Della Collins

Author: Rick Butler


Della Collins was a woman of many names. Indeed, “Della” was already the third iteration of her name when she was admitted to the school at just four years old in 1862. Della was born Delphi Collins on February 13, 1858 in Sandwich, Massachusetts to Charles Collins, a cooper, and Sarah Collins. Tragically, Charles died of tuberculosis months before Delphi’s birth leaving her mother alone to raise Delphi and her siblings. By the age of 2, Delphi (recorded as Delpha) was living in the Sandwich Town Almshouse with her forty-year-old mother, who was listed as insane.

The Almshouses of this period provided housing and care for the poor, disabled, and mentally ill; however, despite any good intentions behind their creation, their conditions were often horrifying. In fact, in 1887, an inspector found the Sandwich AlmshouseWholly unfit for occupancy,” noting that inmates were filthy and barefoot. Sadly, it is unlikely the conditions were much better during Della’s two years there. When she left to join the Industrial School in 1862, it was likely the last time she ever saw her mother. Sarah Collins remained at the Sandwich Almshouse alone, and presumed insane, until her death in 1895.

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The Old Alms House in Hingham, Massachusetts. The alms house in Sandwich where Della lived may have been similar to this.
(Courtesy of poorhousestory.com)

On October 14, 1862, Della was admitted to the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls on the authority of Seth Wing, a selectman from Sandwich. It was in this intake record that she took on the name she would be known by at the school: “Della.” The School accepted destitute girls, and Della’s home in an almshouse made her an ideal candidate. At the Industrial School, Della was exposed to the unique philosophies of teaching, charity, and gender roles that were developing out of the Victorian reform movements. Under this system Della was provided with shelter and clothing. She also received an education, as well as training in domestic skills such as sewing that could provide her with a job later in life.

Working

Victorian girls learning to sew at school. Similar to the experience Della would have had.
(Courtesy of Boston Public Library)

Perhaps due to her young age, Della was a good candidate for adoption from the School, because within a few weeks an adoptive family was already interested in her, pending confirmation of the conditions of her known parents. Unfortunately, an adoption did not happen. Perceptions of background and parentage could be cruel in the nineteenth century; perhaps news of Della’s mother’s mental condition prompted her potential adoptive parents to have a change of heart.

Della spent two years at the School. In that time, there were no reports of misbehavior or trouble. In December of 1864, Lucy A. Fisher and her husband John, a stonecutter in Boston, requested to adopt Della. After a one-month trial basis, the school found her new home satisfactory, and in June 1865, Mrs. Fisher adopted Della. While it seems strange to change the name of a girl at age 7, the school noted that Della was now known as Alice Leila Fisher. Alice lived with the Fishers in Boston until at least 1865. Sometime after this, the Fishers notified the School that they had moved to Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. In 1867, the Fishers returned Della to the School claiming she had become “troublesome.” While the rejection from an adoptive family may seem tragic, in this case it may have been for the best, as upon Della’s arrival at the School, the managers and staff noted that she was “much altered in appearance, and had evidently been neglected.” Sometimes placement in a home during the 19th century was not predicated on welcoming a new child to the family but acquiring the services of a live-in servant and, based on Della’s experience with the Fishers, that may have been the case here.

Returning to her identity as Della Collins, she remained at the School for another two years before being adopted by Clarissa Webster and her husband Benjamin Pillsbury Webster, of Fremont, New Hampshire in 1869. The Websters were in their sixties when they adopted Della and Benjamin is listed as a farmer. In 1870, Della, identified as Ella Collins, was listed in the Webster household and attending school. Perhaps the Websters’ intent in adoption was more genuine than their predecessors. By 1875, however, Clarissa Webster had died, and reports state that Ella had returned to Fitzwilliam.

If she did make such a move, then it was brief, because on December 24, 1879 Della married Arthur T. Smith of Fremont and took her sixth and final name: Ella F. Smith. The two lived in Fremont where Arthur worked as a joiner and Ella kept house, the status that she maintained for the rest of her days. On August 21, 1885, she gave birth to a son, Arthur Leon Smith. By 1900, the family were living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where Arthur senior worked as a train conductor for the electric railroad and later as a night watchman at a button factory.

IMG_0911

Ella F. Smith circa 1890s.
(Courtesy of the Smith Family)

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Ella and Arthur Smiths home at 1264 Islington St. in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
(Courtesy of Googlemaps.com)

Eventually, the Smiths settled down at 1264 Islington Street in Portsmouth. During this time, Ella became very active in the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons, through her church–Middle Street Baptist. The King’s Daughters and Sons was a 19th-century charitable organization founded by Protestant women as a means to organize charitable works and create a “Sisterhood of Service.” The Motto of the order was “Look up and not down, look forward and not back, look out and not in, and lend a hand.” Ella was also a member of the Order of the Eastern Star which is the only Masonic order to accept women members. Active in her community, Ella’s name frequently appeared in Portsmouth newspapers where she was noted for her works on King’s Daughters’ charitable events. Perhaps the harshness of her early life inspired Ella to help others, or perhaps the reform minded teachings of the Dorchester Industrial School had a long lasting effect on Ella’s views toward public service.

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Ella F. Smith and her son Arthur Leon Smith.
(Courtesy of the Smith Family)

Sadly, in 1922, Ella’s husband Arthur died of chronic kidney disease. After this, her son Arthur Leon and his wife, Ella Florence Smith, moved in with her at 1264 Islington St. Her son served in both World Wars and retired from the army as a Lieutenant Colonel. In Portsmouth, he worked as a bookkeeper at a brewery and as a clerk at the Post Office. Ella continued her active role in community events through her church until her death on October 24, 1944 at the age of 87. She was interred at the family plot in Harmony Grove Cemetery, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Portsmouth Herald printed not only her obituary, but also a summary of her funeral. Members of her church, the Order of the Eastern Star, the Postmaster Peter J. Hickey, and Post Office staff all attended Ella’s funeral. A captain of the New Hampshire State Police and the assistant postmaster were among her pallbearers. Ella Smith, born Delphi Collins, rose from tragic beginnings to become a respected, charitable, and active member of her community.

Ella Grave (2)

Smith Family Plot at Harmony Grove Cemetery in Portsmouth, NH.
(Courtesy of Findagrave.com)

Sources Consulted (Click Here)

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