Helen Philbrick

Author: A. L. Derington


The Industrial School for Girls was not the only Boston site in the 19th century pursuing social change. Instead, it was integrally connected to other existent movements, like abolition, and existed within a broader landscape of social reform movements in the city. Mrs. Philbrick, a manager at the ISFG, represents the school’s connections to the larger world of reform during this transformational era.

Mrs. Philbrick was born Helen Maria Winsor, daughter of Alfred Winsor and Anna Maria Winsor (née Bird) in Boston, Massachusetts in 1834. Her mother descended from a well-to-do Cambridge family and her father was a merchant of the upper middle class hailing from Duxbury, Massachusetts. Upon moving to Boston, Alfred Winsor founded a trading company that shipped goods from New England around the Atlantic coast by ship and eventually rail. When Helen was a young child, the family moved from Boston to Brookline where she attended school, and by 1852 had become the eldest of nine children.

Philbrick Mansion

The Tappan-Philbrick House at 182 Walnut Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, home of the Philbrick family till 1922. c.1949.
Photo courtesy of the Brookline Historical Society.

In addition to her work at the Industrial School for Girls, Helen was also embedded in abolitionist circles, primarily through her marriage to Edward Southwick Philbrick, another Brookline resident. Edward was a Harvard graduate and the child of staunch abolitionists who had harbored fugitive slaves in the years prior to the Civil War. His parents, Samuel and Eliza Philbrick, were close friends and supporters of William Lloyd Garrison and his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and Samuel was also a founding officer of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. When Samuel passed away in 1859, Helen and Edward moved into the Philbrick family estate at 182 Walnut Street in Brookline.

Professionally, Edward had trained as a civil engineer and was working for the Boston and Worcester Railroad when he married, but he dedicated much of his energy to abolitionist causes. in 1861, Edward first put his engineering skills to use, through his work with Sanitary Committee of Massachusetts, where he helped design and advocate for the installation of modern sewage systems to solve Boston’s many sanitary issues. But when Union forces took Port Royal, South Carolina in 1861, Edward volunteered to assist in “educating the ex-slaves.” Along with several volunteers from other New England charitable organizations, Edward made his first trip to Port Royal to bring “some amount of order and industry from the mass of eight or ten thousand contrabands now within our lines there.”  Edward was “determined to see if something can’t be done to prove that the blacks will work for other motives than the lash.” At Port Royal, Edward helped organize and manage at least one plantation staffed and operated by formerly enslaved African Americans. His role appears to have been a mixture of advisor and business facilitator. While the direct labor of the plantations was left to the formerly enslaved, Edward was tasked with making sure the plantation turned a profit for the Northern investors of the Port Royal plantations.

Edward S. Philbrick

Edward S. Philbrick, husband of Helen Philbrick. Edward S. Philbrick was a Harvard graduate and civil engineer from Brookline.
Courtesy of engineeringtragedy.com.

It wasn’t long before Helen Philbrick joined her husband in Port Royal. As early as March 10, 1862, Edward was intent on bringing Helen down to Port Royal to accompany him during his work managing the ex-slaves and the plantations. The nearby presence of Confederate forces to Port Royal appears to have also worried Edward for Helen’s safety. However, by April 1862, Helen had arrived unscathed at the plantation at Coffin’s Point with a companion referred to only as “H.W.” in the letters. H.W., or Harriet Ware was a sister to another volunteer from Harvard College, and later served as a manager at the Industrial Girls School alongside her friend Helen Philbrick.  While in Port Royal, a formerly enslaved woman, Flora, attended to Helen’s needs at Coffin’s Point plantation. Harriet Ware noted that their interactions were polite, cordial, and friendly. Helen’s trip to Port Royal at this time was short, as she had returned to Boston by mid-May 1862.

Port Royal

Map of Port Royal, SC, where Helen travelled to visit her husband Edward during his work with the Freedman’s Aid Society in 1862.
Courtesy of Project Gutenburg from Letters from Port Royal by Elizabeth Ware Pearson.

It is unclear if Helen Philbrick ever returned to Port Royal, but by October 1863 she was engaged in her own work closer to home, at the Industrial School for Girls. Over the next several years Helen was involved in many different tasks as a manager at the school. Managers at the school had a broad set of responsibilities, maintaining the building, running the committees that oversaw the allotment of funds, and investigating cases of specific girls who wanted to be admitted. Such as Nellie Finton who claimed to be 18.  The ISFG managers also acted as guardians for individual students. Helen Philbrick took on this role for at least one girl, Nellie Hannaford, beginning in December 1865. Helen reported on Nellie’s health, status, and whereabouts, which are recorded in the ISFG Secretary’s records.

Although the running of the school was mainly overseen by managers like Helen, they sometimes also employed the skills of their relatives to aid in the maintenance of the school. Later in the year of 1864, Helen asked her husband Edward to take a look at the roof and the cistern,  and he oversaw their repairs between 1864 and 1865. Additionally, she was involved in the care of the school’s gardens. In the Secretary records it appears that Helen led an initiative to enliven the outside of the school by tending and expanding the garden. She became part of the committee that oversaw it and also insisted that the some of the girls could help plant and organize the garden.

By 1866, Helen had been voted in as Treasurer for the Board of Managers. As part of her duties she reported on the availability of funds, oversaw repairs and maintenance to the building, voiced her opinion on the cost of projects and purchases––such as a “washing machine”––and discussed the shortfalls in the budget in 1867 and 1868.  Caring for the ISFG students also meant feeding them, a challenge that concerned Helen Philbrick. In  May 1869, she staffed a committee to expand the girls’ diets in response to criticism that they were not eating an adequate variety of foods (the source of the criticism remained unspecified in the secretary notes). By June, there had apparently been improvements to the girls’ meals,and it is noted that the students now had the choice of which food they could eat for dinner.

Helen Philbrick continued as a manager until 1872, although she resigned her role as treasurer in 1869, due to health issues. Her departure was likely amicable as she remained a financial supporter as a subscriber to the Industrial School for Girls until at least 1908, when her name last appears. When her husband died in 1889, Helen’s mother, brother, and sister joined her household at 182 Walnut Street in Brookline. She never remarried, and because she and Edward did not have any children, Helen Philbrick left no direct descendants.

Sources Consulted (Click Here)