Home Massachusetts The Siege of Boston Had a Safety Net

The Siege of Boston Had a Safety Net


In 1775, donations poured in to help the tradespeople and artisans who were thrown into poverty by the Siege of Boston and the Port Act of 1774.

The siege took a heavy toll on working-class patriots who didn’t or couldn’t escape in time. Warehouses stood empty. School all but stopped. The British pulled down Old North Church and used Old South as a riding school. For nine dreary months, British soldiers closely watched patriots with suspicion and threw them into prison for slight offenses.

Rev siege of Boston

Instead of handing out money to the impoverished working class, the practical Bostonians spent it on ways for them to make money.

Siege of Boston

In a Sept. 12, 1775 letter to a ‘gentleman from New York,’ William Cooper  described efforts to alleviate the misery of the newly poor. Cooper, a merchant, served as Boston’s town clerk for 49 years. He often hosted a club of leading patriots at his home in Brattle Square. Cooper wrote,

SIR: Last week I received your favour of the 26th ultimo, and showed your letter to some of the Committee appointed to receive donations and employ the poor.

I have to observe that our streets are supported by a common tax, and that the town did not pass any vote directing the Committee to lay out their money upon the streets, but left it entirely to their best judgment.

Enclosed you have a list of the names of the gentlemen appointed by the town for this important trust, who meet every day, Saturday and Sunday excepted.

I am directed by them to give you the following account of their proceedings. The Committee, after several consultations, notified the inhabitants that they should attend at Faneuil Hall, every afternoon for ten days, (Lord’ s day excepted) for all classes of people, suffering by the Port Bill, to lay their circumstances before them, that they might be employed, if possible, in their several departments; accordingly a great number appeared, of all classes of mechanicks and labourers, but of the latter a much greater number, whose circumstances called for immediate relief.

Several plans were proposed, but none that could be put into immediate execution and employ the mere labourer so effectually, as mending the pavements, upon which it was proposed to the Selectmen, who are overseers of the streets, that if they would undertake to mend the streets, the Committee would assist them in paying part of the labour, out of the donations collected for the employment of the poor; which was agreed to, and a great number of our most indigent inhabitants enabled to earn their bread; but being sensible that the money thus laid out could not make any returns for future use, they have for some time desisted. The Committee procured leave from the town to lay out a brick-yard upon the Neck, in which they employ upwards of eighty men a day in making bricks, which they are in hopes to sell for their cost. The Committee have agreed to build a house for sale, as soon as materials can be collected, and several vessels will be set up as soon as the ship-builders are out of some present employ, given them by private gentlemen, and the stocks shall be sufficient to undertake them; but, that the employment may be as universal as possible, the Committee have purchased a stock of wool, flax, and cotton, to be distributed to all the spinners, and are erecting looms for weaving them into baizes and shirt-cloth; they also distribute leather to the shoemakers and take their manufacture in pay, and with them, in part, pay labourers. The Committee are in daily expectation of a quantity of nail-rods, with which they hope to employ most of the blacksmiths through the winter; and they have reason to expect a quantity of hemp, which will enable the ropemakers to recall their journeymen.

It is hoped this short account of the proceedings of the Committee of Donations will meet with the approbation of the donors.

It must be acknowledged the Committee are charged with an important and laborious trust, it is, therefore requested that the most charitable construction may be put upon their conduct by those abroad, as it is impossible that any stranger can be acquainted with the various difficulties that attend this business. As the Committee have no interest but that of the publick to serve, they earnestly request the advice of all friends respecting the discharge of their commission, and engage that every plan proposed shall have a serious attention. It may not be improper to observe that the Committee have opened a regular set of books, in which they record all their proceedings, and give credit to the several Provinces, towns, and particular persons from whom they receive any donations.

The town of Charlestown being in the same predicament with this town, it has been mutually agreed, that seven per cent. of all the donations should be delivered to the town of Charlestown.

The number of persons, of all ranks, thrown out of employment, by the sudden and universal stagnation of business is very great. The Committee confine their employ to such as are immediately affected by the Port Bill, while the regular overseers take the usual care of the town’ s poor. I am, with great respect, sir, your most obedient servant,


P. S. The Committee are about publishing to the world an account of their proceedings thus far. If some part of your collections should be invested in iron-rods for nails, it would be agreeable to the Committee. Your care in collecting subscriptions for this distressed town will be gratefully noticed and acknowledged.

With thanks to American Archives, Documents of the American Revolution



J. L. Bell September 13, 2014 - 10:08 am

This letter is misdated as September 1775 but was actually written in September 1774. The situation of the town in those two months was radically different. In September 1774 the problem was the Crown’s legal closing of the port, causing waterfront unemployment. In September 1775 the town was surrounded and under attack from the Continental army. The siege of Boston lasted only from April 1775 to March 1776.

Flashback Photo: Boston Raises a Liberty Pole, and Half the Town Gets Drunk - New England Historical Society January 26, 2015 - 8:23 am

[…] did have a liberty pole, though, during the Revolution. It was put up on Prospect Hill during the Siege of Boston. It was a 76-foot ship’s mast that was taken from the British warship HMS Diana after the Battle […]

Alexander Scammell, the Lovesick Revolutionary War Hero - New England Historical Society June 15, 2015 - 6:54 am

[…] town of Shapleigh. He then studied law under John Sullivan in Durham, N.H., joining him in the raid on Fort William and Mary in 1774. During the raid, Scammell hauled down the British flag flying over the fort, the first patriot to […]

Mather Byles – Boston’s Jester to the Revolutionary Cause - New England Historical Society September 28, 2015 - 6:34 am

[…] the siege of Boston, Byles remained in his home and reportedly had good relations with the British who […]

Martha Washington Tries To Cheer the Troops in Cambridge - New England Historical Society January 6, 2016 - 8:57 am

[…] north than Alexandria, Va., when she set out for her husband’s winter headquarters during the Siege of Boston. She had stayed close to Mount Vernon, but as the Marquis de Lafayette said, she loved her husband […]

Peter Edes: 107 Days in Prison for Watching the Battle of Bunker Hill - New England Historical Society March 1, 2016 - 9:08 am

[…] with John Gill, printed the radical newspaper Boston Gazette. His father managed to escape the Siege of Boston and settle in Watertown, Mass,  where he continued to publish […]

The Six Oldest Restaurants in New England - New England Historical Society May 1, 2017 - 4:44 pm

[…] When the Union Oyster House first opened its doors as the Atwood & Bacon Oyster House in 1826, the building was already more than 100 years old. It was likely built in 1704 and first occupied by Hopestill Capen's dress goods business. In 1771, Isaiah Thomas published The Massachusetts Spy from the second floor. (Thomas later decamped to Worcester during the Siege of Boston). […]

The Battle of Margaretta, When Pitchforks Beat the British Navy - New England Historical Society June 13, 2018 - 8:13 am

[…] the Siege of Boston, bottled-up British troops quickly ran out of wood. They tore up churches and fences for firewood, […]

Joseph Warren Dies a Martyr in the Battle of Bunker Hill - New England Historical Society June 16, 2018 - 8:52 am

[…] returned to Boston, where he organized soldiers for the siege of Boston and negotiated with […]

Six Revolutionary Forts - New England Historical Society November 3, 2018 - 7:45 am

[…] Four hundred men were mustered to attack the fort, guarded by six troops. They broke open the powder house, captured the British soldiers and took 100 barrels of gunpowder later used in the Siege of Boston. […]

In Love With A Loyalist - New England Historical Society March 17, 2019 - 9:47 am

[…] broke out with the Battles of Concord and Lexington. From that day, New England militiamen laid siege to Boston, preventing British troops from […]

The Love Letters of Lucy and Henry Knox - New England Historical Society January 28, 2020 - 5:34 pm

[…] out of Boston.  She stayed in Worcester, never to see her family again. Henry joined the militia besieging Boston. He directed fortifications, something he learned by reading in his […]

William Tudor Falls In Love With A Loyalist - New England Historical Society March 17, 2020 - 10:26 pm

[…] broke out with the Battles of Concord and Lexington. From that day, New England militiamen laid siege to Boston, preventing British troops from […]

The Heroic Last-Minute Rescue of the Old South Meeting House - New England Historical Society April 21, 2020 - 6:37 am

[…] British understood its importance, too. During the Siege of Boston, the British vandalized symbols of the patriotic cause. They stole  William Bradford‘s 1620 […]

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!