the Duchess de Dino), bought the Priory and gave it to her daughter Daisy as a wedding present on the day she married Frederick Allen in 1892.
Some Priory girls have compelling stories. Sarah Dana Loring (1827–1885), for example, was a novelist and poet. In 1846, she married Richard S. Greenough, an American sculptor from Boston who worked in Europe for much of his career. Sarah attended the Boltons’ school in the early 1840s, and her melodramatic novelette Monarè recalls the Priory’s air of Gothic medievalism. This supernatural tale—from Arabesques (1872)—is replete with castles, suits of armor, a captive maiden, and a heroic sword-bearing knight (and a werewolf!). As a fifteen-year-old student, Sarah appeared in the March 1842 edition of the Bolton family’s handwritten newspaper, the Pelham Chronicle (Town of Pelham archives). This delightful glimpse at the lighter side of the school environment, as “reported exclusively for the Chronicle,” describes a (mock) trial in which Miss Sarah Dana Loring and other plaintiffs teasingly accuse the Boltons’ fifteen-year-old daughter Abby of the crime of “scandalous speeches and a seditious libel.” “The prisoner looked very cheerful [and] had very rosy cheeks.” Miss Sarah Dana Loring was called to testify and “looked very wildly around [and] turned up her nose at Miss Bolton the prisoner.” After calling Abby a rogue and “an actual torment,” she “stated that for a length of time past the prisoner has endeavored in every way possible to harass her feelings, calling her by the name of blue stocking, accusing her of talking about everything and everybody. . . . Here somebody in the gallery said that any how she had a touch of a blue stocking about her, which caused a roar of laughter, during which Miss Loring looked alternately white and red and seemed disposed to sit down.”
In Brief Memorials of an Only Daughter by the Reverend Henry P. Tappan (1844), we learn that “Mary C_____” was sent “to Mrs. B., who takes a few young ladies to educate with her own daughters.” She arrived in July 1840 “after a rather tiresome sail of three hours” and almost immediately wrote to her mother complaining of homesickness. But she soon felt much better after a high-spirited excursion:
Mr. B. said we should sail out to one of the little islands with which the shore abounds, and carrying our provisions with us, we should there dine and take tea . . . At ten o’clock in the morning we all sallied forth, thirty-one in number . . . [We had] the prettiest situation on the island . . . with Mr. B.’s tower with the flag flying, only now and then discernible . . . The dinner consisted of a lobster, an immense beefsteak-pie, a ham, a tongue, and a great basket full of clams, which we cooked by means of a fire made on the rocks. . . . After dinner we all went out sailing in the row boats . . . The other boat commenced by singing “God save the King,” and our boat answered by singing “Yankee Doodle.”
Mary lasted only a few months at the Priory. She was frail, probably consumptive, and pined for home. She died in Nice, France, in February 1842.
In the 1870s, Henry James’s cousin Henrietta Temple (1853–1934) studied at the Priory. Her lively sister Minny (1845–1870), who died of consumption in nearby New Rochelle at the age of twenty-four, inspired the characters of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady and the ill-fated Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. Their relative, the artist Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1854–1948)—mother of the playwright Robert Sherwood—was also a Priory pupil.
Did the Bartow girls ever enroll as students at the Priory? The families were neighbors who shared a deep connection to the Episcopal Church, and we know that the Bartows were sometimes Robert Bolton’s parishioners. Furthermore, the Bartow children’s second cousins and contemporaries—Catherine Lorillard and Catharine Lorillard Wolfe—were Priory scholars in the 1840s and ‘50s. Perhaps one day we will find evidence that Catharine, Clarina, and Henrietta Bartow also attended this unique school.
Margaret Highland, Historian