Thomas Barrett, Beloved First Parish Sexton

Transcribed from the Record Book of First Parish Church 1830-1872

When the phrase “beloved sexton” is heard, many in our Church think of Philip and Carroll Morrill who served as father-son Sextons for most of the twentieth century; but there is another man in contention for the honor.  Thomas Barrett served as First Parish Church Sexton from May 1797 right up to his death in April 1846, a remarkable 49 years.  He led a varied and eclectic life during which he served in the American Revolution, became a journeyman clock-maker, authored children’s books, and worshiped both with Universalist John Murray, and Robert Sandemanian’s Lordship Salvation sect.  He was also the grandfather of Beverly Poet Lucy Larcom, known as “The Working Women’s Bard”.  Although the note indicates he was born in Newport Rhode Island, he was, according to Mass Vital Records,  born in Boston, the son of William and Abigail Barrett. 

The Sexton was a position vital to the Church’s operation in the nineteenth century, typically filled by elder men who served until they died.  Besides keeping the building clean and free of dogs, sheep and goats, the Sexton was paid to bury the deceased of the Parish and “toll the Parish bell” on those occasions.  He often served as a pall bearer and kept the burial ground in good order.  Thomas Barrett maintained a detailed account of every burial, toll, and pall on handmade journals that survive to this day.  From May 8, 1797, when he buried John Hale to March 27, 1842 when he buried Joshua Lovett, Sexton Barrett buried an astonishing 2,260 individuals.

Thomas Barrett died on Sunday, 19 April 1846 at about 3 o’clock in the morning and was buried on Tuesday the 21st in the old First Parish Burying Ground by the side of the remains of his first wife Lois.  In tribute, all the bells within the boundary of the first parish were tolled for his memory. 

The memorandum below was entered into the Parish record for the purposes of official recognition and appreciation of Sexton Barratt’s devoted service to the Church.


Memorandum- 27 March, 1842:  Thomas Barrett, the venerable Sexton of this parish, having attained the age of 83 – or thereabouts, gave notice to the Parish committee, before the annual meeting, that he was desirous of being relieved from the burden of the sole responsibility of the office of Sexton, and that he had made an agreement with Ezra O Woodberry to unite with him in the office, if the parish concurred. Woodbury would do the principal labors of the office and have two thirds of the salary, he to do the lighter parts of duty, and have one third of the salary. In consequence of this agreement, Barrett and Woodberry were chosen joint sextons, and the compensation voted as agreed upon by them.

Thomas Barrett was born in Newport Rhode Island, March 21, 1759.  At the usual age, he was bound as an apprentice to Shipley Townsend of Boston, clock-maker.  Townsend was a religious man- kept his Bible in his workshop, as well as in his house.  He was a member of the Old South Church in Boston; afterwards became a Sandemanian, and then a Universalist, and was an officer of Murray’s First Universalist Church in Boston.  He published some small books for children, and several essays upon theological subjects, which were collected and published in an Octavio volume.

At the expiration of his apprenticeship Barrett, in June 1780, enlisted as a waiter to the captain in Constant Freeman’s company in Colonel Cranes regiment, and served six months and two days from the first day of July 1780. This service enabled him to obtain a pension from United States under the law of 1832, for the residue of his life of about $25 per year.  Under this enlistment, he marched through Springfield in this state on 4 July 1780, and they then found on the ground snow of the preceding remarkable hard winter, with which they played at snowballing at Springfield.  After his discharge from the army, he worked as a journeyman clock-maker, first in Boston, and afterwards in Salem with Joseph Chipman, a son of Reverend John Chipman, the first minister of the precinct of Salem and Beverly.  Barrett’s first wife was Lois Simmonds of Salem, to whom he was married in 1784, and about the same time set up his trade in Beverly, say in August 1784.  This wife, Lois, died September 1789, aged 29 years.  He then married Hannah Harreden.  She died May 17, 1818, aged 71 years +5 months.  His third wife was Lydia Smith, of Beverly who died April 26, 1840, aged 73 years +8 months.  He was married to his present wife, Sarah G Smith, widow of Captain Daniel Smith, late of Beverly, December 31, 1840.

He was appointed to the office of Sexton after the death of Wells Standley, who died very suddenly on 6 February 1797, aged 64, and Joshua Wallace who after a few weeks service fell down dead when ringing the bell at 9 o’clock.  It was after this a short period of time when Joseph Woodberry performed the service pro tem but he was not appointed Sexton.  Wallace’s service commenced on the 23rd of March 1797, and he probably died in April following, as it appears that Joseph Woodbury was paid for services from April 29 to May 3, 1797.  Barret’s bill of services as Sexton begins on 4 May 1797, and this date may be considered as the commencement of his official labors.  He was annually either chosen by the parish or appointed by their committee to the office of Sexton until this 15th of March, 1842, when Ezra O Woodberry associated with him by his own request.  On the 27th of March EO Woodberry officiated for the first time in the meeting house, it being then opened after having been closed for several [4] Sunday’s while painting in Fresco.  In the afternoon of the 27th March, Joshua Lovett was buried from the meetinghouse– he died on Thursday the 24th aged 59 after a short sickness.

Up to the date of this minute Thomas Barrett has fulfilled the duties which have devolved on him as Sexton with the most exemplary fidelity.  His exact punctuality in ringing and tolling of the bell, daily and nightly at 12 and 9 o’clock and upon all other occasions, has understandably had a useful moral influence upon the character and habits of a whole generation within the limits of the parish.  His good manners have always been an example well worthy of the end imitation of many, who esteemed themselves more polished and refined because they ranked higher in society according to the common estimate of the world.  His causefulness to perform in the best manner every- and of the most minute- duties of his place has made him an example for all sextons that may succeed him.