MARBLEHEAD CHRONICLES: The town has its own Cinderella story

The story of Cinderella is well known. A poor but good and beautiful young woman lives in humble surroundings, forced to work hard to earn her living. She meets a handsome Prince Charming who falls in love and rescues her. The Marblehead story has many similar aspects, but who was rescued is something of a twist. Marblehead’s Cinderella was a strong woman who loved her Prince Charming despite society’s censure, and in the end, it was she who saved him. She was rewarded with respectability and finally received the regard she had earned.

Early in the 18th century, a wealthy young Englishman of noble birth came to Marblehead. His name was Sir Harry Frankland. He was heir to a title and lands in England. He was also a proud and sometimes rambunctious young fellow. His family had arranged for him to be appointed colonial tax collector for the ports of Boston. One of the ports under his jurisdiction was Marblehead, and it was on a visit there that his life changed forever. He came to inspect Marblehead’s port and stayed for a few days at the old Fountain Inn at Marblehead’s Little Harbor. It was there that he first saw the young and beautiful fisherman’s daughter named Agnes Surriage.

The Fountain Inn is where the Marblehead Cinderella story begins. This photo is the site where the inn once stood. COURTESY PHOTO 

Tradition has it that Agnes was scrubbing the steps of the Inn when Sir Harry arrived, and he was immediately smitten. He is said to have been overwhelmed by her beauty and appalled at her ragged clothing and bare feet. He gave her a gold coin to buy some shoes, and when he visited again a few weeks later he looked for her to see if she had purchased the shoes. She had, but she wasn’t wearing them. Agnes only wore shoes on Sundays, to go to meeting, and not for her work at the Fountain Inn, and so he found her barefoot again.

Sir Harry was quite taken with the young girl and negotiated with her father, a poor fisherman, to allow Agnes to become his ward. Sir Harry established her in a house in Boston, with a chaperone and governess who taught her how to speak, behave and dress like a lady. Agnes and Harry fell in love. They eventually lived together as man and wife, but did not marry, because Sir Harry considered Agnes his social inferior. They lived in the North End of Boston, but the couple was shunned by polite society, not invited to fashionable balls or receptions, though Sir Harry was welcome everywhere on his own. He continued to entertain his men friends, with Agnes as his hostess. Eventually Sir Harry built a beautiful estate in Hopkinton, with lovely gardens and grounds. Agnes and Sir Harry were happy there without the approval of Boston society and were better able to ignore it from a distance. At Hopkinton there also lived a young boy who was rumored to be their son. Upon Sir Harry’s death many years later, this young man inherited a fortune, seemingly confirming his parentage.

In the 1750s, Sir Harry and Agnes left the colonies and went on a grand tour of the capitals of Europe, which included a visit to Lisbon, Portugal. They were there during a famous earthquake in 1755. Sir Harry had just left their residence when the quake erupted, and the road he was traveling on was split in two. His carriage capsized and was partially buried in rubble. Everyone was very frightened, and there was chaos and confusion everywhere. When Agnes learned of Harry’s fate she acted immediately, running down the road to find his carriage beneath a pile of stone.  

Largely through her own efforts, using her strength of both mind and body, Agnes rescued him. In some versions of the story, she hauled away huge rocks with her bare hands, and in other versions she began the job and offered her jewels to passersby to finish. It is often noted that she was typical of the women of Marblehead, in that she was strong and determined, and therefore able to do this task. In any event, Sir Harry was saved. He was so overcome with gratitude that he finally asked Agnes to become his wife.

They returned to England, where Agnes, now Lady Frankland, was greatly admired for her gracious and kind nature. His family accepted her, and she lived happily with Sir Harry until his death. She eventually married again. Agnes Surriage Frankland died in England in 1783. Her romantic story has been told over and over, and she is known as the Marblehead Cinderella.For a well-researched and more detailed account of this wonderful, true Marblehead story, see Marshall Bauer’s Marblehead’s Pygmalion, History Press, 2010.

Pam Peterson
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