The Lady Quill Drivers

In the week preceding the June 14, 1899 inaugural issue of the Hamptons Union newspaper, John Templeton’s Exeter News-Letter gave notice that Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts, “an experienced newspaperman, though young in years,” would soon be publishing a newspaper from his offices above D.O. Leavitt’s grocery store in Hampton.

Templeton could afford to welcome a new competitor. Established in 1831, the venerable News-Letter had seen lesser rivals come and go over the years, no doubt giving its publisher confidence that Adams could never mount a serious challenge to his newspaper’s circulation.

Evidently Templeton’s instincts were correct, as for years afterward the News-Letter had sufficient readership in Hampton and Hampton Beach to continue publishing their news items every week. As with most “town” news at the time, the paper employed local “quill drivers”—or “stringers” in modern lingo—to feed the Exeter presses.

In an era when bylines were not yet prevalent, it was hard to know who was writing what. Men used pseudonyms to demonstrate their cleverness, and women who wanted to be taken seriously used their initials or a pseudonym. But it was a new century, and the reasons for using a pen name were inching their way to the dustbin. In a playful thumb of the nose at convention, in February 1910 the News-Letter held a banquet at the Squamscott Hotel in Exeter to unmask the identities of its “brace of scribes.” Writers from at least nineteen Rockingham County towns, both male and female, were outed at the event. Those from Hampton were Sarah Hobbs Lane, Laura Norris, and Mary Page Getchell.

Howard and Sarah Hobbs Lane, c.1920 Cadillac convertible.
Howard and Sarah Hobbs Lane. Hampton Historical Society.

Sarah Hobbs Lane (1868 -1945)

Sarah Hobbs Lane was the wife of merchant Howard G. Lane. They were high-school chums who graduated with the first class of the combined Hampton Academy and High School in 1887. Sarah had been a teacher in Hampton before marrying Howard in 1895. They were a philanthropic, civic-minded couple who built the Lane Library in 1910 and gave it to the town in memory of Howard’s father Joshua A. Lane.

In its report of the writers’ banquet, the News-Letter failed to divulge Sarah’s pseudonym, making it difficult to know which news items belonged to her. From other records we know that she wrote on the history and legends of Hampton for her social clubs and wrote and presented an address at the dedication of Memorial Park in 1925. She later passed the pen to her daughter Eloise Lane Smith, who wrote the ‘Drama of Winnacunnet,’ a historical pageant performed at the town’s 300th anniversary in 1938. As the only one of Hampton’s trio of scribblers to attend the Squamscott outing, Sarah was reported to have “enjoyed it much.”

Laura Norris (1831-1922)

In 1874 former Nottingham school teacher Laura Norris and her mother Abigail Cartland Norris, who “in her own right separated from the control of her husband,” bought the 1850 house of blacksmith Thomas Lane (now 838 Lafayette Road). Laura taught for a few years in the local schools before retiring. Her brother Abbott, to whom she later sold the house, was a storekeeper and insurance agent in Hampton, and her niece Elizabeth Norris was a Hampton teacher and member of the school board.

The News-Letter reported that Laura, whose pen name it also failed to reveal, “has had long service [writing for the newspaper],” but was unable to attend the coming-out party due to “lameness and age infirmity.” That same year she was called on to compose a memorial poem for Joshua A. Lane, which was included in the program for the December 14th dedication of the Lane Library. On the occasion of her ninety-first birthday in March 1922, the Hamptons Union reported that “Miss Norris may be feeble in body but her mind is as keen as ever.” She died later that year.

Mary Page Getchell c.1865
Mary Page Getchell c.1865. Hampton Historical Society.

Mary Page Getchell (1832-1913)

Mary Page Getchell was born in Hampton in 1832. After graduating from Hampton Academy she attended Salem Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts, and later taught school in Exeter. Although she came from a family of teachers, her dislike of the job led her, with her sister Susan, to buy an established millinery shop in Exeter in 1859. Discovering that she had a flair for travel and adventure, a year later she opened a second shop in Polo, Illinois. She loved the “great west,” but was forced to return home when her sister got married.

After Susan left the shop, Mary joined forces with several partners, then sold out in 1869 to marry 61-year-old Exeter businessman Joshua Getchell. One of the richest men in town, he was the father of Lucy Getchell, a hands-on philanthropist destined to become one of Exeter’s most beloved citizens. Joshua died in 1878, intestate and insolvent. Mary, who never had children of her own, returned to Hampton to live the rest of her days on her family’s 1639 homestead.

Her first News-Letter contribution appeared in 1882, a report on the plans to move Hampton Academy off the meeting house green to a location “more convenient for the purposes of a school building.” She was the first to suggest that a memorial be placed upon the soon-to-be-vacant spot, “where our forefathers built their first church.” Her proposal became a reality almost a half-century later when the Meeting House Green Memorial Association built Memorial Park in 1925.

Mary also contributed articles to the Portsmouth Times, Portsmouth Chronicle, Boston Journal, The Congregationalist, and American Agriculturalist, signing her articles “G,” “M,” “M.A.G,” or “A NATIVE.” She penned dozens of unpublished essays, short stories, and historical and genealogical narratives.

Another old-timer unable to attend the party at the Squamscott due to “age infirmity,” Mary was noted for having had “long service” and for “writing from different parts of the country.” One of her finest pieces, “The Coming Woman,” written in 1886 for the Mutual Improvement Club, encouraged women to seek their own destinies.

In 1913 Mary was declared insane and put under Lucy Getchell’s guardianship. She died not long after. In 2009, her great-grandniece donated her letters, journals, and diary to the Hampton Historical Society.

We are indebted to the local quill drivers like Sarah, Laura, and Mary. By keeping the people of Hampton informed about their town through the pages of the local newspaper, they left us an invaluable historical record.

Originally published in the Hampton Union, Friday, January 15, 2016.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of several books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole, 1656-1680.” Her website is


2 thoughts on “The Lady Quill Drivers

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  1. How interesting to note the invaluable contributions of so many women in an age when women were still considered inferior to their male counterparts! Thank you and well done again Cheryl – you can add your name to those women of true contributions! Perhaps you are a reincarnate?! haha

  2. Thanks, Marcia! It’s always great to find something about the womenfolk whose lives often go unnoticed because they didn’t write things down (which can be said for a lot of the men, too!) Did they feel they had nothing to say? Probably. We’re especially lucky to have Mary Getchell’s personal papers at the historical society. I will be writing more on her in a future article, but for now I am going back to the 17th century to find my lost gold pocketwatch!

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