"More tea Mr. President?"

The Visit of John and Abigail Adams to Kingsbridge, 1787

By Kathryn Barnett

No-one would have actually used those words in Kingsbridge during the month of August 1787 - because when the town's bells rang at 8pm on Saturday 4th August in honour of the visit of Mr. John Adams and his wife Abigail, he hadn't yet been elected the second U.S. President. But, nevertheless, he was still an important and very impressive person, being at that time the first American Minister to the Court of St James, and obviously the townsfolk of Kingsbridge thought him worth of a peal of bells.

"Grosvenor Square, 15th September, 1787
My Dear Sister,
When I wrote you last, I was just going to set out on a journey to the West of England...... ......But to return to Kingsbridge, the chief resort of the Cranch family. We arrived at the inn about six o'clock on Saturday evening. About eight we were saluted with a ringing of bells, a circumstance we little expected."

Taken from a letter from Abigail Smith ADAMS to her sister Mary Smith CRANCH in Massachusetts.

From an entry in the diary of John Adams it is clear that the couple visited Kingsbridge on the weekend of Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th August 1787. Their month-long tour of the West of England was very much in the manner of tourists (albeit tourists with their very own 'coach and four') - they visited towns with which held some significance for them and to fulfill a promise made to her sister that they would "visit Mr. Cranch's friends and relatives".

In her letter, Abigail related aspects of the tour to her sister and her impressions of the English countryside and lifestyles encountered en route through Winchester, Southampton, Weymouth, Axminster, Exeter, Plymouth, Horsham, Ivybridge and, finally, Kingsbridge. The main link that the couple had with area was through their much-loved, highly esteemed brother-in-law Richard Cranch and it was his relatives that they were visiting in Devon.

Richard Cranch was born in Kingsbridge in 1726 and left Devon for Massachusetts in 1746 along with his sister Mary and her new husband, Joseph Palmer. There he developed a close friendship with John Adams, a lawyer and fellow Dissenter; and when Richard went courting Mary Smith, he took John along to introduce him her younger sister Abigail. The marriages of both couples forged a close relationship that distance and distinguished careers couldn't diminish.

Abigail's grandmother was a Quincy who had entranced her during her childhood with stories of the Quincy ancestry. The first Earl of Winchester was a member of the de Quincy family and a signatory to the Magna Carta - hence the interest; Abigail could see parallels with her own family, John having been a signatory to the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Abigail attended a service at Winchester Cathedral and was disappointed both by the sermon and by size of congregation, which seemed, she commented, to be made up of the lower classes.

Describing it as a bathing-place in summer months, Abigail decided to try the experience for the first time in her life - dressed in an "oil-cloth cap, a flannel gown and socks for the feet".

The sole reason for the stopover at Weymouth was to visit the namesake of the Massachusetts town in which Abigail and Mary Smith were born and brought up. Abigail's description of the town, the surrounding countryside and the living conditions of the agricultural labourers is very insightful. The inequalities of the English class system were not lost on her, causing her to draw comparisons with what she considered to be the more favourable situation of workers in the United States.

Here they called on John Cranch, a nephew of Richard's, an attorney who had recently given up his legal practice in favour of following an artistic life and was preparing to move to London (where he was to be part of John Constable's 'Edmonton Circle') to pursue his interest. Abigail's description of John hints of a shy, almost depressive figure, unable to make eye-contact with anyone. Nevertheless, despite this apparent unease, John accompanied the group on their onward journey to make introductions to other Cranch relatives.

At Exeter, John and Abigail met Mr. Bowring and drank tea with him after meeting. It was arranged that Richard's aged brother, Andrew Cranch visit them at Bowring's. He "came with some difficulty, for he is very lame and infirm". Abigail describes Andrew's wife and daughter (married to Mr. Bowring's brother, William) and mentions that Bowring's daughter is married to a son of Nathaniel Cranch, another of Richard's brothers. Mr. Bowring took John Adams to meet "Mr.Towgood, the author of the dissenting Gentleman's answer to Mr. White's three Letters, 87 years of age".

The party moved on to Plymouth where they visited Plymouth Dock (probably fairly obligatory for such staunch Protestant tourists) and Mount Edgecombe. They were visited by Mr. & Mrs. Sawry who had assisted American prisoners held at Plymouth during the war.

The trip to Horsham was omitted from Abigail's letter as she intended to relate it to her niece. From John's diary we learn that the purpose of that part of the journey was to visit the nephew of General Joseph Palmer.

The group dined at Ivybridge and John Cranch took John Adams to Brook Farm, between Ermington and Ivybridge, to call on William Cranch, yet another of Richard's brothers. And while described by John as being "deprived by a Paralytick Stroke of all his faculties", Abigail takes the time to describe him more fully giving an account of his previous intelligence, his thirst for knowledge, his superior manners (a very important attribute in the eyes of Mrs. Adams) and the unfortunate early loss of his adored wife.

At Kingsbridge, in addition to the peal of bells in their honour, the Adams family seemed to have had a busy weekend. They were presented to a large group of Cranch relatives - the interconnection of the relationships quite confused Abigail, resulting in her entreating John Cranch to write down a genealogical table which she included with the letter. They were offered accommodation by Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Burnell and Mr. & Mrs. David Trathan, but declined both offers due to the size of their party and the fact that Abigail considered their houses quite small.

On Sunday 5th August the couple went to "Church in the Morning, dined with Mr. Burnell, went to the Presbyterian Meeting afternoon, drank Tea with Mr. Trathan, and went to the Baptist Meeting in the Evening". Abigail and John both have complimentary descriptions of the industrious Cranch family members, their comfortable circumstances and the way that they all lived in harmony with each other. Thomas Burnell was described as "a shoemaker; worth five thousand pounds" and David Trathan as "a grocer, in good circumstances".

Abigail's observations that "the people of this county appear more like our New England people than any others I have met with in this country before" are probably only to be expected given the origins of many in the Colony. But she felt that the distinction between tradesmen and the gentry was unlike the situation she was familiar with back at home, where those in learned professions, many farmers and tradesmen would be on a par in terms of education and manners with those that could be thought of as 'the gentry'. She was also quite scathing in her comments about English nobility, calling the ladies 'depraved'.

Her strict religious principles, her manners, her modesty and high expectations of everyone were definitely evident in the following passage:

"Nothing does more injury to the female character than frequenting public places; and the rage which prevails now for the watering-places, and the increased number of them, are become a national evil, as they promote and encourage dissipation, mix all characters promiscuously and are the resort of the most unprincipled female characters, who are not ashamed to show their faces wherever men dare to go."

Their party continued onwards from Kingsbridge on Monday 6th August, dining at Totnes and sleeping that night at Newton Bushell.

John Adams
Representing the colony of Massachusetts

Born: October 30, 1735
Birthplace: Braintree, Mass.
Education: Graduate of Harvard. (Lawyer)
Work: Admitted to Massachusetts Bar, 1761; Elected to Massachusetts Assembly, 1770; Attended First Continental Congress, 1774-'76; Signed Declaration of Independence, 1776; Appointed Diplomat to France, 1776-'79; Member of assembly to form State Constitution of Massachusetts, Minister plenipotentiary in Europe, 1780, '81; Party to the Treaty of Peace with Gr. Britain, 1783; U.S. Minister to the British court, c. 1783- '88; Elected first Vice President, 1789; President, 1796.
Died: July 4, 1826

Bio. Ref.: https://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/adams_j.html


John Adams; Diary 46, various loose folded sheets, 6 August 1787 - 10 September 1796 (with gaps), 2 July - 21 August 1804

Abigail Adams; Letters of Mrs. Adams: The Wife of John Adams (Introduction by C.F. Adams). Boston 1840; C.C. Little and J. Brown

Thomas Burnell Will (1809)