Derby Day, Then and Now

Old Derby Academy, see from the North.  Postcard collection at the Hingham historical Society

Old Derby Academy.  (Hingham Historical Society)

Hingham residents know to watch for the early June procession through Hingham Square that kicks off Derby Academy’s graduation ceremonies. Boys in chapel dress and girls in white dresses march from the current Derby campus on Burditt Avenue down Fearing Road to New North Church, where the day’s ceremonies are conducted.  This tradition is almost as old as the Academy itself. Ever since the New North meetinghouse was erected in 1806, at least part of Derby’s end-of-year ceremonies have taken place in it.

Of course, the walk wasn’t always so long: when Old Derby Academy was the schoolhouse (from 1818 until the 1960s), the procession started on Main Street in Hingham Square.

New North Church, Hingham

New North Church. (Hingham Historical Society) 

A Hingham Journal article from 1861 describes what was the “annual exhibition” held partly in New North and partly in Loring Hall. In those days, the focus was not on the graduating class but rather on the progress made by the student body as a whole. “Scholars” of all grades demonstrated the fruits of a year’s hard work by presenting dialogues, original oratory, dramatic performances, and, of course, music. A needlework display in the basement of Loring Hall showcased the girls’ handiwork.  Exhibition programs from the 1833 and 1892 exhibitions, reproduced at the bottom of this post, differ in detail but not in overall conception or scope.

Loring Hall, Main Street, HIngham.   From the photograph collection at the HIngham Historical Society

Loring Hall. (Hingham Historical Society)

The Journal described the 1861 Derby Exhibition as “one of the most agreeable [days] of the season,” and it was truly a major social event. Derby Academy was Hingham’s only secondary school for much of the 19th century, and it continued to dominate our educational landscape for years afterward. The exhibition day was not just a chance for parents to see what their children had learned or for the oldest scholars to say goodbye in style: it was an opportunity for the entire community to come out, celebrate the onset of summer, hear a few interesting lectures, and listen to some good music.

Did the ’61 Journal have any complaints? “If we were disposed to criticize,” it remarked, “the speaking would have been more effective had it been less rapid.” However, “the music was excellent, the hall packed to the utmost,” and we can catch a modern-day echo of the buzz and bustle of this celebration when the Derby students make their way through the Square next week.

Derby Exhibition 1

Order of Exercises, Derby Academy Exhibition, May 22, 1833. (Hingham Historical Society)

Order of Exercises, Derby Exhibition, 1892  (Hingham Historical Society)

Order of Exercises, Derby Exhibition, 1892 (Hingham Historical Society)

Happy 300th Birthday, Madame Sarah Langlee Hersey Derby

Today is the 300th anniversary of Madame Sarah Derby’s birth and a good time to post about a woman whose name looms large in Hingham history—and legend.

Portrait of Sarah Derby

Portrait of Sarah Derby

Born Sarah Langlee, daughter of a Hingham tavern keeper, she married well—twice. Her first husband was Dr. Ezekiel Hersey, a prominent and affluent Hingham physician. After his death, she married Richard Derby, a wealthy ship captain and merchant from Salem. (Richard Derby built Salem’s Derby Wharf in the 1750s.) She outlived Captain Derby as well and returned to Hingham to live on the large farm she inherited from Dr. Hersey.

Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham

Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham

Local legend created from this a “rags to riches” story (in their Hingham history Not All Has Changed, Francis and Lorena Hart dub Sarah Derby “Hingham’s legendary Cinderella”):  a beautiful young girl growing up poor on the islands of Hingham Harbor, whose names—Ragged, Sarah, and Langlee—described her as a young girl.  Edward Rowe Snow, in his History of the Harbor Islands, put to rest the idea that the islands were named after “ragged Sarah Langlee,” however; these islands bore those names on nautical charts as early as 1700–well before Sarah Langlee was born.

Captain Richard Derby of Salem

Captain Richard Derby of Salem

But her portrait (made in later years) suggests youthful beauty, as do perhaps the two good marriages.  When he died in 1770, Ezekiel Hersey left his substantial estate to his wife on the condition that she give £1000 to Harvard College.  Sarah Derby added to this her own bequest in the same amount, and together their gifts endowed the Hersey Professorships of the Theory and Practice of Physic and of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard, laying the foundation for the establishment of Harvard Medical School.

She remarried, to Captain Richard Derby, in 1771.  It is also a common misconception that this second marriage is what made her a wealthy woman.  In fact, she waived her dower rights when she married Captain Derby, who left his fortune to his family and bequeathed to Sarah Derby only an annual income (and two slaves, also commonly glossed over in legend).

When she returned to Hingham in 1783, Madame Derby was persuaded to endow a new school for Hingham. The school would be co-educational (one of the first co-educational schools in the country) for the instruction of boys “in the Latin, Greek, English, and French languages, and the sciences of Mathematics and Geography” and girls “in writing, and in the English and French languages, arithmetic, andthe art of needlework in general.” As discussed in a prior post (“A Trip to the Principal’s Office—in 1799”), a single preceptor had the charge of both sexes, although a “sensible, discreet woman” taught the girls their needlework.

Sarah Derby's Gravestone, Hingham Cemetery

Sarah Derby’s Gravestone, Hingham Cemetery

Madam Derby died in 1784 and is buried in Hingham Cemetery, not far from the site of her school. She provided further funding for the school in her will and instructed that her clock and her portrait (the one appearing at the top of this post) be placed in the school building. The original school building was replaced, in 1818, by a Federal-style structure—Old Derby Academy, current home of our Hingham Historical Society.

MLD013One hundred years ago today, on April 18, 1914, the Town of Hingham joined Derby Academy in celebrating Madame Derby’s bicentennial. A “Birthday Celebration” was held in her honor at Loring Hall. The program for the evening’s entertainment, preserved in our archives, included a local chorus, the Martland Band, from Brockton, English and Latin declamations by alumni, and poetry, essays, and other literary and musical offerings.

Happy Birthday, Madame Derby!



Christmas in Hingham, 1857

Christmas 1857.  Francis Henry Lincoln of Hingham was an 11-year old student at Derby Academy.  When school resumed in January, he wrote a composition, entitled “Christmas,” which is preserved in our archives.  Lincoln recounts how he and his older brothers Solomon and Arthur spent their “very merry Christmas.”

Christmas is the day on which the birth of Christ is celebrated.  It is a holiday.  In many parts of the world, the week in which the anniversary occurs, is devoted to amusements.  I had a very pleasant Christmas this year.  I will give you some account of it.  In the morning I awoke as usual and found in my stocking a very handsome present.  In the forenoon I went to Loring Hall to see the committee of arrangements prepare the tables for the party in the evening.  The First Parish usually have a special social gathering on that evening.  At noon I witnessed the firing at a target by two gentlemen in our neighborhood.

After enjoying a Christmas dinner Solomon Arthur & I went into the field in the rear of our house and fired at a target with Solomon’s gun.  I then read a while at home. In the evening I attended the Parish party at Loring Hall. There was dancing until eight o’clock, when there was an intermission; during that time the scholars connected with the Sunday School were collected in the saloon and marched into the Hall. Arthur acted as Marshall.

I had been appointed to present to my cousin Henry E. Hersey, the superintendent of the school, a writing desk in behalf of the scholars.  Mr. Hersey, being introduced, I made a short speech and presented the desk to him.  He made a short speech in reply, expressing his warm thanks to the scholars.  Dancing was then resumed.  Afterwards by an invitation of my Sunday School teacher, I went to his house and received from him a present of a very interesting book.  I then returned to the Hall and spent the remainder of the evening in dancing.  We had refreshments and excellent music.  I went home between twelve and one o’clock having spent a very merry Christmas.